Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling is the George Washington of our times. It has nothing to do with politics or military strategy. Rather, it has everything to do with the tourism industry that has sprouted up around every place that Washington slept and now is burgeoning with every place Rowling got inspiration or wrote or where parts of the iconic films were shot.
So here we are in Porto, and Declan’s dragging us off to the Livraria Lello, a century-old bookshop that inspired the winding (and moving) staircases at Hogwarts as well as the general feel of the place, with its heavy mouldings, intricate woodwork and colorful stained glass ceiling.
I knew nothing about Rowling’s connections to Porto, but she taught English as a foreign language in the city for several years, marrying a Portuguese man with whom she had a daughter. From there, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the first three chapters of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in her suitcase, but more about that later.
Going with the flow
As the success of the books and then films turned Potter into an international phenomenon, any place identified with Rowling also became popular. Apparently, the staff at Livraria Lello formerly were fierce about prohibiting photo-taking by tourists. “Hey, we’re here to run a business,” was the general tone of the staff quoted on some older travel websites I consulted.
But today they embrace the tourists, the red paint in the centers of the stair treads chipped off through constant use, a couple stopping traffic on the stairs so they can take a selfie without others in the shot. Of course, that couple, the three in my family and everyone else in the bookshop paid four euros for the privilege of visiting the business.
The door attendant (I’m not making that up) directs tourists to the corner shop to buy vouchers, then scans them at the door before allowing admittance. I overhead him say (in English, thankfully) that 5,000 people visit the store each day during high season. That’s an awful lot of golden galleons, silver sickles and bronze knuts. You can use the voucher toward books, but we already are hauling more of those back than we intended, the result of hanging out with so many Northern Irish authors. And a large majority of the ones at this bookstore, naturally, are in Portuguese.
There may not have been 5,000 in Livraria Lello when we visited, but it certainly felt that way.
‘Thinking fondly of Emma Watson’
Several years ago, during a fall book tour to support Marilynn’s biography of Stewart Parker, we met a friend of Stewart’s at The Elephant House, an Edinburgh coffeeshop where Rowling wrote while her daughter slept. As I recall, the place was rocking with tourists on a dreary Scotland November afternoon.
The main evidence of the popularity of the place wasn’t in faded stair treads, but in the toilets. Every square inch of the men’s room was filled with graffiti about the books, from the sweet to the profane and about every sentiment in between. I know from Marilynn that the women’s room was the same way.
My favorite graffito was one that said, “Thinking fondly of Emma Watson.” I have a picture of it (yes, I took photos in the toilet), but it’s locked somewhere in the cloud that’s a pain to access remotely.
So you’ll have to take my word for it.