by Maria Pussig
Livraria Lello – The most beautiful bookstore in the world
With these modest words, a very unusual bookstore in the center of Porto above the Ribeiro district advertises itself. Whether it really is the most beautiful in the world is in the eye of the beholder. That it is the second oldest in the world, however, is proven. Both the eventful history of the store and its aesthetic appearance have made the bookstore one of the most visited sights in Porto. More than a thousand visitors cross the store’s threshold at peak times, and many of them also become customers, thanks to the current management’s sophisticated tactics. But this was not always the case.
First beginnings and great breakthroughs
Livraria Lello was originally founded in 1869 by the French publisher and bookseller Ernesto Chardron under the name “Livraria Internacional de Ernesto Chardron” and was then located a few meters from its current location on Rua dos Clérigos. After Chardron’s death, the store was for some time under the management of the publishing house Lugan & Genelioux, which made some alterations and enlarged the premises before selling it in 1894 to the namesake of today’s bookstore Josè Lello.
Some time later, José’s brother, António Lello, also joined him and together they decided to run a literary salon for men, in addition to trading in books. The brothers were so successful with their venture that in 1906 they moved to the current location, whose aesthetics reflected in every possible way the business status they had now achieved. The design of the building, however, was by no means entrusted to a well-known architect, but to Francisco Xavier Esteves, an engineer known as a lover of literature. At the opening ceremony of the new location, it was praised by diplomat and writer Abel Botelho as a “temple of culture and spirit”.
An eclectic building between neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau
Even before you enter the two-story building, you realize that the term “temple” is not an understatement. The large entrance door and the two side windows immediately catch the eye. Framed by an all-encompassing archway adorned with lettering in Gothic letters, the entrance cautiously prepares for what awaits customers inside. Since the restoration work in 2016, the rest of the facade also shines again in its old splendor and impresses alternately with floral and geometric patterns in Art Nouveau style, which rise up to the small battlements on the roof of the house.
Also striking are the three high, narrow windows of the upper floor, which from the inside offer a view of the street (and thus not infrequently of meter-long lines of visitors) and are framed on the outsides by paintings by José Bielman. In keeping with the location, the two painted female figures are meant to allegorically symbolize art and science.
When you finally enter the bookstore, you not only find yourself surrounded by thousands of books stacked up to the ceiling on massive wooden shelves – the statics of which you doubt a little at times – but you also soon find yourself face to face with the Lello brothers and other personalities of the Portuguese literary scene. On dark wooden columns are the bas-reliefs of the store’s founders, and busts of Portuguese writers made by Romão Junior also adorn the store’s interior.
The famous spiral staircase with crimson steps, which according to a record from the 1930s “created an impression of lightness and boldness,” finally leads to the upper floor, which has been open to the public since 1995. Even up there, one cannot help but be amazed by the impressively sculpted ceiling ornamentation that playfully frames the approximately eight-meter-long skylight. The latter features an equally artfully crafted colorful pattern and also internalizes the bookstore’s leitmotif in lettering: Decus in labore (dignity in work).
Cultural Stories from Europe
a book by Thomas Stiegler
French cultural stories –
a book by Anja Weinberger
Literary tourism at Livraria Lello
Needless to say, this impressive history and architecture of Livraria Lello attracts thousands of tourists every year, most of whom want to “just have a look”. In 2015, the current management, which includes a fifth-generation heir to the Lello brothers, therefore introduced a new strategy: From now on, they charged admission – which now amounts to five euros – and deduct this from the sales price when a book is purchased.
Although the new sales strategy has been criticized, its success cannot be denied. Since 2016, 50% of visitors have come back with a book from “just having a look”. A team of nine became a team of 50 and sales in 2018 exceeded an average of one thousand copies per day.
In keeping with its international clientele, which accounts for nearly 70% of its clientele, Livraria Lello also features a multilingual selection of literature, with a slight focus on translated works by Portuguese writers. But the inventory also includes rare old works that date back to the time of Ernesto Chardron.
Children’s literature also occupies several shelves, and a very special dedication was given to the youngest when the bookstore itself published a children’s book and a short animated film around the story of Livraria Lello on the occasion of Children’s Day 2016: “Na livraria mais bonita do mundo” – “In the most beautiful bookstore in the world”.
The best, the most beautiful, the oldest?
Although this rating may not be conclusively confirmed, it can be stated with certainty that it is one of the most historic and thus fascinating of its kind. It is not without reason that the Livraria Lello has repeatedly made it onto the best lists of the New York Times or the Spanish daily newspaper El País. And the store is also said to be responsible for the architecture of Hogwarts. It is said that J. K. Rowling, then a professor of English based in Porto, was inspired by the style of the bookstore and incorporated her impressions into the Harry Potter novels. However, the author herself denies this.
But whether it’s the best, the most beautiful or the oldest, Livraria Lello is always worth a visit. And not just for its own sake. The hustle and bustle around Rua das Carmelitas 144 also lets you share in the sunny disposition and temperament of the Portuguese people. Located between the Torre dos Clérigos, the University of Porto and the Igreja do Carmo, the bookstore is an ideal stopover on a sightseeing tour all year round and in any weather.
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