Lello e Irmao, the World's Third Best Bookstore
Decus in Labore is beautifully crafted in the Art Deco stained glass ceiling at the Lello e Irmao bookstore in Porto, a mid size town north of Portugal. It translates as "Honor in Work", which I'm not sure I agree with, but I certainly think there is honor in maintaining this wonderful bookstore in working order since 1881, in spite of it having become a tourist circus, hordes of folks traipsing around the beautiful space, camera in hand, without the smallest regard for the amazing surroundings, worried only about capturing a snapshot of the ineffable grandeur.
But who am I to complain, when I'm just another in the pile of hedonistic tourists that dropped in to experience the joys of the third best bookstore in the word, according to The Guardian.
An achieved quest
This visit to Lello e Irmao in Porto completes my quest to visit the three best bookstores in the world in the span of a calendar year. I'm so happy to have visited this exquisite establishment, this old-fashioned bookstore, after having been to the grandiose El Ateneo Grand Spendid in Buenos Aires, and the spectacular Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich. Lello e Irmao reminded me a bit of Posada, the best bookstore for art books and number 7 in The Guardian's list, this is genuinely a bookstore, was born as such and has been open for business during 128 years. Unlike Posada, however, there is nothing humble about the building that hosts it.
Just a tad of history
From the three top bookstores in the world, this one is definitely the most genuine. It was born as a bookstore and has remained one during its 128 years of history. Its one meaningful change, which over the years would bring it fame, thousands of visits a year and an equally impressive number of entries in the Internet, was to move, in 1906, to the building featured in the photos. Lello e Irmao's current location is 103 years old and, while this number isn't overly impressive in Europe, where buildings in current use and in fair to good condition date back centuries, it is still quite a feat for a business, books, that nowadays struggles to survive the unstoppable challenge of the electronic era.
A sour and sweet impression
While I'm ecstatic with the visit and the wonders of Lello e Irmao, I had a bout of guilt with what felt like an invasion. I visited the bookstore three times during my long weekend in Porto, once at night and twice during business hours. At night, the romance of the building, the great lightning of the exterior, took my breath away and made me all dreamy.
In broad daylight and during business hours, the first time I set foot in the bookstore I was shocked by the behavior of some of my "peer visitors". Some behaved like the space was akin to Disney World, speaking loudly, tsking obnoxiously for other visitors to move the hell out of the way of their planned photos, taking center stage in the staircase and posing for photos a la grand divas, effectively stopping traffic from other visitors that were just watching and enjoying the scenery.
That first visit was quite depressing, and I barely took any photos, I couldn't bring myself to stoop down to the same level with most of the tourists that were violating the space at the time. I left the bookstore really sad, and pondered about the democratization of tourism during all afternoon. Yes, snobbish of me, but I'm of the opinion that there is a limit to everything, and some people just don't ever see it and will stop at nothing for a photo, for their 15 minutes of fame.
The second visit
I couldn't bear to leave Porto (never to return, as the song goes) with that bad taste in my mouth. So my cohort and I decided that lunch hour was probably a good time for a new visit. We smartly deduced that sheep tourists would be doing their sheep lunch duty at that time, hence we agreed to stop by around 1pm.
I'm so glad! The second visit made out trip worthwhile, as well as restoring our faith in the decent travelers of the world! This visit was what I'd had in mind all along: People browsing around, snapping some photos, unobtrusively and definitely avoiding any impolite elbowing to other visitors, people ohhing and ahhing at the architecture, the ancient bookcases, the crafted wood ceiling, the staircase the likes of which are unseen the world over.
This was an exquisite bookstore, its number 3 rating by The Guardian is absolutely well deserved. I hope the photos will tell the tale by themselves. Notice that most of the photos are taken with an upward angle. I aimed not to bother other visitors, while still capturing the beauty of the establishment.