Before I moved to Portugal, more than a decade ago, I visited Porto as a tourist, without any preparation and not even a map. I remember walking down its (at the time) shabby streets and absolutely loving it. From S. Bento train station, around Clérigos church, down to Ribeira and the river, tasting local wines and admiring the architecture. Then, I remember, I found myself in front of a beautiful building with the colourful neo-gothic façade saying: "Lello & Irmão". It was a bookshop. I love bookshops, so I entered. I spent there two hours without even noticing.
The place was like a time machine and I could almost feel the ghosts of Kafka, Camus and Proust as I was randomly checking out their books. It was silent and peaceful, full of Art Déco details on the walls, and just to make the atmosphere even more perfect, I remember sunlight danced through the stained glass. I wanted to know everything about this place.
The story starts in the late 19th century when two brothers from Porto, José and António Lello, opened an establishment dedicated to the commerce and edition of books. According to the notes about the library, José Lello was a man of culture, reading enthusiast, book and music lover, and he dreamed of becoming a bookseller. A few years later, his brother, António, got into the same business. After changing a few buildings while looking for a perfect one, in January 1906 they opened the Livraria Lello’s building as we know it today, a masterpiece of an engineer and a book lover, Francisco Xavier Esteves. One hundred years later I visited it for the first time.
In the meantime, the bookstore became famous for another reason. There's a rumour that it was an inspiration for J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books, as Rowling lived in Porto for a couple of years in 90s. On her website, she says that when she returned from Portugal to live in Edinburgh, she already had the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in her suitcase. Because of this, and the fact that the bookstore is frequently ranked as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, every day thousands of people queue to enter.
It has become such a big tourist attraction that you now need to pay €5 to enter. However, if you buy anything, this is discounted from the price. Although the store lost some of its charm because of the crowds, I still recommend visiting the fascinating Lello bookstore. If you can do it in the winter time, maybe you will be lucky to find it empty and peaceful as I did when I went there for the first time.
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