Sarlat stole my heart. There's something about this little medieval…
You’d almost expect to bump into Harry Potter himself at this book shop in Porto, Portugal. Or that the exquisite red staircase might move.
That’s the magic of Livraria Lello, the book shop that’s said to have inspired J.K. Rowling when she was writing the first book in the Harry Potter series.
It’s easy to see why. This fantastical book shop is usually ranked at or near the top of lists of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
For a book geek like me, it’s a magical world of words – – one where you could grab a book and a butterbeer and while away the hours.
Inspiration for Hogwarts
J.K. Rowling taught English in Porto from 1991 to 1993. During this time she developed her ideas for the entire seven-book Harry Potter series, and got a start on the first one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in certain markets).
Rowling was a regular customer at Lello. As soon as you walk in the door, and before you can say “Voldemort” (he who must not be named), you’ll notice a resemblance between the shop’s undulating crimson staircase and the Grand Staircase at the Hogwarts school of wizardry. Others say it reminds them of Flourish and Blotts, where young sorcerers buy their magic manuals.
It’s believed that Rowling was influenced by other aspects of life in Portugal. The Hogwarts’ uniform may have been inspired by the black suits and cloaks worn by students at nearby Porto University. At the University of Coimbra, south of Porto, the students sport Potteresque black capes. And Rowling has admitted that bad guy, Salazar Syltherin, got his name from Portugal’s former dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar.
Once upon a time
The Lello Bookstore was quite a sensation when it opened in Porto in 1906.
It was the brainchild of the two Lello brothers. José, man of letters and a lover of literature, books and music dreamt of becoming a book seller. He and his brother António became part of the intellectual elite in Porto and, after a few years, opened the ornate shop. The Porto book shop was intended to be a temple of letters and the arts, Marketing and Communications Director Manuel de Sousa told me. “It was like a church, feeding the soul.”
The building looks narrow from the outside, its neo-gothic facade adorned by two figures representing art and science.
Inside, it’s a fantastical world of books and remarkable architecture (like something out of a novel), dominated by the marvelous staircase. The intricate ceiling design is deceiving. It looks like it’s made of carved wood, but de Sousa told me that it’s painted plaster. The huge stained-glass skylight bears the latin insignia, “decus in Labore” or “dignity in work”, the motto of the company created by the Lello brothers.
The motto has been handed down over the ages, and the bookshop is still 49 per cent owned by the Lello family.
In later years, the bookstore experienced several decades of disrepair, but in 1995, a massive wizardry project returned it to its former glory. It takes a lot to maintain the store’s magic, including a paint job on those famous stairs every year.
Over one million people visit the shop each year. The numbers got a boost in 2004 when a larger airport was opened in Porto and, of course, with the popularity of the Harry Potter phenomenon.
But the crowds of people also created some issues for an independent book shop that receives no government tourism subsidies. “The store would be packed, but we weren’t selling any books,” said de Sousa.
To manage the stream of tourists, the shop started charging an entrance fee (5.50 Euros online), which is redeemable against the purchase of a book. That’s helped to make the crowds more manageable and it’s resulted in a rebound in book sales.
The Magic of Reading
On UNESCO World Book Day this year, Livraria Lello invited ten of the other book stores that regularly make the “world’s most beautiful” lists to talk about ways to promote reading and independent book sellers.
It’s a goal that touches my heart and I was honoured to be in the company of people dedicated to the noble pursuit of sharing the imagination in print.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
-J.K. Rowling , Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows