The Livraria Lello & Irmão (Lello & Brother Bookshop) is now one of the ‘must-see’ places on a trip to Porto and has become more famous for its interior design than for its books. As a result, the bookshop has started charging visitors an entrance fee. Paying to get into a bookshop was a first for me, but as the entrance fee was refundable against any purchases, I was able to buy two of the books on my shopping list at one of the oldest bookshops in Portugal and not just be one of the many tourists who come in to take photos and leave without even looking at the books. Of course, I blame J. K. Rowling for the surge in popularity. Rowling was living in Porto when she conceived the idea of the Harry Potter stories and a myth has developed that the staircase in Lello & Irmão was the inspiration for the Grand Staircase in Hogwarts.
Brothers José and António Lello opened the bookshop in 1906, at a time when booksellers were part of the cultural, intellectual and artistic circles and were even involved with public affairs. It was designed by Francisco Xavier Esteves in a delicious mixture of art nouveau and neo-gothic styles. The exterior of the shop is an extravagant design in white, reminiscent of an over-decorated wedding cake. Sadly it was covered with scaffolding when we visited in June 2016, so I was only able to catch a tantalizing glimpse of this through the tarpaulin. Inside, the shop is surprisingly very small and cramped and it is like stepping back in time. The ground floor is decorated with dark wood panels and columns and in some places, such as the ceiling and the decorative features under the staircase, plaster painted to look like wood. Above the bookshelves are glass cases which contain rare books and first editions and along the floor are tracks where a wooden cart used to run to transport books from the back of the shop to the front. The Lello Brothers are depicted in bas-relief on the walls of the ground floor, along with some major Portuguese writers, such as Camilo Castelo Branco, Guerra Junqueiro, Antero de Quental, Tomás Ribeiro and Teófilo Braga. At the back of the ground floor is a bust of another great Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz and another of the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, both sculpted by Abel Salazar.
The shop is dominated by the staircase, with its carved wooden handrail and red painted stairs, that leads to the first floor, dividing voluptuously into two staircases and giving views over the ground floor. The highlight of the first floor is a large art nouveau stained-glass skylight with the Latin phrase ‘Decus in labore’ (‘Dignity in work’) in the centre. This allows light to flood into what otherwise would be a dark and gloomy shop.
The majority of the books are in Portuguese, but there is a section of books in English, Spanish and French on the ground floor. The ground floor also has a large selection of children’s books and souvenirs. On the first floor there are travel, cookery and design sections. There is also a section of language learning books and dictionaries.
Livraria Lello & Irmão, Rua das Carmelitas, Porto (nearest metro stations: São Bento and Aliados)
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 10am-7.30pm; Sat 10am-7pm; Sun 11am-7pm
Entrance fee: €3 (as of June 2016) purchased from the booth on the opposite side of the road. The entrance fee is refundable against any purchase in the bookshop.