As you walk up Laugavegur, weaving through all-weather clad tourists as they meander past souvenir shops, artsy cafés and hip boutiques, a hardware store is probably the last thing you would expect to encounter. However, Brynja, a Reykjavík institution, holds its own in the thoroughfare amongst these crowd pleasers.
The distinctive red building is impossible to miss with its crisp paint job and sign that spells out “Brynja.” The store’s owner, Brynjólfur H. Björnsson, whose name is derived from the same word, told us that the store’s name invokes Viking armour.
Open since 1919, Brynja is most likely the oldest hardware store in Iceland that is still open for business—and a busy one at that, crowded with both locals and a steady stream of tourists.
For locals, bath equipment, keys and locks are the most popular sales at Brynja, but tourists perusing the store gravitate towards “vintage” items like modest aluminium water pitchers and basins, enamelled and painted with flowers or ogle the “exotic” knives handcrafted by local artisan, Palli Kristjánsson from such materials as whale tooth and reindeer antler.
For tourists, coat hooks with Viking faces, shelf paper in primary colours, varnish cans with antique labels, a classic shower head, boxes of individual screws, washers and nails, wicker rug beaters, skeins of twine and rough wool work gloves are all examples of Iceland’s charming character, yet unlike novelty souvenirs, each of these items has their own distinct purpose for locals.
When I asked Brynjólfur whether Brynja had any plans to sell puffin stuffed-animals in the future, he said, “No. We don’t want to be a tourist shop. There are already plenty of them.” The only item, Brynjólfur keeps in stock specifically for tourists are electrical adaptors. However, tourists would find reasons to visit his shop even if Brynja didn’t stock them.
Brynjólfur suspects American tourists, in particular, find the shop fascinating because most of them are used to buying their tools from large warehouses in strip malls. Yet, small hardware stores like Brynja are becoming just as rare in Iceland.
Although the recent decision to close Laugavegur to auto-traffic has been largely well received, Brynjólfur laments that local customers can no longer load heavy equipment or supplies into their vehicles from the store.
As city planning favours tourist accommodations and attractions, closing down bars and cafes to make way for hotels, for instance, some local institutions like Brynja will just have to work harder to serve the needs of locals while welcoming tourists from all over the world.
Best of Reykjavík Institution: Brynja
Best of Reykjavík 2013: Shopping and Commerce