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Livraria Lello, Porto. How do you stay contemporary?

In 2015, Livreria Lello and Irmão introduced an entry ticket: a choice to survive the crisis brought the bookstore to a revloution

From nine to fifty employees

In 2015, Livreria Lello and Irmão introduced an entry ticket worth three euros, which became five within four years. If the visitor of the bookstore is also a reader and makes a purchase, that money is subtracted from the price of the book and entry becomes free. A choice to survive the crisis and transform the five thousand daily tourists into potential buyers. The strategy was criticized, but it worked: in 2016 about 50% of visitors came out with a book. Over three hundred thousand volumes have been sold in different languages. The nine employees in 2015 became fifty, and sales in 2018 exceed one thousand copies per day on average.

We are in Porto, in the historic center, higher than the Ribeira district which is reflected in the Douro, the river that bisects the city. Livraria Lello is located at number 144 of Rua das Carmelitas, between the Torre dos Clérigos, city symbol, the University of Porto and the Igreja do Carmo. Among the oldest libraries in Portugal, it is known as the Cathedral of the Book. The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, The New York Times, El País and The Guardian, the Lonely Planet tourist guide, who introduced her to the top ten of the world’s greatest bookshops spoke about it in one of his novels.

Behind the historic name

Livraria Lello was founded in 1869 by the French publisher and bookseller Ernesto Chardron. At the time it was called Livraria Internacional de Ernesto Chardron and it was just a few steps away from its current location, in Rua dos Clérigos. After the owner’s untimely death, the business passed into the hands of the Lugan & Geneluoux company, which expanded it. The turning point came in 1894, when the bookstore was sold to Josè Lello, who already owned another commercial space in Rua do Almada. A few years later, Josè entered into partnership with his brother (irmão, in Portuguese) Antonio—and hence the name Lello e Irmão. Immediately the two brothers decided to change their identity to create a sort of literary salon for men of culture of the time.

The library as we know it today is inaugurated on 13 January 1906 and collects the approval of the main Portuguese intellectuals and politicians. «Erecting a temple to the divine cult of emotions and ideas is a great act of merit that, due to its vast and fruitful results, will eternally link the names Lello and Irmão to national recognition», declares the writer and diplomat Abel Botelho during the inauguration ceremony. The project is not entrusted to an architect but to the engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves, known for being a fan of literature—he realizes an eclectic building that mixes neogothic and liberty, named property of public interest in 1994.

Interiors that impress

Structured on two floors, the entrance door and the two windows on the sides are surmounted by an arch, above which is written the name of the library in Gothic characters. The 2016 restoration work brought to light the original and bright colors of the façade, previously covered with a series of cream-white layers. On the first floor, three tall and narrow windows overlook the street, with two female figures painted by José Bielman at the sides, symbolizing Art and Science. The rest of the facade alternates floral decorations with geometric shapes, up to the pinnacles and the neo-gothic crenellations. Inside, on the sides of the room are the dark wooden pillars with the bas-reliefs of the founders of the library and the busts of Portuguese writers, made by Romão Junior. A spiral staircase with carmine red steps leads to the upper floor, open to the public since 1995. «Whoever crosses the room discovers the staircase, an element of attention, both for the impression of lightness and for the audacity of the conception. At the same time we feel the need to rise and the fear of destroying it with our weight», reads the 1930 Catalog of the library. The ceiling is chiseled. It reads in the eight-meter-long glass window: Decus in labore (Dignity in Work).

From the novels of Fernando Pessoa to those of the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, books are placed up to the roof on dark and solid wood shelves. The impression is that the balance is precarious and that everything can collapse suddenly. The catalog combines Portuguese books with international authors translated into various languages ​—including English, Spanish, Italian and Russian, for a clientele of 70% tourists. The collection of ancient texts and rare works, which date back to the old Chardron library, alternate with periodical publications, specialized magazines and CDs, especially fado. On the walls there are paintings, illustrations and prints on display. Childhood literature takes up ten shelves. In 2016, on the occasion of International Children’s Day, Lello printed his first children’s book Na livraria mais bonita do mundo, accompanied by an animated short film to promote reading among the little ones. The book and short film have been translated into English, French and Spanish.

Generations of upkeep

Since 1995 Livraria Lello has been run by the Prólogo Livreiros company, which also includes Josè Manuel Lello, fifth generation heir. In the basement are organized workshops, cultural events and free presentations open to the public. To increase the fame of the Lello and the number of its visitors in recent years, it was above all J.K. Rowling. In the nineties the British writer lived for a short time in Porto, where she worked as a teacher, becoming a frequent visitor of the library, at the time still little known. It is said that he drew inspiration from the atmosphere and the labyrinthine scale of the place to conceive the Hogwarts school of magic.

Text Giulia Vigano


R. das Carmelitas 144

Porto, Portugal

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