I fell in love with the world’s oldest bookshop on my second visit, late one Saturday night in Lisbon. My family were at a music festival and I was free to wander the warm cobblestoned streets strung with coloured bunting and alive with dancers, a fire swallower and a mournful fado guitarist filling the night with sounds of longing. The smell of fried fishcakes and wine was making me hungry and the restaurants so inviting with their tiny candles flickering — but I wanted to get back to the bookshop before it closed.
Trusting my vague sense of direction I followed the music and the crowds towards Rua Garrett and found the arched wooden doorway under the sign “LIVRARIA & CAFÉ” and above it, the second story façade tiled in blue and white azulejos, glittering under the streetlights.
Once inside I remembered that most of the books – however intriguing and beautifully displayed– were in other languages. Turning the unreadable pages I realized it didn’t matter – what mattered was the quiet atmostphere of thought treasured by lovers of bookshops everywhere.
First opened in 1732, Livraria Bertrand is said to be the world’s oldest bookshop.The original building was lost to the 1755 earthquake which destroyed most of Lisbon and the bookshop had to relocate more than once; through all this it’s remained a hub for Portuguese writers and intellectuals and visitors from around the globe.
You could spend weeks here, discovering the stories of these writers and thinkers. While I knew of Fernando Pessoa and Cesario Verde, many others I’d never heard of, including Alexandre Herculano and Ramalho Ortigão. Standing in the same physical space once inhabited by these great personalities seemed to cast a tiny chink of light into history and with it, that welcome and warm feeling of belonging, identity and continuity.
My hunger was growing. Remembering the café where a few days earlier I’d first tasted a Portuguese tart, I passed under arched white ceilings and carved, dark wood shelves, pausing to look at the gorgeous cover of Le Monde which featured the lower curve of Eve’s body covered by a fig leaf from some old painting and the headline “Virginité and Chasteté: histoire d’une obsession” which I’d have loved to read if my French was equal to anything much beyond ‘je ne parle pas le Francais’ !
The small English section was filled with half a dozen Pessoa anthologies including the Book of Disquiet, where the character Soares makes the wonderful claim that “Literature . . . seems to me the goal towards which all human effort should be directed.” I flicked through Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Maintains (which I recommend!) and read a poem called Old Flowers by Verde. All this lovely faffing about meant that by the time I got to the café it was no longer serving meals.
“Oh no – nothing at all?” I asked he girl behind the counter, who shrugged and said, (I think):
“Eu nao falo ingles.”
But her English must have been better than she was letting on, because she pointed to the cheese and crackers.
“Oh, yes please!”
Served on a large spoon, that creamy, chive studded scoop of cheese together with the salty crunch of toast and a hot coffee made a delicious tiny supper. I savoured these as I flicked through the café’s copy of Ferdinand Pessoa’s writings and reflected on how in bookshops, small or lost or silent parts of yourself can come alive.
About the author
Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.
Images © Sara Cabido + Julia Nance.