Booked in Porto: Inside Portugal’s Most Famous Bookstore

Marvels and magic at top indie bookstore, Livraria Lello. | By Don George  
Livraria Lello, Portugal
Livraria Lello is known for its much-photographed central staircase. Photo: Zoonar/Urs/Flueeler/Alamy/Indiapicture

Co-owner José Manuel Lello lets us peek behind the stacks at Livraria Lello, in Porto, Portugal, one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.

What’s the backstory? In 1906, my great-grandfather, José Lello, and his younger brother, António, created Livraria Lello as we know it today. It’s located right in the heart of the labyrinthine streets of the old town, where you’ll find some of the city’s most important historic attractions. The store was designed by renowned Portuguese engineer Xavier Esteves; its opening was a major event not only in Portugal but throughout Europe.

That central red staircase is quite spectacular. The staircase is an engineering masterpiece and the most photographed element of the bookstore. All the ornaments around the staircase are made of plaster, employing the trompe l’oeil technique to imitate wood. Only the handrails are made of actual wood, brought from Brazil for its high quality. J.K. Rowling, when she lived in Porto, used to visit quite often, and it’s said the staircase was one of the sources of inspiration for the Harry Potter saga. Remember the moving stairs at Hogwarts?

What English-language books on Portugal do you recommend? Grape Harvest, by Miguel Torga, is a novel about the hard work of grape pickers but set amid the lovely landscapes of the Douro Valley during the 1930s and ’40s. In Journey to Portugal, José Saramago offers a non-touristy depiction of Portugal. Lisbon, What the Tourist Should See was written by Fernando Pessoa, one of our greatest poets/writers.

Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Booked in Porto”.

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