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Hello! From Portugal! Or as they say, Ola! But really, as they say to me, no matter what kind of effort I put in to learn the local greeting, Hello, American!

Today I am in Porto, where there is an amazing, old, beautiful bookstore called Livaria Lello. It is famous for its age (over a century old!), its beauty (can confirm), and that J.K. Rowling used to visit the bookstore and wrote pieces of Harry Potter there, while, presumably, monitoring that patrons went into the bathrooms that corresponded to their birth genitals. She served as the store’s gender discriminatory sorting hat. There are no plaques about this, so I am merely assuming.

Whether or not you can separate the art from the artist, the bookstore is gorgeous and it absolutely looks like the kind of library that would exist at Hogwarts.

Here, see for yourself.

This bookstore, Livraria Lello, is unabashedly amazing.

It’s so popular that you must buy tickets in advance. At five euros a pop, and lines up and down the street, it almost doesn’t matter if they even sell books. In the Bezos era, seeing a brick and mortar bookstore thrive like this is chicken soup for whatever is left of the anti-capitalist’s soul. I would tell a book or bookstore lover that Livaria Lello is a must see on any visit to Porto.

Now it’s not ALL good. We already went over the Rowling part, but there are some other hog-warts on Livaria Lello. Remember how I said it has lines up and down the street? Well those people eventually get in and every single one of them has a smartphone and a desire to take at least 50 pictures inside the store, mostly of themselves.

The thing about century-old bookstores (at least the one I met), is that they are inadvertently designed for the Instagram era but not advertently designed for photo shoots. The aisles are narrow and the centerpiece of the store—the staircase—would not pass a modern day fire code. But that doesn’t stop 99 percent of the patrons from stopping in the middle of it and having someone take their picture, which makes the entire store move like airport traffic. It’s a beautiful nightmare.

But! The bookstore also sells a lot of books, which rules.

They offer books mostly in Portuguese (duh), but also English, Spanish, French, and a few other languages. A popular product is the Livaria Lello editions they offer of many world classic books, giving them a new thematic, souvenir-y cover art. The lines to buy books are almost as long as the lines to get selfies, and even though you should never judge a classic book by its modern cover, the buzz in the shop is intoxicating. So much so, that I started thinking about which book I would bring home to add to my bookshelf.

Remember, the store is two floors and about the size of a Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble, so they don’t have everything. Like I said, a bunch of the all-timers, a few modern best-sellers, and every Harry Potter in all of their editions. They even sell different versions of the first book which identify both as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone AND Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

As someone who hasn’t read many classics since high school, and if we’re being really honest, hasn’t read many of the classics’ SparkNotes since high school, I knew I could eliminate most options. I tried to think of some of the remaining titles, and my brain quickly attached to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book I read a couple years ago and loved, and which does not exist on my bookshelf. It was a perfect match.

Maybe you remember me mentioning the hullabaloo that lives inside Livaria Lello.

Well, suffice it to say that the droves of patrons searching for the perfect photo angle and lighting makes searching for a title a near impossibility. So I asked an employee if they had Catch-22 anywhere and if he could direct me to it. The man talked into his earpiece and told me he would go and grab it for me, before I could even thank him, using the only other Portuguese word I had practiced, OBRIGADO! The man vanished, like all of J.K. Rowling’s honor.

The only problem was that he didn’t know that he was dealing with a world-class idiot.

And if he had given me time to thank him, OBRIGADO!, he would have heard the second part of my request: That I wanted a copy of the book in Portuguese. Because what is more idiotic and more Catch-22-esque than a copy of one of my favorite books, that I absolutely could not read.

To me, it is the perfect ironic joke tone. I mean, imagine coming over to my house and looking at my bookshelf and stumbling across Catch-22, but it’s in Portuguese. It’s hilarious! And the perfect level of acceptable, efforted irony. It’s enough of a generalist literature joke that it would make sense even if you haven’t read it. And if I explain, “Well, I was at a beautiful Portuguese bookstore and wanted to buy one of my favorite classic books, and that’s why I have this,” it almost makes sense! If nothing else, it would be a great conversation piece, an intellectually stupid person’s easter egg, tucked away on my shelf. Like if Nathan Fielder was on Room Raiders.

Anyways, the man returned and handed over the book, in English, at which point I asked him the other part of my request. He seemed appropriately disappointed and confused in his unnecessary effort and my idiotic brain, respectively. He radioed back up to his colleague who told him they didn’t have it in Portuguese, only English. As I handed the English book back, (because why would I want a book I could actually read?) his disappointment and confusion grew three sizes that day.

So this is a story, now, of how I went to a bookstore and spent 30 minutes and didn’t get a book, but did leave with a story. And a selfie.

Josh Bard

Josh Bard is a guy. A sports guy, an ideas guy, a wise guy, a funny guy, a Boston guy, and sometimes THAT guy. Never been a Guy Fieri guy, though.

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