From Iceland — Living Off A Dying Business

Living Off A Dying Business

Published April 26, 2024

Living Off A Dying Business
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

Stu and Ren Gates run the cosiest bookstore in Iceland, perhaps the last of its kind

The first time I stepped into Fróði fornbókabúð in Akureyri, my friends had to drag me out of there. I remember every single title I bought from the secondhand bookstore over the years. Each visit, I’d depart thinking about how Reykjavík lacked such an amenity — a cosy, eclectic bookshop offering unconventional titles you wouldn’t find on shelves elsewhere. During my first conversation with one of the shopkeepers, I asked him if they would mail books to Reykjavík, only to be met with an unfortunate shake of the head. 

A few years later, on another trip north, I finally had a chance to sit down with shopkeepers Stu and Ren Gates to find out why. 

From dreaming to doing

Stu and Ren’s journey to Iceland began eight years ago when they left the U.K. With a background in music and scriptwriting, respectively, and having juggled a number of jobs back home, the couple first moved to Vík.

“We both had enough of the U.K. and wanted to go somewhere,” Ren explains. The choice came down to Italy or Iceland, but after a two-month stint in Italy’s 40-degree heat, they decided to head north instead. After a year on a farm in Vík, the Gateses packed their bags again to make their way to Akureyri in late 2016.

“We wanted more people,” says Stu. “Vík is nice, but it’s 400 people or something.” 

“We did the good little immigrant thing and worked in hotels for a bit and then we sort of sat down together and thought ‘what could we do?’” Stu explains. “We couldn’t really face going back for a third year.” 

The idea of running a bookstore sprouted from their shared love of books. “Stu is a big reader, a very fast reader. I like collecting books more than reading them,” Ren admits with a chuckle.

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

They started by collecting some books at home. “It was nowhere near this much,” Stu laughs, gesturing at the shelves behind him. “Maybe two boxes, sort of pathetic. But we started and then we found out through a friend of a friend that someone knew the owner of this place. It just went from there.”

Though they initially wanted to set up their own shop, they decided to contact Fróði’s owner, Olga Ágústsdóttir, to arrange a meeting and discuss the possibility of renting it. “The lady who owns the building was 84 at the time. She couldn’t really do it as much,” Stu says.

“It was shockingly easy!” Ren exclaimed, still surprised at how smoothly things went. “We came for a talk and she was like: ‘So do you want to buy this place?’ and we were like ‘Wow!’ We got to talk for maybe an hour and then she said, ‘Let’s see how you do’ and just left us in the bookshop for an afternoon.” That’s how Fróði fornbókabúð came to be. 

Behind the shelves

“When we took over, there were just books and shelves with no sections,” Ren recalls. “It was just books everywhere — the previous owner liked the idea of having a treasure hunt, which was a nightmare for us.” 

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

The first thing the couple did after taking over was come up with some sort of structure. Now, the books are divided into specific sections, from history, biography and classics to poetry, hobbies, music and travel writing. “​​We spent the first two years just trying to organise where things were,” says Ren. Stu adds that even though they now have a database and try to keep track of where everything is, it doesn’t always work. “Things get moved all the time,” he says.

“We don’t sell things online, we don’t send things, we want people to come and experience it as a bookshop.”

In the first five years, the couple sold most of the books that were in the shop before they took over. Today, 90% of the books on sale are their own — some were imported from the U.K., while others were donated or purchased from elsewhere in Iceland. Fróði counts about 31,000 titles in its collection, including some true rarities — a signed Halldór Laxness, for example. The oldest book in the shop is the first Icelandic Latin grammar book from 1651.

“Often when we get a donation, we think about who’s gonna want this. But we put it out. And then you find someone who’s like ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for this book,’” Stu says.

Ren takes a book from a shelf, trying to illustrate what his partner is talking about. “Stuff like this. Tank Spotter’s Guide.” 

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

“With tourists, I would say it’s the first Harry Potter in Icelandic or The Little Prince in Icelandic,” says Ren about the shop’s bestsellers, before quickly adding, “Independent People [by Halldór Laxness] in the summer.” In contrast, Icelandic customers often opt for poetry, chess and scout books.

Keeping things old school

Iceland often prides itself on being a nation of bookworms, particularly when it comes to the number of books read per capita. But secondhand shops are few and far between.

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

“The population [here] is very well-known for reading, but there are not many actual secondhand bookshops,” Ren shares. “Whereas we come from the U.K., where there are little towns that are just book towns with five or six different shops.”

Fróði never intended to compete with the bigger chains, preferring instead to keep things analogue, so to speak. Throughout our conversation, Ren stresses a few times that Fróði is not Amazon. “We want to try and keep it like a very old school bookshop,” he says with a laugh, joking that he and Stu “might be from the wrong century. We don’t sell things online, we don’t send things, we want people to come and experience it as a bookshop.”

And not just a bookshop. With big cosy armchairs, free coffee and chess sets on site, Fróði is a place you’ll want to spend time in, browsing through sections for hours, exploring names you’ve never heard of rather than simply grabbing the book you need.    

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

While Stu and Ren significantly expanded the selection of books in English (and several other languages) since taking over, they emphasise that their goal is to preserve the shop’s Icelandic identity. 

Along the same vein, Stu recounts an amusing encounter: “The new British ambassador was visiting Akureyri and she came in with some local council members and said, ‘I’ve been told by everyone that I must visit the British bookshop.’ We were like: ‘No, no, no. We’re not a British bookshop. We are an Icelandic bookshop run by two British people,’” Stu emphasises. “Very clear about that.” 

Will Fróði live on?

Though the couple’s rental contract ends in September, they hope the shop will continue. “We gave ourselves five years to see how we do and we’re coming up to that fifth year now,” Stu says. “We want to keep it going.” 

“We know we’re never going to be rich from it,” adds Ren. “We barely scrape by every month, but we do have love for it.” 

“We know we’re never gonna be rich from it.”

The couple is now saving up to buy the shop, considering a number of ways to finance it, from their own savings, to taking a loan or launching a crowdfunding campaign. 

As the afternoon progresses, more visitors pop into the shop, and Stu and Ren take turns looking for books, serving at the counter and speaking with me. Despite the busyness of this random Saturday in the small northern city, the two British expats wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“Akureyri feels like home,” says Stu. “We’ve got the shop. We’ve got our apartment. We’ve got two cats. Hopefully, when we buy the shop this year we’ll have a lot more reason to call it home.”

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