The beautiful Livraria Lello in Porto has been selling books for 116 years. As the bookstore continues its mission of sharing knowledge across borders, Rory Sachs find out why it’s busier than ever
On a mild, sunny winter morning, the people of Porto gather for a birthday party. There’s cake and a toast, but instead of celebrating one person, we’re here to cheer and raise our glasses to a bookstore. As CNN TV crews confirm, Livraria Lello, celebrating its 116th anniversary, is no ordinary bookstore. It might even be the most beautiful bookstore in the world, with its neo-Gothic exterior, Art Deco flourishes, striking red staircase, and stunning stained-glass skylight that inscribes the store’s motto, “Decus in Labore” (Honor in Labor). is.
However, there is one notable absence from the party. Livraria Lello CEO Aurora Pinto is at Expo Dubai promoting the importance of knowledge sharing across borders. Beamed in from the United Arab Emirates via a giant LCD screen at the store’s entrance, she explains that two of Portugal’s most important literary works – The Lusiad and Message – have been translated into Arabic for the first time to mark the anniversary. “Bringing this to 275 million speakers of a new language… that’s very important to us,” Pinto tells Spear’s. “We are part of this global community.”
Her words align with the mission of the Lello brothers, who began promoting liberal thinking and knowledge sharing after founding the business in 1906. The duo, who assembled an extensive collection of literature and encased it in a grand temple of arts and sciences, were early supporters of Portuguese republicanism.
“The bookstore is sort of a stage for liberal thinking…they were republicans in the days of the monarchy,” says Hugo Cardoso, creative director of Livraria Lello. “The Republic began in Porto.”
Today, after Pinto’s speech, visitors flock in to browse the 60,000 books on display. On the shelves are sonnets by Shakespeare, tomes by Foucault and classics by Dickens and Austen. Watching over them are two painted, angelic murals depicting the dichotomy between art and science.
Some of the canonical texts have been given a Livraria Lello spin – reissued as beautiful pint-sized paperbacks with gilt edges, red ribbons and ornate covers. The shop has reissued around 30 titles with international appeal – including Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Antoine de Saint-Exupérys The little Prince – and are available in four languages. For tourists, these offer a “little luxury item…it’s the perfect travel-size book,” says Cardoso.
Equally luxurious are the large picture books for some of Lello’s smallest customers. To underline the importance of regular reading, free storytelling sessions are held regularly. Children sit in a room resembling an enchanted forest and listen to readings by Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz.
In 2015, Livraria Lello reacted to the high number of visitors by introducing a voucher system. Visitors now have to pay €5 to enter the store, but they can redeem this for the price of a purchase. “We’re not trying to sell a visit,” says Suzanna Mamo, one of the store’s booksellers. “They try to tell people to buy books.”
In a way, it’s a moral mission — the initiative encourages reading, provides a form of crowd control when hordes of tourists clamor to enter, helps fund expensive maintenance of the historic architecture, and subsidizes the store’s range of cultural activities that stay free for locals.
It’s having an effect: in 2015, around 10 percent of customers would buy books; since the introduction of vouchers, more than half have done so.
The program helped Livraria Lello on its way to selling more than 700,000 books in 2019. Behind the beauty, her business model has demonstrated what bookstores can and should be in the modern world.
“Nothing would make us happier than being an inspiration to other bookstores,” says Cardoso. “For us it is a question of community. People with the same vision, same values as us, who are really trying to get people to read.’
If the Lello brothers could hear that today, I’m sure they’d be proud.