Celebrating a Downtown Institution

Show the staff of Mál og menning some love...
Words by Catharine Fulton
If you are literate and have walked the length of Laugavegur it is likely that you have ventured into Bókabúð Mál og Menning. With tables of touristy books stacked on tables out front, and hoards of people bustling in and out endlessly during these summer months, it is hard to miss or resist. Thus it has been since 1961, when the shop first opened its doors at Laugavegur 18.

On the local institution status of the shop, long-time employee Dagmar Siguðardóttir points out “it has been here for a long time. A lot of people have never experienced it not being here. Everything has been changing a lot through the years and this is a place that has never changed. It’s always the same. Nothing has changed, not even the shelves or the stairs or anything.”

It’s not surprising that a bookstore is one of the few unchanged things on Laugavegur considering Iceland’s propensity for the written word. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs boasts that Iceland publishes more titles per capita than anywhere else, and that’s pretty impressive. Books have played a massive role in the nation’s culture since the days of the Sagas and, as Dagmar notes, many Icelanders today talk about books as a main form of entertainment like other people talk about TV or movies and participate in book clubs. Her own must-reads are Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Halldór Laxness’ Independent People – so maybe check those out the next time you’re browsing the shelves of Bókabúð Mál og Menning.

‘But what makes this place the best joint in town for all my literary needs,’ you ask? Aside from its stellar location, Dagmar lists a number of reasons why Bókabúð Mál og Menning is top-notch. “It’s the best place to buy books because we help our customers to really find what they like and everyone who works here is really, really good and knows a lot about our products,” she says. “Plus, we have a big variety. We have almost everything that’s available and we try to sell English language books as much as we can and we can order them in specially.”

Sadly, the friendly staff of Bókabúð Mál og Menning, many of whom have worked there for years, will be let go soon when the bookstore as we know it will be closing its doors. This sad story gets complicated when you factor in that the history of ownership. You see, the company that owned the shop until six years ago is going to open a bookstore called Mál og Menning in the same location, but with different staff. The current owners will re-open a bookstore elsewhere (though probably not also named Mál og Menning) presumably with the same staff working at the current Bókabúð Mál og Menning, who are employees of the company that owns the Eymundsson bookstores. There’s also a publisher/owner involved in there somewhere. Dagmar wasn’t kidding when she likened the entire ordeal to the complicated situation of the economic collapse. It’s hard to explain.

Regardless of allt that, the Mál og Menning bookstore is a veritable downtown institution, due in no small part to the excellent staff that has served the store’s customers with an unprecedented passion for a long, long time (and most of the current staff have worked there for years, if not decades). Pay those great people a visit and honour this 101 staple while you still can. 

More info:
Bókabúð Mál og menning
Laugavegi 18, 101 Reykjavík
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