Why thousands of tourists visit one bookshop in Portugal each year
Visitors queue outside the Livraria Lello bookshop, in Porto, Portugal. The building was designed by Francisco Xavier Esteves, an engineer with a literary bent of mind. Image Credit: Sharmila Dhal/Gulf News

Porto: At a time when bookstores around the world are struggling to stay afloat, the flourish with which Livraria Lello in Porto, north Portugal, has withstood the vagaries of time makes for a fascinating read.

Considered one of the most beautiful and emblematic bookshops in the world, Lello was founded by two intellectual brothers of Porto’s bourgeoisie, Jose and Antanio Lello, way back in 1906. But its charming building, including its Neo-Gothic façade, legendary wooden staircase, stained glass skylight and built-in cart on rails remains unchanged to date.

The bookshop houses more than 100,000 titles and receives over one million visitors a year.

- Ana Teixeira | Senior member of staff

According to Ana Teixeira, a senior staff at Lello, the bookshop houses more than 100,000 titles and receives over one million visitors a year. When this journalist visited the store last week, as part of a media trip organised by Emirates and the tourism authorities of Dubai and Portugal, the long line of people who had queued up outside its doors by 9am spoke volumes about the place.

Harry Potter connection

As it turns out, it’s not just Lello’s historic singularities that draw the crowds. There’s a more recent — and unlikely — Harry Potter connection that many find intriguing enough to make a visit.

A sign in the Harry Potter room
A sign in the Harry Potter room. Image Credit: Sharmila Dhal/Gulf News

Tour guide Monica Nogueira said, “For long, Lello was a local bookstore with its landmark architecture as far as the Portuguese were concerned. But some years ago, a group of Japanese tourists wanted to know where the ‘Harry Potter bookstore’ was located. They had their reasons for asking as it was rumoured that the Hogwarts staircase in the Harry Potter series was somewhat inspired by Lello’s stairway, just as Potter’s black cape was inspired by the black cape uniform that Porto students wear. Author J.K. Rowling, who was married to a Portuguese man whom she later divorced, is said to have spent a lot of time at Lello.”

Lello: Stairway to Heaven

Time magazine also talks of the link. In a piece on the ‘15 coolest bookstores from around the world’, it said, “Rumour has it that J.K. Rowling 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.”

Work of art

The ornate staircase is indeed a work of art. As you climb the steps up to the mezzanine, the detailing of the wooden balusters is hard to miss. On the upper floor, the wood-carved handrail and the Art Deco detailing of the walls and columns that rise from the ground floor are majestic.

The deep red staircase
The deep red staircase starts out as a single stairway but branches out into two, joins again and divides on to the upper floor. Image Credit: Sharmila Dhal/Gulf News

In what is also a unique feature on the upper floor, the book stacks on the wall have tiny busts of the authors on them.

Upon descending the stairs, one can find two bronze busts, both by sculptor Abel Salazar. They represent Eca de Queiros and Miguel de Cervantes, considered two of the greatest writers in the Iberian Peninsula.

Porto's Lello: Stairway to Heaven

The ceiling design of the ground floor is deceptive. Although it appears that it is made of carved wood, it is in fact painted plaster, a technique used on the ornaments to the staircase. The building was designed by Francisco Xavier Esteves, an engineer with a literary bent of mind.

Along the central aisle of the ground floor are the rails with a built in wooden wagon that runs over them. “The cart is used to move books along the bookshop, to and from the storage,” said Ana.

And finally, behind the staircase is the new generation attraction: the Harry Potter Room, complete with the wizardry broomsticks, ready to transport visitors to another world.

Entrance fee

One question that is often asked is, if all those millions who visit Lello year after year are avid readers or literary enthusiasts? And do they all end up buying books? The elusive answer, it appears, has helped Lello realign its entrance policy in recent times.

While entrance to the bookshop was free earlier, it now charges 5 Euro per visitor with the amount adjusted as a discount in the event of a purchase. “This was a revolutionary idea as family sizes were shrinking and reading habits changing in Portugal. Everyone who visit the place don’t necessarily buy something. So the nominal fee goes a long way in helping the store preserve its heritage and sustain itself for the future,” said Monica.

From being a haven for acclaimed authors, bookworms — and Harry Potter fans — Lello also hosts a number of social gatherings, workshops and performances.

“There’s something going on all the time and I just love coming here,” said Dona, a student from Porto.

“What I like about the place is that it has retained its originality even after all these decades. I always get the books I am looking for,” said another native Sophia.

In fact, Domingos Lima, bookseller of the house for 52 years, had always stressed on the need for gathering feedback from top customers as it helped generate important information about books and ordering relevant titles.

While the bookshop strives to serve the different interests of its diverse stream of visitors, one thing is for sure: no one leaves the place disappointed, thanks to the lingering, even lasting, Lello impact.

Image Credit: Gulf News

Highlights of Lello

• The top window of the Neo-Gothic façade has two figures adorning its sides. They were painted by Professor Jose Bielman and are symbolic representations of Art, to the left holding a sculpture, and Science to the right, holding one of the symbols of anthropology.

• The deep red staircase starts out as a single stairway but branches out into two, joins again and divides on to the upper floor

• The stained-glass skylight comprises a 8 metre by 3.5 metre panel. A Latin insignia with the words Decus in labore (Dignity in Labour) is framed by the Lello brothers’ monogram

• The ground floor ceiling looks like it is made of carved wood, but it is just painted plaster

• Book shelves on the upper floor have busts of authors on them

• A wagon on a rail helps transport books around the store

• At the entrance is a bas-relief (sculpture) representing the founders Jose and Antonio Lello. Along the walls are the busts of some of Portugal’s finest authors, including Eca de Queiros, Camilo Castelo Branco, Antero de Quental, Tomas Ribiero, teofilo Braga and Guerra Junqueiro