There are certain constants that Iceland has to offer its visitors, places that tourist boards and magazines alike have labelled as must-sees, places like Hallgrímskirkja, the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle, to name a few. Some places are like the Westfjords, which only the more adventurous tourists will ever set foot upon. Then there are attractions that aren’t likely to make it into any guidebooks, but most travellers scoping out Iceland find themselves visiting, often frequently. For instance, the Bæjarins Bestu hot dog stand, world renowned for its ‘one with everything.’ There are the public pools with their nude showering policies, which usually manage to simultaneously frustrate and amaze prudent North Americans on their first visit.
And then there is the Mál & Menning bookstore, which for decades has been an Icelandic staple of downtown shopping and has, in its later years, become an essential stop for travellers wanting to sample Iceland’s cultural offerings and perhaps obtain the occasional postcard or cheesy souvenir (such as stuffed miniature sheep). It’s convenient mid-Laugavegur location and liberal opening hours ensure that most tourists passing through Reykjavík will find their way to it at some point during their stay. The friendly atmosphere and stuff galore found there will most likely result in them revisiting, often daily. In fact, large queues of parka-clad foreigners can usually be observed in front of the store right before it opens early in the morning.
An offshoot of the once leftist Mál & Menning publishing house, the bookstore was established in the early sixties – the building that’s housed it since its inception is rumoured to have been funded with grants from Soviet Union propagandists. The store is divided into five floors; the basement housing a children’s department and a plethora of office supplies. Ground level offers international newspapers and magazines along with various gift shop trinkets, while the first floor has Icelandic literature in Icelandic and foreign language translations, as well as a fine selection of Icelandic CDs. The top floor hosts foreign-language literature and the oft-praised Súfistinn Café.
Of course, the Mál & Menning bookstore is no Shangri-La of urban shopping, for instance, its selection of English language literature is somewhat limited due to the small market it caters to (although you’d be surprised by some of the titles to be found). There are, however, several reasons as to why it is a worthwhile place to visit. The staff, a mixed bag of experienced bookselling veterans and enthusiastic grad students, is usually courteous and informative – although it isn’t an official information booth, those left without a clue in downtown Reykjavík could do worse for advice and helpful tips. Naturally, guidebooks are available. Another factor is the selection; the store really sells most non-edible things a tourist might need for a short stay in Reykjavík.
Due to hefty tolls and taxes, magazines are quite expensive in Iceland. This is where M&M and its top-floor café come in handy for budget travellers (and the store ultimately earns its ‘Bezt í Heimi’ ranking), as any magazine or book found in the store can be borrowed to be enjoyed over one’s beverage of choice or some fine vegetable pie. Those bored with cumbersome analogue reading material can then opt to utilise its free WiFi.
Bókabúð Máls & Menningar
Opening hours: Monday-Friday from 9-22
Saturday-Sunday from 10-22
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