Livraria Lello & Irmão: The Most Beautiful Bookstore in the World
Since the turn of the millennium, reports on the decline and rise of independent bookstores have been of concern to bibliophiles. The American Booksellers Association maintains a page with links to articles documenting an indisputable surge in the United States. I’m not aware of such an upswing in Europe, but instead I hear stories about bookstores either closing up or being pushed outside of the city centers. Others have simply migrated online. When in Lisbon last spring, a second hand bookstore I researched and was hoping to visit had sadly morphed into a shop selling tourist trinkets. An antiquarian dealer in the charming coastal town of Cascais traded in its physical store front and the owner was now working out of her home, selling mostly through Abebooks and Iberlibro, which are the same entity and owned by Amazon.
When I made my way north to Porto, I had several bookstores atop my agenda in this city known for its exceptional alfarrabistas (used/antiquarian bookshops) such as Académica, Candelabro, Chaminé do Mota,In-Libris, Manuel Ferreira and Moreira da Costa. There was one that I was determined to set foot in not so much because of its print offerings but because of its global reputation as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Livraria Lello e Irmão is a neo-gothic architectural gem founded in 1906 by two brothers (irmãos) who understood the value of bookstores during the turbulent time of industrial, commercial, and cultural change. Lello quickly became a gathering place for social gatherings, performances, and readers. From 1881 through and into the 20th century (it first opened on nearby Rua dos Clérigos), the establishment underwent name changes from Livraria Internacional de Chardron, Sociedade José Pinto Sousa Lello & Irmão, and ultimately Livraria Lello & Irmão or simply Livraria Lello, which it is commonly called today.
In 1994, Lello was designated a monument of historical interest and restorations on the building ensued. Beginning in July 2015, the bookstore began charging admission to visitors. Much of its popularity is attributed to rumors that passages of the Harry Potter series written by J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto in the early 1990s, were inspired by the fantastical aura of Livraria Lello. I must admit that it took me three attempts to get into Livraria Lello because I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting in a line to pay to enter a bookstore even though I was told the five euro admission fee would be reimbursed if I purchased a book. On my last day in Porto, I decided to brave the rain and huddled with others on the sidewalk for nearly an hour and eventually made my way in.
Once inside, it still felt crowded but not as bad as the line of umbrellas huddled together outside. I took a deep breath and began my visual feast. What a place! Everything and everyone seemed to converge on the ornate hand-carved wooden crimson staircase whose curves appear to never end. Diffused light gently poured in through the immense Art Deco stained-glass ceiling skylights. On the second floor, two prominently placed bronze busts of two of Iberia’s greatest writers—Eça de Queirós and Miguel de Cervantes—seemingly nodded to me that I had made a good call. Other Portuguese men of letters such as Camilo Castelo Branco, Guerra Junqueiro, Antero de Quental, Tomás Ribeiro, and Téofilo Braga, many whom likely frequented Lello in its heyday, are immortalized in other sculptures that adorned the space. Carved and decorated wall panels and columns throughout competed for my attention, causing me to forget that books are actually for sale in this bookstore. On one large case, miniature ivory busts of other Portuguese luminaries were juxtaposed with books in the architecture section.
In the rear on the first floor, where the offices used to be, a woman is standing at a table with a hand press and television behind her and appears to be binding paperbacks. Skeptical that this was merely performance, I moved a bit closer and noticed that she really was doing what I thought she was and applying custom binding to paperbacks for a fee. Before I could ask her a question, I was interrupted by an announcement over the intercom in Portuguese and then in English that there will be a fado recital in the basement in five minutes. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “this five euros really isn’t much to pay, is it?” Hesitant to leave the increasingly more peaceful floors, I followed the others and made my way to a crowded subterranean book cellar that had been emptied of its tomes for readings or musical performances such as this.
After the performance I returned to the second floor and encountered two glass exhibit cases displaying artist books by Joan Miró with poets like René Char and João Cabral de Melo Neto. Lello really is indeed no ordinary bookstore. I savored these modernist treasures for awhile and then resumed my exploration of the second floor, now taking an interest in the books for sale. Like any good Portuguese bookstore, there is a section for national writers and themes but there are also international sections. I picked up a book by much lauded Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and made my way to the register.
Livraria Lello is extraordinary in that it is simultaneously a bookstore and a museum. It is a physical reminder of the elevated position books and reading hold in civilized societies. Just as there are world-renowned libraries that have withstood the test of time, great bookstores continue to inspire us not only to read and debate ideas but also to keep our imaginations alive. For this reason alone, Livraria Lello deserves its place among the best bookstores of the world.
Text and photographs by Claude Potts
Librarian for Romance Language Collections
University of California, Berkeley
Carrión, Jorge. Librerías. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2013.
"Independent Bookstores are Thriving," American Booksellers Association, https://www.bookweb.org/for-the-record (accessed February 12, 2019)
Livraria Lello official website, https://www.livrarialello.pt (accessed February 12, 2019)
Macdonald, Fiona. "Ten of the Most Beautiful Bookshops," BBC Online (October 21, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140327-worlds-most-beautiful-bookshops (accessed February 12, 2019)
Sistema de Informação para o Património Arquitetónico (O SIPA), http://www.monumentos.gov.pt/Site/APP_PagesUser/SIPA.aspx?id=3972 (accessed February 12, 2019)
Wikipedia, https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livraria_Lello (accessed February 12, 2019)