Tourist Tuesday, 8/28/18 – A bookstore in Portugal

It doesn’t take long before the woman at the hotel reception pulls out a city map of Porto. Look, she says, there’s the Old Town and the Douro, there’s the harbor and here, by the way, the pride evident in her voice, is the world’s most beautiful bookshop: Livraria Lello.

It sounds fantastic and the place looks even more amazing in the photos. It’s located in a two-story, neo-Gothic building with lots of dark wood, an abundance of old books, ornamentation and stained glass, and a curved staircase right in the middle. It was opened in 1906, a cathedral of books, a dream for voracious bookworms from all over the world. When traveling, we often look more for the beauty of the past than that of the present. We may even buy a book for vacation reading, to while away evenings on the Atlantic coast. It has been said that J.K. Rowling often visited the Livraria when she lived in Porto at the beginning of the 1990s, a time when she taught English and began dreaming up the Harry Potter series.

Porto is not a big city — with just over 200,000 inhabitants, the Old Town is easily manageable. The first thing you notice when approaching the Livraria Lello is the long line in front of it. Young Japanese travelers, Scandinavian backpackers, families from France, couples from China, Americans and Germans.

An imposing bouncer stands at the door of the bookshop. To get in, you must first purchase a five-euro ticket bearing the visage of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s most famous poet, in the shop next door. There, too, visitors must wait in line, with crowd-control barriers set up just like at the airport check-in desk. Those waiting in line are guided past shelves full of souvenirs, postcards and keychains. The standard tourist bric-à-brac. [Or you can get an “online voucher” by reserving a copy of a special edition book Here]

The bookstore is every bit is as beautiful as the one in the photos, even if it’s not much of a bookstore these days. No one browses through the merchandise here. They all seem to be taking pictures with their smartphones — photos that look exactly like the more than 7,000 images already posted on TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website, where Livraria is listed as one of the city’s top sightseeing attractions.

Just like the rest of the country, Livraria Lello stood on the verge of bankruptcy four years ago as a result of the financial crisis. But even then, the bookshop had no lack of visitors. The problem was that people were buying fewer and fewer books. Someone suggested the store ought to start charging an admission fee of five euros. It may have sounded crazy at the time, but 4,000 people now visit Livraria each day while during the summer, the number of daily visitors swells to 5,000. The store had 1.2 million visitors in 2017 and revenues of over 7 million euros. (Hmmm…interesting idea for some of Big Sur’s icons?)

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Here are some photos of the bookstore in 2015 taken and shared by Sterling Doughty