The most beautiful bookstore in the world

On the first evening during the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Porto, participants were invited to visit Livraria Lello (1906), “The most beautiful bookstore in the world.”

Right away, I became suspicious. Sophia Loren was the most beautiful woman in the world. And George Hamilton the most beautiful man. Everyone knows that. But a bookstore?

I set off a couple of days later to find out for myself if Lellos is indeed “The most beautiful bookstore in the world.”

I was crestfallen when I saw the queue to get in. But there’s more. You have to buy a €5 ticket to enter, and this means standing in yet another queue. Then you discover (because no one told you before you bought your ticket) that your backpack is verboten. So you’re obliged to lurk in front of two dozen lockers, all taken, for the privilege of fighting another tourist when one becomes available (and, not incidentally, pay another euro for the locker).

I’m standing on the street, having observed all this. Characteristically, I vacillate. I hate waiting for anything. I don’t do it on principle. But what if I missed “The most beautiful bookstore in the world?” Would the regret haunt me forever? I’m on my deathbed:

“Any regrets, papou?”

“Only one,” I gasp, with failing breath. “I stood at the gates of Lellos, ‘The most beautiful bookstore in the world’ and…”

A fit of coughing prevents me from continuing. My grandchildren, bless them, wait patiently. They moisten my lips with a cloth, and out come my dying words.

“…but I did not enter. I was too lazy.”

Expiring, my hand releases the snow globe I have been clutching, which falls to the floor, rolls across the room and shatters against the wall, revealing…

I paid my money and waited in both lines.

The interior is indeed beautiful. Except that you can’t see more than a sliver at a time because a large Dutch family surrounds you, cutting off your view and your oxygen. The crowd moves, you move with it. You catch a glimpse of something on someone’s phone screen. Beautiful. You line up to pay for a book. You hand over more money.

You’re outside, gulping air. There’s a book in your hand. It’s Dunbar, Edward St Aubyn’s latest, which you actually want to read. St Aubyn wrote the devastating Patrick Melrose novels, and Benedict Cumberbatch recently played Patrick Melrose in the TV adaptation. Role of a lifetime. The most beautiful performance in the world.

Livraria Lello is a money machine. You pay €5 to get in, which you can use toward the purchase of a book. So product flies off the shelf. J.K. Rowling taught English in Porto in the early 1990s, so they’ve managed to yoke her in as well. The connection is tenuous, at best. She probably visited. Must have liked it. Maybe inspired her description of Hogwarts Library. And who is going to deny any of this?
When we went on our port wine tour, we saw many barrels. All made from Portuguese oak.
Later, walking back, I saw a cooper’s truck laden with barrel hoops.
A lady tends her wares. Hundreds of cans of dainty foods, mostly sardines.
People work hard here, and are always smiling.
Working hard
This gentleman, too, is working hard.

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