Porto’s most famous bookstore

One icon I really wanted to see in Porto was its famous bookstore (indeed, one of the most famous in the world), Livraria Lello & Irmão. I’d read about its gorgeous interior architecture, and it did not disappoint.

bookstore exterior

I nearly missed the bookstore itself, being on the lookout for a big “Lello” somewhere and seeing only “Livraria Chardron,” which is inscribed on the central glass pane above the door. The bigger sign above, which says “Lello & Irmão,” is invisible from the near half of the sidewalk due to the slight overhang. You have to step out toward the edge of the sidewalk to see it. Fortunately, my wife was more prepared than I was, and yanked me inside before I even realized where we were.

Once inside, it was obvious where we were. There aren’t too many bookstores that look like this.

(continued after the jump)

staircase

As you can see from the storefront, it’s not a big shop. But the glorious staircase makes it bigger on the inside than on the outside, rather like Mary Poppins’ carpetbag.

Oh yes, and do you see those signs on either side of the staircase, taped to the posts? The ones that have circles with lines drawn through them? They say No Photos. But I was so busy taking photos that I totally missed them. I was also distracted by the enormous stained glass window that takes up half of the ceiling on the second floor. (You can see a corner of it in the above photo.)

ceiling

And then there was the ceiling on the first floor. Seriously, LOOK at this artwork! Isn’t that simply amazing? I oohed and ahhed and took this photo right in front of the cash register, with my camera held over my head. The clerk at the register could not possibly have missed me. He didn’t say anything, and thus I was still clueless that I was breaking the rules.

Having read up on the bookstore previously, I knew to look for the plaster molding that had been painted to look like wood.

"wood" plaster

It is astonishingly realistic until you get up close and note the scratches and dings that reveal plaster beneath. I was quite impressed by the wood “grain.”

"wood" closeup

There is also an iron track embedded in the floor for the wooden book cart, visible here at the back of the store.

cart track 2

The view from the back of the shop is possibly even more impressive than from the front, due to the staircase landing which hovers in the air like a particularly grandiose pulpit.

landing

This gives you a better idea of just how large the stained glass window is. My next goal was to climb the stairs and photograph it, but this is when I was finally advised that No Photos Are Allowed.

Rats.

Upon climbing the stairs (where an employee kept a fierce eye out for wayward photographers), I figured out the reason why. The bookstore sells postcard photo packets of itself for seven euros.

Okay, I understand the need for bookstores to make money and stay in business, especially in the modern Amazon/ebook era. (Though I would question how much competition Amazon is for a bookstore selling mostly Portuguese books.) And I would be willing to pay for the privilege of taking photographs in this store. But I am not willing to buy postcards instead of taking my own photos, for two reasons:

1. I’m not a scrapbooker; postcards don’t work for me. I can’t email them, blog them, or store them in my digital photo library. (And scanning them is less than effective; I tried that with a postcard of a local church.)

2. I would much rather take my own photos than buy someone else’s. It’s a photographer thing.

Having been alerted to my own transgression, I finally began to notice just how many people were wandering around this store with cameras, and just how often the (rather harried) clerks were having to admonish them. This seems like a big mistake to me. It overworks the clerks, who were often fruitlessly saying “Não tire fotografias” to tourists who don’t speak Portuguese (and then having to use sign language), and it pissed off a lot of tourists, who shrugged their shoulders and immediately left.

Why not have a big sign at the entrance saying something like, “Thank you for appreciating our beautiful bookstore. If you are here to take photos rather than buy a book from us, we must ask you for a small fee of two euros. This helps us keep the store beautiful (and in business) for your photos!” I guarantee you that most photographers would willingly pay. Those who did not would have earned their scolding from a clerk. The store could hand out little stamped Post-Its that photographers could temporarily stick to their cameras, which would immediately mark them as paid customers rather than freeloading tourists.

And the bookstore would make a boatload of money.

There was one other photo that I really, really wanted to take — not of the store, but of the most perfect juxtaposition of books. On one shelf were titles including the Kama Sutra and half a dozen sex advice books, and right next to them were titles like How to Breastfeed Your Baby and Your First Child. When I pointed this out to my wife, she said (as only a practical Portuguese can), “Well, one leads to the other.”

So of course they should be on the same shelf.

I went to a clerk and asked “Podia tirar uma fotografia dos livros ali?” He shook his head. “Apenas os livros? (Just the books?)” I pleaded, but he said it wasn’t allowed. When I said okay, he smiled tiredly and thanked me for understanding. Well, I understood his position. But I don’t understand the shortsightedness of the bookstore management.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in Portugal, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Porto’s most famous bookstore

  1. restlessjo says:

    Ok, I’m warned! It’s on my list of must-sees too and I shall probably pretend I haven’t seen the “don’t” for as long as I can get away with it. Yours is a good idea though- have you tried emailing the store with it as a suggestion?

  2. Lisa Shaw says:

    Yes, for heaven’s sake, write them a letter and make your proposal! And include a link to this post. 😉

  3. Paulo says:

    Lello became too famous for its own good.
    I remember that in the 80s it was almost forgotten and was very close to just disappearing. In the 90s there was an effort to recover it (it was quite degraded, both inside and outside), and subsequent fame started bringing hordes of sight-seeing tourists in the last decade.
    The fact of the matter is that it became very uncomfortable and even awkward to go there to actually buy books. It’s no Powell’s and the space, as you saw, is very limited.
    Every time I took foreign visitors there, and we walked around for a while, I always made a point of buying a book.
    But that’s not the case with all the tourists that go there, evidently, and understandably, because most of the books are in Portuguese. It’s a tough situation – on the one hand the store is a landmark, on the other it still needs to have the conditions to be a viable business.

    My point is: there is a reason why in recent years they decided to forbid photographs. It was at a time when you couldn’t believe the number of people going in and out of the store, walking around and taking photos, disturbing business, loudly speaking, discouraging actual customers from going there.

    That said, your idea is brilliant. I would probably go a bit up from 2 euros, though. Folks carrying three or four thousand bucks of equipment will shell out more than that 🙂

    • oregon expat says:

      Thank you for this bit of history, Paulo. I’m certainly glad the bookstore (and building) was saved!

      Regarding purchasing something while there — we did exactly that, walking out with a new road map of Portugal to replace our outdated one (which is missing a few autoestradas). That’s what got me thinking about how the bookstore could perhaps treat paying customers differently than mere tourists.

  4. Inge says:

    What might be happening:
    1/ Since i can not find when it’ build.. the architect has the rights to its looks up until 70 years after his death. So maybe they have to sell the photos so his family gets some of it.
    2/ Or consider this (and just so you know, i don’t agree with this reasoning, but i’m not an employer either) a photo-booklet gets registered and thus when one is sold the money has to end up in the hands of the employer since the booklet is gone. If it’s paid for the right of taking photos, how can the employer check how much money he should be getting? What if some of it disappears in the hands of the employee?

    Still I’m all for your suggestion: write him. It could be the architect is long dead and it’s the owner who stands inside the shop or he trusts his employees. 🙂

  5. Ana_ñ says:

    Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!

    Although I respect your opinion about not allowing photos, the reason you give is not the only possible explanation. As a bookshop lover, I like to take my time to select the books I’m going to buy and the particular atmosphere of each place. If I’m client, I wouldn’t like to be photographed or bothered by constant flashes. I think that could turn this unique, marvelous place in mere tourist trap, no longer a genuine bookshop.

    I remember that I saw a 360-degree view of the Livraria Lello in an article of The Guardian about The world’s 10 best bookshops.

  6. oregon expat says:

    The consensus is in! Sounds like I’d better write a letter to the management and at least offer an alternative.

    And speaking as a photographer, anyone who is “disturbing business, loudly speaking” as Paulo describes, or annoying real customers with “constant flashes” as Ana_ñ postulates, is not a photographer. Those are tourists with cameras, and there is a difference. I never used my flash inside that shop (nor have I ever used it inside a church, cathedral, library, etc) because I know how to take photos without one — not to mention that flashes tend to ruin most photos with their too-bright and too-white light. Nothing would have destroyed the rich, warm color inside that shop faster than a flash. And my camera is small and unobtrusive, enabling me to take photos without most people even noticing…with the exception of ceiling shots, in which case I have to hold the camera over my head.

    But how to separate real photographers from tourists who don’t know how to use their cameras and don’t care about their comportment — that’s a challenge. I keep thinking that the best way to do it, other than the outright ban currently in place, is to introduce a fee. As a wise businesswoman told me once, “People care more about things when they’ve paid for them.”

  7. xenatuba says:

    Thanks for breaking the rules, and some really good ideas there about how to have your photo (cake) and take (eat) it too, for the bookstore!

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