This post is not about my writing – which is fairly dormant at the moment, as I take a little rest and concentrate on the day job – but it is bookish in tone. Last week I had a few days at leisure in Porto, in Portugal, and one of the prime tourist sites there is a bookshop. It’s called Livraria Lello, founded in 1869 in the university district of town, and one of the oldest bookshops in the country. Its current home – a magnificent and quirky pale building of turrets and curlicues – was opened in 1906. But for tourists other than book-lovers and students of architecture, the attraction is that it is rumoured to be the inspiration for a bookshop in the Harry Potter books (Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley, apparently – I have not read any Potter…). Some people even claim that JK wrote the first book in the shop, which is unlikely as there’s barely room to sit down – a café seems a more likely location, and anyway, according to her own website, Porto was only the start of things: “Taking her notes with her, she moved to northern Portugal to teach English as a foreign language, married Jorge Arantes in 1992 and had a daughter, Jessica, in 1993. When the marriage ended later that year, she returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh, with Jessica and a suitcase containing the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
Regardless of the truth of the matter, Lello is now a tourist attraction of such magnitude that in order to get in you have to go to the ticket office two doors down, pay €5 for a ticket (redeemable on purchase of a book) and then queue up to get into the shop itself. Now I’m not against this process: if you’re running a small shop that attracts five thousand visitors a day, most of whom would simply gawp and not buy a thing, what else are you to do? And it is certainly a gorgeous place – here is the façade:
And this is the wonderful staircase:
And the stained glass ceiling:
What I did find disappointing is that it is such a rubbish bookshop: it’s all style and no substance. There is a bored-looking chap dressed as Harry Potter posing for photos, and a whole backroom given over to HP books and merchandise. Although visitor numbers are controlled, they are not controlled enough, and as I tried to browse the shelves – you know, to actually buy a book – I was bumped and jostled and even asked to move because my bright yellow coat would “ruin our photo”. I asked one member of staff if they could help with a question about stock and they said no, “because I’m looking out for shoplifting”. And when someone did say they could help me, it was to confirm that they had no books on writing, or on literary criticism – and this in a bookshop right next to the university. So here we have a bookshop that is now functioning only as an attraction, with nothing of substance in it – a gorgeous cover with no pages inside. The Lello brothers – prominent members of Porto’s intellectual bourgeoisie in the late Victorian period – must be turning in their graves.