I admit I have mixed feelings about this extraordinary little Art Nouveau stamp of a bookshop, repeatedly classified as one of the most beautiful in the world.
I love books and could spend hours browsing so when I heard my group would be visiting Lello & Irmão in Porto I was ecstatic.
This lovely haven with the neo-gothic facade (or façade if you prefer) has not one but two claims to fame.
The first comes from its tenuous association with J.K. Rowling, über-successful author of the Harry Potter series.
You may remember, if you follow such things, that before she became a billionaire Rowling taught English in Porto and was briefly married to a Portuguese journalist here.
As a young struggling writer she may well have spent time in the bookshop, although she’s never confirmed it herself. Still, long-time residents are convinced at least some of her inspiration came from Porto and one look at Lello’s fantastic spiral staircase is a convincing argument, as are the dark suits and capes worn by the city’s students – another Harry Potter source of inspiration?
The second bit of notoriety is more recent: in 2009 the bookshop was named the third most beautiful by The Guardian and a year later received a similar distinction from Lonely Planet.
When I slid expectantly through the deceptively small entrance I could see why: the sweeping reddish carved wood staircase I had already seen in pictures, the wall-to-wall books, the stained-glass ceiling… a book buff’s dream.
Lello’s notoriety: a blessing or a curse?
Lello & Irmão, located in central Porto on Rua das Carmelitas, has been a local institution since it was designed by engineer Xavier Esteves in 1906. For years students have gathered to discuss politics and literature on its comfy seats and coffee tables, well before Starbucks made drinking coffee and hanging around a stylish pastime.
Our guide Leonora remembers it well: “We would spend hours here, remaking the world. It was an island of serenity, away from the busy world of Porto. But now it is ruined.” Ruined? Yes, she insists, because its notoriety has come at a price.
These days, busloads of curiosity-seekers have replaced ardent debaters, crowding the narrow steps to the point of distraction. So I understand the shop’s frustration: it’s a business, after all, and while happy sightseers are tromping through the shelves, no books are being sold.
As I entered in awe I was immediately snapped at by an angry clerk who raised his voice: “No photos!” I hadn’t even taken my camera out but fair enough, I was about to. I was surprised by his tone although we had been warned by Leonora that photos were no longer allowed (The photos I’ve used on this page were presumably taken before prohibition rolled in).
I have rarely left a bookshop empty-handed but as I tried to concentrate on book titles, a clerk stalked me insistently, as though I might try to sneak a photograph and perhaps steal the bookshop’s soul.
Is there a better way?
The bookshop has won awards and it is a cultural icon, albeit an unwilling one. Everyone coming to Porto should see it – it is unique and enchanting.
If it’s making money from the extra visitors, all and well. Take the money and run, and let us take home a few visuals memories of such a lovely venue.
If on the other hand it’s losing money and is so frustrated it can’t cope with crowds of tourists, why not simply charge an entrance fee? Museums do, and Lello & Irmão is certainly a work of art. Perhaps a two-tier fee could be devised: €1 to look around and €2 to take photos, both fees deductible if you actually purchase a book. Surely that would be better than scowling at visitors and making them feel it was a mistake to step inside in the first place, wouldn’t it?