Portugal has a rich literary heritage and a number of unique bookshops throughout the country. These are meccas for not only readers and intellectuals but as tourist spots and they appear regularly on the lists of the most outstanding bookshops in the world.
Each day, 4,000-5,000 people stand in line waiting to gain entrance to one of these illustrious bookshops! The above scene takes place in Porto, Portugal — and the bookshop is Livraria Lello or Lello Bookshop. Lello is not a museum or a castle: it is a bookshop, albeit a beautiful one resembling a cathedral with a distinct provenance.
This number is not a guesstimate of how many people go through each day: it is calculated from the number of tickets sold, costing 5€, redeemable upon buying a book. The only way to get in? Have the ticket, which can be purchased online or from the ticket office a few doors up from Lello.
It is indeed a testament to the place (and one previous visitor in particular) — people are prepared to stand a few hours, in all weather, waiting to gain access.
The line forms early in the morning, snakes down the street, moving slowly all day allowing people in a few at a time. The name “Lello” is known throughout the world, of course, because of its connection to J. K. Rowling, who used it as the inspiration for the series of Harry Potter books which she began to write, while she was living in Porto.
Visually, Lello is breathtaking. It was designed by the architect/engineer, Francisco Xavier Esteves, who was known as “a man of science, with a special interest in literature.”
Esteves was working for the Lello Brothers, Jose and Antonio, who moved in Porto’s bourgeoisie and intellectual circles at the turn of the century. They loved art and culture and had already been in the book business since 1881 — but they envisaged a bookstore that would be a “cathedral to books.”
Completed in 1906, it opened with much fanfare. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be there for the opening: people crowded into the shop and were overwhelmed by its spectacular design and workmanship.
No one was disappointed, because the interior was detailed and embellished from floor to ceiling as one would expect to see in a cathedral. The exterior is Neo-Gothic, a style well suited to cathedrals, but with aspects of Art Deco and Art Nouveau (which were modern at the time) that are continued inside.
Art Deco features as well in the the two handpainted figures on the exterior, works of Jose Bielman, which respectively represent Science and Art.
Inside, there are several busts of famous Portuguese writers, creating a gallery atmosphere of writers and poets.
Two floors, with decorated columns that extend throughout, connect the lower to the upper gallery floor. These and the central stairs’ banisters are embellished with gothic style carvings. The walls are lined with wooden bookshelves with a good selection of books, covering many subjects and authors; but front and center are the Harry Potter books.
Set within the ceiling is an impressive 26×11.5-foot stained glass panel with the slogan Decus in Labore (“Dignity in Work”) at its center.
Looking upwards, the ceiling appears to be made of carved wood appliquéd onto the ceiling — whereas in reality, it is plasterwork, resembling carved wood. This is an incredibly difficult process and required the finest artisans to execute.
However, Lello’s most iconic feature is the red spiral staircase, supported at only three points along its undulating shape, which appears to float through the interior. While the interior is awesome, the staircase alone is a masterful design and a feat of engineering. Everyone who enters the shop will want to climb the staircase — and that means more than half a million people each year. I was concerned that with that amount of traffic, it could be damaged, but according to the original plan, it is constructed of concrete with a wooden overlay that can easily be replaced.
The reason for Lello’s current popularity is of course its connection to J. K. Rowling, the English speaking author who lived in Porto from 1990-93 when she was teaching English. Married at the time to a Portuguese journalist, with a young child and very poor — in fact, she was on welfare — she would spend her little free time writing, mostly sitting in cafes, especially the art nouveau Majestic Cafe in the Baixa neighborhood.
In love with the Lello bookshop, J.K. Rowling incorporated some of the imagery from the bookshop into the Harry Potter stories: most notably, the red floating staircase, which was the inspiration for the library at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Its fame has made it one of the most photographed staircases in the world. It now sells a tremendous number of Harry Potter books that are displayed prominently throughout the shop — certainly a welcome repayment for her inspiration.
Rowling’s first book, published in England, in 1997, received twelve rejections from publishers before receiving $4,000 for the manuscript. But the unexpected landslide of popularity to the publication of The Sorcerers Stone (published in England as The Philosophers Stone) was overwhelming and each subsequent book was sold out before publication.
When the same manuscript was published in the United States, in 1998, it earned her $105,000 — an enormous amount at the time for a children’s book by an unknown author.
From that early beginning, she became a powerhouse, writing seven books in the Harry Potter series that have sold over 500 million copies, been translated into more than eighty languages and comprise one of the most successful franchises in the world. Rowlings earns millions in licensing fees and percentages from various other sources every year — and of course, the books have been made into movies and plays. Die-hard fans have established groups of “Potterheads,” meeting, communicating, Facebooking, and selling Harry Potter memorabilia.
From rags to riches via books, J.K. Rowling earned a place on the Forbes list of wealthiest people in the world — which did not please her. To reduce her wealth, she gave several million dollars to charity and continues to do so, which has effectively removed her from the list of wealthiest people in the world.
In 2017, perhaps due to all the tourists, Lello underwent a complete refurbishment — even the stained glass panel was removed and restored. This returned it to its original beauty — and today, it is pristine, in spite of its traffic.
Reminiscing about my visit to Lello, I recall how inspiring it was to see this bookstore which was so integral to the Harry Potter phenomenon. What was distressing, was the overwhelming number of eager tourists, filling up this “sacred” space, many of them more intent on being there to take selfies than to appreciate the significance of this “Cathedral to Books”and its history. This, then. is the price of fame in the twenty-first century.
Now settled in Scotland with her second husband with whom she had two more children, J.K. Rowling has continued to write more books in different genres, sometimes anonymously. Recognized internationally she has won an extraordinary number of diverse awards, including an OBE, a top British award, given out by royalty — of which there can never be more than 65 recipients alive in the world at any given time.
Despite her charitable efforts to diffuse her wealth, J.K. Rowling is the highest-paid author in the world at $95,000,000 a year. Her books are estimated to have made $7.7 billion dollars, of which she made $1.15 billion dollars from the Harry Potter Series alone.
Despite her success, she has never forgotten her humble beginnings and continues to donate generously especially to children’s causes and multiple sclerosis, a disease from which her mother suffered — huge donations that she could never have imagined when she was almost destitute, living in Portugal, writing about an imaginary character, Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, while thinking of Livraria Lello.
LIVRARIA LELLO & IRMAO (LELLO)
Rua dos Carmelitas 144
4050 – 161 Porto, Portugal.
Tel: 351/ 22 200 2037
Opens at 10.00 .a.m.
TICKETS: purchase online or from the store Amazens do Castelo, a few doors from Lello & Irmao, for 5€ each, redeemable against a book purchase. Even with the ticket, though, you will need to stand in line. A good idea is to go later in the afternoon when the line is shorter — and they always let everyone in before closing.