Beauty & the book

Beauty & the book

When you enter a bookstore and smell the crispy newness of a just-arrived edition, do you check out the collection or look for something else? An atmosphere perhaps that makes your interest in the written word quicken a little more? If the bookstore has that quality, you surely like to spend a little more time while browsing.

Some bookshops have this effect on you. If you are looking for atmosphere and history in a bookstore, you cannot go wrong with the famed Lello & Irmao Bookshop, locally known as Livraria Lello, in Portugal’s port city of Porto (the English call it Oporto). This century-old bookstore is regarded as the “Third Best Bookshop in the World”.

The heritage bookshop was first established by a Frenchman called Ernesto Chadron in 1869 and was called International Bookshop. With his untimely death, it changed several hands and was ultimately bought by the Lello family which still owns it.

Situated on Rua das Carmelitas Street near the historical centre of the city with its Lions Square, the façade of the bookstore is in neo-Gothic style with two figures painted by José Bielman, representing Science and Art. But that is only the beginning. Step inside and you will be welcomed by a stunning interior designed by Xavier Esteves.

The building was inaugurated on January 13, 1906 by the owners, the Lello family. It was an important social event at that time and was attended by famous people from different spheres — among them Guerra Junqueiro, one of the greatest European writers.

Photography is prohibited inside the bookstore unless management relents in special cases. Indeed it was an experience to go round the bookstore. The most striking element on entering the art nouveau-styled bookstore is a beautiful, spiral staircase designed in the likeness of the Galleries Lafayette of Paris. The staircase forms the main artery of the building surrounded by a wooden panelled ceiling in stained glass with Lello’s motto “decus in labore (there is honour in labour)”.

The beautiful carved bookcases going from the first floor to the second floor are jam-packed with books of every hue and size on a mindboggling range of subjects which number somewhere in the region of 1,20,000. While many are for sale, others, especially old ones, are now only for exhibition, encased in glass-enclosed bookshelves.

A quaint touch to the bookstore is added by the grids on the floor — like railway tracks. In old days, it was meant for wheelbarrows to carry heavy volumes of books from the entrance to the shelves.

J K Rowling of Harry Potter fame lived in Oporto for 10 years as an English teacher. She had frequently visited the Lello bookshop and spent hours on the coffee shop upstairs while browsing, and scribbling perhaps. It is said that the library at the Hogwarts of the Harry Potter series is in the mould of this bookshop with the beautiful pink staircase swirling upstairs from the centre of the premise.

Inside, the bibliographic section has more than 60,000 titles available to the public. Apart from the magazine and CD sections, there is a permanent gallery for artists to display their work. The first floor has a tea room which even has the original old-fashioned money transaction box.

The bookstore has become such a milestone destination of Oporto that after almost 90 years when the building showed signs of wear and tear, the public as well other agencies helped to restore it to its former glory.

That a bookstore can become one of the most visited places for locals as well as tourists keeps the faith alive that the printed word can never go out of fashion — even in a digital world.

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