It’s Thanksgiving Day across the Atlantic in Massachusetts, where I live. There, among my American family and friends, it’s a quiet, contemplative day, but here in the Chiado, the heart of downtown Lisbon and the city’s oldest shopping district, everything is bustling, as if the Portuguese are scurrying to get a one-day head start on Black Friday. It’s a raw, drizzly day, a sign of winter’s approach, and the cobbled sidewalks are slippery. I’ve walked these hilly streets for 35-plus years, often darting from one bookstore to the next—new, used, rare—flipping through the pages of everything from current bestsellers, to obscure dime-store colonial-era comics, to rare folios of brightly-colored, highly inaccurate antique maps. That’s what I’m doing today, I’m book shopping.
I was born in Lisbon in the early 1960s—with a book in my hand, as my mother likes to say. My mother also likes to say that I was predestined to be born here. After many hours of labor at home in our small town north of the capital, she was finally rushed to the nearest hospital, only to be sent to a bigger hospital in the nearest city, only to be sent away again, this time all the way to the capital. I was such a difficult birth that I wasn’t expected to survive. I didn’t go to Lisbon much as a child, but despite our relative small-town isolation (in a very different Portugal from today, in those days of the dictatorship) and immigration to the U.S. in the 1970s, I’ve remained fiercely entangled with the city of my birth: I’ve loved it here, I’ve hated it here, I’ve lived here, I’ve moved away, I’ve tried to return, I’ve vowed never to do so again. I’ve been loyal and generous to it, but also treacherous and spiteful, depending on my mood. No matter how I’m feeling, though, I keep coming back for visits, especially to the bookstores, to which I remain faithful despite my turbulent emotions about the city itself.
Today, I start my book shopping at Livraria Bertrand, as usual—my favorite—which opened its doors to the public in 1732 and is, according to Guinness World Records, the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world: 282 years. It’s the grande dame of Lisbon bookstores. For almost three centuries, it has been the epicenter of the city’s literary scene, a gathering place for the intelligentsia—writers, artists, politicians, and, according to legend, even kings—a home for both monarchists and republicans, conservatives and revolutionaries, the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Itstertúlias (salons) are legendary, the stuff of literary history, as are its scandals. (One of its first employees turned politician committed suicide in the store.)
I start at Bertrand out of habit and because its cavernous series of rooms proffer a dazzling range and depth of offerings, everything from romance bestsellers to esoteric philosophical treatises and magazines. The rooms are all lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, but their ampleness also allows for tables, many tables, where book covers are easily scanned and the books themselves easily skimmed.
Right now I’m on a mission, though, looking for a specific book: 1755: O Terramoto de Lisboa/The Lisbon Earthquake, a bilingual edition of primary and secondary documents on the epic earthquake that shook the city, fully illustrated with contemporaneous images of the damage and the suffering. I don’t need another book on the earthquake, but I’m fixated on the subject, believing that it may explain essential aspects of the Portuguese national character, my own personality—especially the all-consuming fear that a great disaster can happen any time—and my unpredictable feelings about Lisbon. In neuroscience, this idea that responses to powerful environmental events can write themselves into individuals’ genetic codes and be passed on to future generations is called “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.” A recent study on mice published in Nature Neuroscience provides compelling evidence that memories can be genetically passed down between generations, but I’ve believed in the idea long before the data.
The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was a defining moment in both Portuguese and European history with many repercussions. It happened with little warning on November 1, All Saints’ Day. Starting at 9:30 a.m., it came in three jolts, lasted about ten minutes, and is now estimated to have had a magnitude of 9. The scale of destruction was unprecedented and terrifying, with fissures 15 feet wide opening up in the city center. A half hour later, three tsunami waves swept the city, drowning those who’d sought refuge from the shaking earth on boats in the harbor. Fires then broke out and raged for five days, the narrow streets too littered with rubble to allow fire brigades to put them out. What was left of downtown burned to the ground.
The more I think about the earthquake (and, inevitably, the massive fire in the Chiado in 1988 that destroyed or damaged over a dozen buildings), the more anxious today’s frenetic bustling seems to me, as if whatever Lisboetas planned to do today has to be done immediately, with great urgency, before these stores, these streets go up in flames or sink into a fissure. Before the earthquake, Lisbon had been one of the most beautiful and most populated cities in Europe, with a still-striking Moorish influence and grand examples of Manueline architecture, a distinctively Portuguese style of 16th-century, late-Gothic architecture. The earthquake, its aftermath, and the subsequent razing of the downtown to rebuild the city along a modern, spacious geometric grid destroyed 85% of the city’s buildings, including palaces, libraries, the great royal hospital, and the newly built opera house. Reconstruction began almost immediately, however, and in the early 1770s, Bertrand, the very bookstore where I’m standing, installed itself in this corner building on Rua Garrett, one of the recently built 18th-century streets, as part of a fancy new shopping district. As I consider the aftermath of the earthquake, the destruction it’s caused, I become even more determined to find my book.
Given Bertrand’s age, pedigree, and central place in Portuguese literary culture, one might rightly expect the clerks to have impeccable manners. Alas, that’s often not the case. I’m hardly done with my question, and I can already tell that the clerk has decided I’m not worthy of her time. As a rule, if a clerk likes you, he or she will spend an embarrassing, sometimes annoying, amount of time with you, leading you not only to the book you want but also, whether you like it or not, to any other books he or she thinks might interest you. Today’s clerk doesn’t like me, though, and swiftly directs me to her colleague in Room 3, who apparently doesn’t like me either. I don’t find the book I’m looking for and no one has the patience to tell me whether it’s simply sold out or out of print. Rather than feeling offended or frustrated, however, today I’m unexpectedly and affectionately struck by the enduring character of the Portuguese bookstore clerks.
In the mid-1980s, Portugal joined the European Union, a development that gave rise to shopping mall bookstores, foreign-owned chain stores, and strategically selected stock. Before such modernization, however, Lisbon bookstores were not unlike secular churches, culturally revered spaces with neatly maintained shelves of highly idiosyncratic, often useless books, many of which had been on the shelves so long their pages had turned yellow. Every store was well stocked with the same works by popular Portuguese greats, mostly men, often those read in school. New works were proudly displayed on a table in the middle of the room near the entrance and by the cash register. The atmosphere was one of gravitas.
Surly clerks ruled these places, and they’d be happy to sell you what they had but made no excuses for their collection. If they didn’t have a book, it was simplyesgotado, out of print. There was never any question of ordering a book, or trying to find a book for a lowly customer. The book was either in the store or it didn’t exist. Yet when an elderly professor or recognizable public intellectual came into the store, the clerks would suddenly come to life, all smiles, and transform themselves into embarrassingly sycophantic chatty magpies. I tried to stay out of their way.
Despite whatever fondness I may be feeling for the Portuguese bookstore clerks today, I still feel slighted at Bertrand and decide to mosey down to FNAC—the French media giant—to continue searching and browse unfettered. I find my book quickly but then find myself stalled at the check out line, which is both long and slow—Portuguese slow. A peek down the line reveals the problem, another common scene in a Portuguese bookstore: the cashier/expert is issuing opinions on the pile of books someone’s already decided to buy and then, one by one, lest the buyer walk away with too many, painstakingly doling out gift bags of different sizes for each of the books. No one-size-fits-all here, no take-a-bunch, not even at FNAC. (The concession at FNAC is the gift bag. At Bertrand, I’d have to wait for the cashier to lovingly wrap each book and artistically cap her creation with a hand swished curlicue bow.) Surprisingly, I remain calm and untroubled.
With some time to kill now, I decide to walk back up to Bertrand and browse the art books. Perhaps because I’ve run up the hill in the rain over slippery cobblestones and am slightly out of breath, I see the place afresh. Bertrand really is a beautiful bookstore (very unlike FNAC’s boxy space) consisting of six rooms with vaulted ceilings connected by short vaulted hallways. The walls are sturdy, with extensive swaths of exposed stone, massive blocks rising up from the foundation. (The Lisbon earthquake gave rise to the study of seismology and earthquake-proof architecture.) Most rooms have imposing stone fireplaces that have been pleasingly refurbished into display cases with brightly-lit shelving.
The first room is the finest of them all with long tables, floor to ceiling shelving, and sturdy counters burnished brightly by wax and use. It’s devoted to essays, Portuguese literature, poetry, new fiction, and new translations of works from the globe over: the American Stephen King sits alongside the Portuguese author Luis Miguel Rocha, the Brit David Lodge snuggles with the Argentine Leopoldo Brizuela. The icons of Portuguese literature, many of them former habitués of the store, are prominently and perpetually displayed. Sometimes, surprisingly, there are new takes on these old standards. Browsing the shelves, I’m struck by the poet Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published tourist guide to Lisbon, What the Tourist Should See, written in English, probably in 1925, and found uncharacteristically typed and ready for publication among his many messy papers.
I can’t help but pause. I read. I copy down on a piece of paper:
For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon from afar rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mess of the houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region.
A little over the top, but I’m hooked. I skim for references to the earthquake and see only one, made in passing. I look for references to the bookstore where I’m standing and don’t see any. Pessoa doesn’t explain, as far as I can see, why all the buildings date to the late 18th century and after.
He does take us on a “car trip” around Lisbon, though, recommending museums, churches, gardens, squares, belvederes, and the like. As we drive around in “our car,” he tells us about library hours, and which places have regular hours, and which are under repair, and which can only be visited “if due authority” or “due permission” is requested. He tells us how much the opera house’s construction cost in contos, the Portuguese currency of the time, and British pounds. He doesn’t tell us about himself, though, about Brasileira, the coffee shop across from Bertrand where he took his coffee with his modernist cronies, or Martinho da Arcada down by the river where he drank and wrote, or that he lived across from the opera house, just a few minutes’ walk from Bertrand, or about Bertrand itself, where he bought books. Still, his love of the city and his pride in it are palpable in his writing and infectious to me, and I want to embrace Lisbon too, regretting I don’t have more time on this trip. I make a soft commitment to return with more time, to look again anew.
I spend a blissful rainy afternoon lost in time and thought, and it’s only later at the station waiting for my train back to my parents’ house an hour away that I recall the one-sided telephone conversation I overheard leaving Bertrand: the clerk sternly explaining to a customer that it would take at least a week to send a book from the flagship store to an affiliate not even twenty miles away. Satiated from an afternoon of browsing and tired from carrying a heavy load of books, I smile, because I’m happy, happy to have spent the day in the city of my birth among my people, whose proclivities persist despite their greater cosmopolitanism.
I enjoy the feeling while it lasts.
Julio Alves lives and works in Western Massachusetts. He shares his home with his two grown sons, who promise to move out soon. He writes occasionally when he has time, the spirit moves him, and he has something to say.
Photos by author.