Monday, November 28, 2011

A visit to the world's oldest bookstore

(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)
It's called Livraria Bertrand, it's on the Rua Garrett in Lisbon, and it was founded in 1732.

It's now the flagship store of a chain, and the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 destroyed its original home, but Bertrand has been operating at its current location in the Chiado neighborhood since 1773.

The staff is helpful, the selection looked good, and books in translation are available at more affordable prices than I've seen in other cities. I bought an English translation of O Crime do Padre Amaro by the nineteenth-century Portuguese novelist Eça de Queirós, but Bertrand has not stayed in business for 279 years by shunning the latest trends (above right).

The shop came in especially handy because I've discovered that taking a Kindle on vacation sucks. The difficulty of flipping back and forth in a Kindleized guidebook is a nuisance, but the real drawback is the alienating experience. You're sipping a coffee at a miradoura on a gorgeous November day, surrounded by locals, visitors, attractive, scholarly middle-aged women (OK, there was only one), and you're pecking away at a goddamn machine? A Kindle is better than a book on paper the same way a waterfront warehouse is better than the Parthenon: It holds more stuff.

On my way from Bertrand, I saw a bookbinder at work in a storefront shop and, with his kind permission, I took a picture of him. A scene like this  makes me want to reenact the first verse of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," throwing my Kindle from a rooftop instead of a watch to cast my vote for eternity outside of time. Except, as happened to the best minds of Ginsberg's generation, Kindles would probably rain on my head for the next decade.

Finally, here's an example of an architectural style I'll call Stripped-Down Gothic thanks to the 1755 earthquake.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Anonymous kathy d. said...

Fantastic! The oldest bookstore in the world! How exciting!

Is that counting any bookstores perhaps in Greece or Italy?

Just a wonderful thing to be doing in a beautiful country.

And there is 100% agreement here on Kindle. How could you sit in a historic city having visited the oldest bookstore and use a Kindle? Impossible.

Books go back centuries, art part of the ancient library in Alexandria where scribes copied manuscripts and scrolls from everywhere that was attainable.

I haven't gotten a Kindle. Nothing competes with paper books, not even close.

November 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the Guinness Book of Records people certified Bertrand as the world's oldest, and one can't get much more trustworthy than that. Italy and Greece were unsettled, divided, and down at the heels for a long time before the nineteenth century, so it would be no surprise to me at all if few or no enterprises had survived. Of course Portugal had a long down period, too, so who knows why one store has survived so long? (I looked up "down at the heels" to see if I cold find its origin. I could not, but one source did say its first known use was in 1732, by coincidence the year Livreria Bertrand opened.)

Many cities have grown up on hills, but I know of no city that has made such sensible use of those hills as Lisbon has. These miradouras always seem to have little bars right next to them so one can sit and have a coffee or a drink while surveying the terrain. A Kindle would make a nice little tray on which to rest one's cafe com leche while doing so.

November 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

What a tremendous experience. (The bookstore--not the Kindle.)

I think the sooner these ereaders become merely tools that we take for granted and don't notice much one way or the other, the better. Kind of like TV sets

November 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or like cars. Bill James (the baseball writer, not the crime writer) said something similar when folks got all excited about baseball teams using computers. He welcomed them but wanted them banned from dugouts because he said they would dehumanize the game.

He also compared their advent to that of the automobile. At first, he said, people would talk about taking "an automobile trip." Once the novelty wore off, people would talk about a trip i terms of its function rather than its form: "a business trip," a "a trip to Cleveland," and so on.

The difference these days (or I least I imagine this to be the case, since I wasn't around when cars first got started) is the marketing presence big corporations like Amazon and Apple have in our lives and the speed and relentlessness with which those corporations can deliver their message.

I took a few pictures inside Bertrand, too. The store is laid out in a straight line of five or six rooms divided by arches. The arches are perfectly aligned and make a nice receding view seen from either end of the shop.

November 29, 2011  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Love how you weaved the Kindle into this story. Great piece!

November 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks! Circumstances forced the Kindle into my consciousness. I wonder if in some future time when current e-readers are obsolete someone will put Kindles to some decorative or functional use, such as holding tea and coffee cups.

November 29, 2011  
Blogger Chloe Greene said...

Fascinating post. I think Lisbon is a special city, a city at peace with itself. Have visited twice but did not find this bookshop. Next time I am there I will seek it out. Thank you.
And found this post via @Crimenovels on Twitter.

November 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Livreria Bertrand is near the Baixa-Chiado metro stop and the Tram 28 stop, so you've probably passed it several times. It's near Prace Camoens, so it's in a literary neighborhood.

November 29, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

In case you come across Antonio Tabucchi's The Missing Head of Domenescu Mateiro, set in Portugal, please let us know.

November 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should look for it here. I happened to be in Livreria Bertrand's neighborhood for dinner this evening, but I did not go in. But I'll be here for a while yet. Thanks for reminding me.

November 29, 2011  

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