You can get a dose of bibliotherapy just by visiting certain bookstores—and Portugal’s Livraria Lello may be the world’s ultimate bibliobalm.
After dinner on our first night in Porto, Magellan and I were walking around the old city.
“That’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen,” I said to him—not knowing we were staring at Livraria Lello.
You could guess a visit to this “cathedral for the written word” was on my agenda for Porto. So imagine our surprise when we arrived at the bookstore the next morning and realized we’d seen it the night before!
Words of praise for Livraria Lello have been writ around the globe.
…it remains arguably the world’s most beautiful bookstore, with neo-gothic architecture incorporating stained glass, a sweeping staircase and a plaster ceiling imitating wood. CNN, World’s Coolest Bookstores
Rumor has it J.K. Rawling was inspired by Livraria Lello while writing Harry Potter (and teaching English) in Portugal. It doesn’t take long to appreciate Lello’s potential as muse: a stained-glass atrium puts the spotlight on the bookshop’s deep-red staircase, spectacular enough to stop you in your tracks. Livraria Lello pamphlet
Beauty, we know, comes with a price.
“A bookstore with an entry fee?” Magellan queried.
Our 4€ fee (each) was refundable for book purchases. (Only for books I discovered the next day—yes, we visited Livraria Lello three times!) The bookstore, which is not large, implemented the fee because it was getting more than 4,000 visitors a day but fewer than 5% of them were making any purchase! The fee has affected sales. Lello’s website says its book sales were up 50% in July 2018 compared with the same month the year before.
Polite signage requests that you refrain from taking selfies and the staff gently, but firmly, enforce this edict, especially on the spiralling red staircase—the main draw for non-bibiliophiles and likely the reason for introducing the fee.
But lets’ go back to the time of the Kodak Brownie, the turn of the twentieth century, the opening of this remarkable place.
Recognizing visitors will want to know its story, Lavraria Lello has printed an elegant pamphlet on the bookstore’s history.
It began with the two Lello brothers, José and António. Having made a fortune in the olive oil and Port wine business (the best souvenirs of Portugal in addition to books) they were bourgeoisie men of culture. In 1881 José opened a bookselling business, later joined by António. To enhance their intellectual influence and be located in the centre of Porto, thirteen years later they bought Livraria Chardron. Several years later, José and António decided they wanted to build a magnificent bookstore. Magellan’s probably happy to hear that credit for the beauty of Livraria Lello goes to an engineer, to “the magnificent vision of engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves, a man of science with a special interest in literature.”
Not only was the building avant-garde, it was first architectural structure in Porto constructed with reinforced concrete. Magellan’s dad would have loved that, having worked for Inland Cement for years.
There’s so much to admire. The Art Nouveau façade. The window displays—I coveted the artistic origami more than any of the books inside. The Art Deco detailing on the walls and columns that arise from the ground floor. The stained-glass skylight. The busts of some of Portugal’s most famous authors, including an attendee at the grand opening of Livraria Lello, Guerra Junqueiro, whose poetry led to implementation of the Republic in Portugal. The ceiling on the ground floor that seems to be carved wood but is really painted plaster, a technique also used on the staircase ornaments. The wood-carved handrail on the upper floor. The Latin insignia Decus in Labore (Dignity in work) framed by the Lello brothers’ monogram to remind each worker, reader and visitor of the company’s golden rule.
When Lavraria Lello opened in January 1906, it instantly became a highlight of cultural life in Porto. Readings and musical events convened here. José and António collaborated with painters and illustrators on special-edition books and even had their own printing press on the lower floor.
Stepping inside Livraria Lello is excellent bibliotherapy but I extended the treatment with a few purchases. House-made diaries for Lynn, Clare and me (mine untouched, awaiting special words). Message, a book by one of Portugal’s most esteemed authors, Ferdinand Pessoa. And For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi about a man searching for Isabel, a woman activist protesting Portugal’s authoritarian regime.
Now, what can I write in that beautiful Livraria Lello diary?
Berthoud, Ella, and Elderkin, Susan. The Novel Cure An A-Z of Literary Remedies. New York: Hamish Hamilton, 2013.What fun! From the A’s (Aging, Horror Of: Treatment=Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson and Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins) to Z (Zestlessness: Prescription: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow) whatever your ailment these two women offer multiple cures.Take their section on love: Love, Doomed; Love, Falling Head Over Heels in; Love, Falling Out of Love With; Love, Looking For; Love, Unrequitted; Lovesickness. A medicinal touch of humour sprinkles every page, like “Pain, Being A See: Adolescence. Antisocial, being. Cynicism…”
Here’s a link to Livraria Lello’s website. Buy your entry ticket for Lavraria Lello a few metres away at Armazéns do Castelo before joining the (likely) queue. Do go—the entire experience elicits such felicity (this word is for you David H).
Mount, Jane. Bibliophile. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2018. Purchased at Munro’s Books in Victoria. Jane organized her “illustrated miscellany” by topic. There’s Love & Romance: Prescription: Atonement by Ian McEwen) and Iconic Covers: Prescription: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The book pops with her illustrations and humour: her first line is “The goal of this book is to triple the size of your To Be Read pile. It’s a literary Wunderkammer…”