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It’s romantic, the idea of an author holed away in the back of her favourite bookstore, scribbling away at what will become the next book to conquer the world. It’s even more romantic when that bookstore seems to have been intricately cut — with the most steady of hands — out of gleaming wood and stained glass.
The bookstore in question is Livraria Lello, which opened in the northern Portuguese city of Porto in 1906. Ever since, it has been drawing booklovers from around the country, and eventually, from around the world.
One of those booklovers was JK Rowling, who spent the early 1990s teaching English in the city. When she wasn’t teaching, she was drinking coffee from the bookstore’s cafe, supposedly scribbling notes on serviettes that would later become part of the Harry Potter series.
It’s no surprise, then, that stepping into the bookstore makes you feel as though you’ve just found a piece of Hogwarts. It feels full of history and full of magic. Plus, no matter when you go in the tiny store, it will be all abuzz, just as the halls of the school for wizardry always seem to be. The main difference is that the crowd is just a little bit older and there aren’t any talking photos on the wall.
As impressive as the huge piles of books are — piles that you couldn’t work your way through on 100 visits, much less one flying visit to the city with very little luggage allowance to spare — the bookstore itself is the reason you visit Lello.
The ornate, swirling-but-not-quite-spiral wooden staircase is the centrepiece of the shop. Its brilliant red carpet may be slightly worn but it is no less regal for being so; after all, what good is a bookstore without people to climb up and down the stairs in search of that one tome they’ve always wanted to read?
Above the staircase — and above the curious tourists filling the landings that make it difficult for staff and the occasional serious shopper to move around the shop — light streams in from the skylights that are colourfully filled with stained glass and the bookstore’s motto, vecus in labore.
Unfortunately, the magic of Livraria Lello has been disrupted by the fame of the very person that used it as a refuge from the world. A constant stream of visitors wander through the bookstore gawking at its beauty before moving on. This is clearly very frustrating to the owners, who are getting the visitors without the sales — despite the fact that the bookstore has large English & French sections to cater to a large number of these tourists.
The way the store has decided to deal with the issue is by putting up signs everywhere that have the universal “no photos allowed” imagery on them, and any person caught taking photos has “NO PHOTOS!” bellowed at them across the store by the staff. It would be surprising if this cacophony is what drives a number of visitors out after they’ve had the obligatory peek at the woodwork.
(Note to readers: I did indeed take the photos in this article, despite the signs and the bellowing. Should I have? Probably not, but it was by far the most beautiful bookstore I’d been in, and for a lifelong bookworm, I felt it was a moment worth capturing. However, I had a small camera with a touchscreen, so I wasn’t seen taking photos and therefore wasn’t yelled at to stop.)
One way that the issue could be solved without creating such an unwelcoming environment would be to charge a small admission fee, say €1, at the door and then allowing people to take photos. It would cut down on the crowds and would probably make people want to stay just a little bit longer…and maybe in that time a book would catch their eye.
Just because the magic has been disrupted, though, doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Lello is still a place that captures the romance of reading in a pre-eReader era, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a visit during your stay in Porto. Who knows, you may find yourself going back again so you, too, can sit in the cafe and scribble down your ideas for the next great bestseller.
Have you been to Livraria Lello? Did you enjoy it or was it ruined by the crowds and noise?