In the fall of 2010 I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal to attend a conference on Paul Bowles. Like all international conferences I’ve attended, there was lots of time to explore the city. I am a great walker and love to lose myself in the streets of a foreign city with just a backpack, a bottle of water, and a camera. Lisbon is one of the brightest cities I’ve visited, and it’s glorious light is closer to the light one finds in North Africa than Europe. Walking through the crowded streets, dodging trams and other walkers, can be an exhilarating experience, especially when traveling alone. Without traveling companions one can stop and wander at will. There is no agenda, no other feelings and desires to take into consideration other than one’s own.
One of the things I love to do whenever traveling, especially in foreign cities, is visit bookstores. Even if I travel to a place where I do not speak the language, like Portugal, bookstores, for me, represent the best of cities. A city without a bookstore is a city without a soul. Each bookstore has its own personality, even the chains. Lisbon has some terrific bookstores, and in each of them you can find books by the literary patron saints of Portugal: Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago. On a bright and warm day in October I set out to visit as many bookstores as I could.
For the better part of the day I found myself in several used bookstores. In each of these a number of patrons could be found talking with the staff and among themselves. It seemed to me that these bookstores functioned as the intellectual heart of the city. All around me I saw numerous people engaged in conversation. Some had books in their hands, ready to make a point, while others gesticulated with frantic movements of their hands. It didn’t matter which bookstore I was in, each of them contained an animated and happy clientele.
As the afternoon light darkened into evening I came across the only bookstore of the day that had new books for sale. I remember seeing John Irving’s Last Night In Twisted River displayed in the window. I was happy to see an American author so well represented. I walked into the store and found myself in a cavernous building that seemed to have no end. The store was called Livaria Bertrand and in it I found room after room full of books, notebooks, pens, some toys, and periodicals. I spent about two hours going through the rooms. The bookshop also contains a healthy collection of books in English.
It was not until 2013 that I discovered via an article on Book Riot by Jeff O’Neal that Bertrand’s is the oldest bookstore in the world. The store began in 1732 and has been in continuous operation since. Now it’s a massive chain, but the store I visited on Rua Garrett is the oldest. At the time I considered it a lovely bookstore, but not the best I had visited in Lisbon. When I read O’Neal’s blog on Bertrand I immediately recognized the pictures that accompanied his article. I went back through my own pictures of Lisbon, and sure enough, I had been there.
I wish that I had known about the history of Livaria Bertrand at the time. Now, I feel as if I missed a great opportunity. I would have paid more attention to the building and the street. Standing in the cavernous bookstore on that October afternoon I had no idea that I was standing in the oldest bookstore in the world.