Published November 21, 2016
Reykjavík is a relatively small city, but even so, sometimes you need a bit of local advice to find what you’re looking for, whether it’s a good people-watching spot, somewhere to see some contemporary art, or the best place to catch an Icelandic movie. Don’t worry, friends—we’ve got you covered via our Best of Reykjavík 2016 series. Here are some of our favourite spots in Reykjavík, for all kinds of super-fun days and nights out. Enjoy! And if you try our list, you can let us know what you thought of the selections via firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Antiquarian Book Lover’s Guide To Reykjavík
The tale of Reykjavík’s antiquarian book trade is one of decline. In 1967, Reykjavík boasted eleven secondhand book stores—roughly one shop for every 7,000 residents of the burgeoning city. After half a century, even as the city’s population has doubled, only two proper used book shops remain, leaving one store for every 60,000 Reykvíkingar. Old books, nevertheless, remain, indifferent to the fluctuations of time; here are a handful of spots where you can hunt them down.
Bókin (“The Book”), founded in 1964, is indubitably the bibliophilic mecca of Reykjavík. With just the right balance of clutter and order, it’s easy to lose hours rifling through dusty shelves and precarious towers of books stacked on the floor. Although a few shelves by the entrance contain a hodgepodge of literature in English, most of the stock is in Icelandic—a point of pride for the booksellers who run the shop: ask for translations of Icelandic authors and you’ll be directed elsewhere. If you’re eager to learn Icelandic, however, there’s no shortage of old grammars and dictionaries scattered throughout, and the staff, curmudgeonly though they seem, will gladly entertain your broken Icelandic and help get you started on the Icelandic canon. The shop devotes considerable space to medieval Icelandic literature: critical editions of Sagas in their original, archaic orthography sit beside versions updated into familiar modern spellings in the placid back corner of the shop.
Bókakjallarinn (“The Book Cellar”), tucked away in an alleyway off Laugavegur, occupies the former workshop of Bókamiðstöðin, a defunct publisher and press that printed comics, children’s books, crosswords, and porn. Bókamiðstöðin stopped printing books in 1990, but the space reopened as a secondhand book shop in 2010. The old printing machinery now slumbers in the back of the shop, but the old materials—vintage smut included—remain for sale in the cozy basement, alongside a neat, tightly shelved collection of Icelandic literature.
At Kolaportið, Reykjavík’s weekend flea market, a handful of regular vendors peddle secondhand books from stalls encircled by bookshelves which simultaneously maximize shelf space and barricade against the fish-pungent chaos of the market. The combined stock of the market’s booksellers, and the breadth of subject matter, could constitute a cohesive, comprehensive bookshop in its own right: oversaturated, illustrated kids’ classics; new mystery in well-worn paperback; Sagas bound in stately sets. In addition to these reliable staples, the vendors at Kolaportið often have unique or rare treasures—a Greenlandic phrasebook, a compilation of Faroese folk songs, an early nineteenth century edition of Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Passíusálmar—silently bearing witness to the lives and adventures of strangers.
Thrift stores, such as Góði hirðirinn in Skeifan or Salvation Army’s Hertex in Vesturbær, devote several shelves to used books. Entirely dependent on donations, the stock at these shops can be unpredictable, unorganized, and underwhelming; patience and a good eye, however, are rewarded with the occasional gem. Góði hirðirinn generally has a small selection of foreign titles, priced at 100 ISK apiece—a negligible sum next to the cost of shipping to Iceland.
Throughout the University of Iceland campus and in the National Library, professors and students leave unwanted books on semi-official free book tables. Often, the books are more interesting for their peculiarity or specificity than for any intrinsic aspect: a university-published pamphlet on an otherwise unstudied seventeenth century poet; municipal records from mid-century Borgarnes; an Italian study of Old English metrics. Utility is dubious; novelty abounds.
Read more of our Best of 2016 lists here.