I’m back with another series of photographs from my three week father/daughter trip to Portugal back in December 2022 – January 2023. And yes, I know we’re in July so without further delay, I present you with post #11 and a look inside the magical Livraria Lello.
When last we spoke, I had arrived in Portugal’s “Second City”, Porto (at the bottom of the page, you can see all the other places we visited before we got here). We checked into the lovely Se Catedral Hotel Porto located in the city’s historic center – proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. We then proceeded to visit several of Porto’s main attractions but in this post, we’ll focus on what is perhaps its most visited one – the Livraria Lello.
In 1881, José Pinto De Sousa Lello, a prominent member of the Porto bourgeois and lover of music and books, opened his first bookstore on Rua do Almada. In 1894, José, who was now in business with his brother Antonio Lello, acquired the estate and publishing rights of the International Bookstore of Ernesto Chardron, who died in 1885 at the age of 45. Chadron, who opened his bookstore after winning the top prize in a lottery(!), published a large number of books by the best Portuguese and French writers with a policy one would describe as “courageous” for Portugal at that time. In his honor, the library features the phrase “Livraria Chardron” just above the door.
The Lello brothers would also purchase the editorial collection of Livraria Lemos & Cª in 1898 before hiring engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves (1864-1944) to construct a new bookstore on Rua das Carmelitas. In 1906, the new bookstore, Lello & Irmão (which translates in English to “brother”), was inaugurated.
With the 1930 addition of José Pereira da Costa (António Lello’s son-in-law), the bookstore began to be known simply as Livraria Lello and from 1920-1950, Livraria Lello became one of the leading exporters and importers of literature in Portugal. For the first time, the entire works of Shakespeare were translated and published in Portuguese along with other world renowned authors such as Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, Miguel de Cervantes, Victor Hugo and Charles Darwin.
In 1993, Livraria Lello underwent a period of restoration and remodeling and reopened in 1995. In 2015, the bookstore began requesting entrance fees for visitors (entirely deductible against the purchase of books). Today, the bookstore sees 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a day(!) and there are usually up to three hour waits to get in. Being that we were (smartly) traveling in December and had bought our tickets online (€5), we waited about 10 minutes before we were inside.
It had been rumored (and milked hard by Portugal’s tourism department) that J.K. Rowling’s inspiration to write Harry Potter began in Porto, particularly at this library. The well-known writer lived (and taught English) in Porto for 10 years in the early 1990s and (rumor had it) she used to drink a cup of coffee at the second floor of Lello’s bookstore. Rowling, however, shattered that long-standing rumor (and broke more than a few Portuguese hearts) in 2020 when she tweeted that she had (alas) never actually visited the bookstore.
Livraria Lello is considered one of the most beautiful libraries in the world and I’d agree unreservedly (this coming from someone who worked many years at the historic New York Public Library on 5th Avenue in Manhattan when I was a much, much younger man). So what if J.K. friggin’ Rowling never visited the place. Enjoy the photographs…
My daughter? Totally diggin’ it. From the intricately carved forked staircase (the hot spot for photos) to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and large stained-glass skylight, the Livraria Lello is a must-see attraction in Porto. Nuff said.