Published March 14, 2017
In the US, there’s a thing called a “bodega”. This refers to a kind of convenient store, usually of the non-chain variety, and almost always implies a cornershop replete with local flavour. There’s probably a version of this concept in every country in the world, and they are a globally dying breed; slowly being replaced by larger, richer chain franchises.
Iceland is no exception. Headlines were made last year when Vísir, a small shop that had stood on Laugavegur 1 since 1915, was closed, only to be replaced by yet another Icewear store. This was not due to a hostile takeover, but rather to declaring bankruptcy – a reflection of the changing attitudes of the society around it. It managed to weather the storm of modernity for over a century, but in the end, Vísir lost its grip, abandoned by the very people who kept it running over the decades, casting it into the bottomless abyss of time.
Yet some of these Icelandic bodegas still remain; you just have to know where to find them.
Venture into Vesturbær – the west Reykjavík neighbourhood which is in many ways an anachronism in itself – and there, standing on the corner of Ránargata and Ægisgata, you will find Pétursbúð. The building itself is nondescript, and would appear to the passerby to be just another anonymous rowhouse on a block lined with rowhouses were it not for two things: the modest “Pétursbúð” sign with its opening hours above the front door, and the display windows festooned with Icelandic advertisements from the early-to-mid 20th century. You don’t even need to know Icelandic to appreciate these advertisements: three young housewives enjoying glasses of milk; a smiling schoolboy’s face on the side of a glass bottle of cream; a diapered urchin shouldering an enormous block of butter. “Come, gentle traveler,” Pétursbúð seems to beckon. “Step back in time and forget you are living in the dawn of the apocalypse, if only for a few moments.”
The first thing to greet you when you step into Pétursbúð, as you look to your right, is the presence of what the English-speaking world refers to as “penny candy”, and which in Iceland is called a “candy bar” (although not in the sense of a Snickers; more like in the sense of a salad bar, only for candy). While Icelandic candy bars are everywhere, even Pétursbúð’s version is a throwback: the candy is behind a glass display, and you must tell the shopkeeper how much of which kinds of candy you want, which is then sold by weight. Even the most cold-hearted and jaded patron will have their hearts melted ordering a bag of candy from Pétursbúð.
True to any bodega, there appears to be little rhyme or reason to how the items on the shelves are organised. Also true to any bodega, this is not a place you would go to do your weekly grocery shopping, although you conceivably could, if you so desired. Rather, this is a place you stop in to buy the thing you forgot to buy at the store: that bag of sugar, the coffee packet, the cans of cat food. Even the forlorn produce section seems aware that no one is going to be buying anything from it by the kilo; this is a shop where you would buy a single orange, and nothing else.
To shop in Pétursbúð is surely to contribute to nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. You could probably find the same things, for cheaper, elsewhere. But that’s not why you shop at Pétursbúð. You go to Bónus to spare your wallet; you go to Pétursbúð to spare your heart.