A door slams shut with a finality that could only mean closing time. Seconds later the opening guitar tones to Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ and hushed, heavily accented, out-of-time humming fill the space.
I get the feeling he doesn’t know I’m here. When I finally present myself, I discover the humming is accompanied by some equally out-of-time shimmying. He gets a fright, but relaxes when I complement him on his taste in music. “This is a live recording from a show they did in Paris in 1984,” he says. “It’s my favourite.”
Meet Ari Gísli Bragason, owner and sole full-time employee of Bókin (also known as Bókabúð Braga), an independent bookshop on the corner of Hverfisgata and Klapparstígur —one of Reykjavík’s last—which he has occupied since 1997.
Unless you’re looking for it, it’s not the kind of store you’d notice, perhaps not even one you’d identify as a store from the outside. The view through the windows is completely obscured by ceiling-high stacks of books, a network of cobwebs bridging the gap between their spines and the glass. Inside, the store has the feeling of a long-forgotten storage space, the smell of dust and ancient scripture hanging in the air.
WHAT DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM?
Ari offers to give me a tour of the store. He is a short man with puggish features and dense curly hair branching out over his unshaven face and his aged polo shirt, which is dotted with decade old ink smudges. He closely considers every one of his responses before sharing them. Whenever I grasp the point he was trying to make, he confirms his approval with a villainous smile and three or four quick, nervous ‘yahs.’
“We have 20 sections,” he announces. “It starts with dictionaries and foreign books over here.”
I tail him from aisle to aisle as he translates the name of each section, the organisation of which proudly eschews any formal system. At times I wonder whether he’s just making the sections up on the spot.
We pass ‘poetry,’ ‘Icelandic authors,’ ‘novels,’ and ‘mixed books.’ “‘Mixed books,’ that’s quite a category,” he tells me and I believe him.
We proceed to the end of the aisle to the chess section. Above a wooden chair hangs a framed poster of Bobby Fischer. “He came here all the time,” Ari says. “He fell asleep in this chair.”
What was he like? I ask. “He was quite nice,” Ari says diplomatically, “but a little bit difficult when he talked about politics.”
At this point a woman calls Ari’s name from a nearby aisle and he yells something in response before a short softly spoken lady appears from a nearby aisle carrying a stack of books.
“Ah, this is Sirrý, one of my assistants. She’s a student of mine,” Ari tells me before breaking into hysterics.
Sirrý, Ari’s wife, rolls her eyes and extends a hand to me. “I am the real brains here,” she says under her breath.
WE’RE GOING ON A BOOKHUNT!
Whilst none of the books on the shelves are catalogued, Bókin boasts a comprehensive website with 7,500 titles. Ari fishes around in his pocket and retrieves his business card with the store’s website. His card reads ‘Ari Gísli – Bookhunter’.
“A bookhunter?” I enquire, impressed.
“Well, I had trouble finding a suitable title for my work,” he explains.
Ari worked as a freelance journalist for Morgunblaðið for many years as well as on several television programmes before retiring and taking up the bookhunting trade. Since the career change, Ari says he has accumulated over 120,000 titles, some of which have been purchased as collections, but most of which he says have “come in with the wind.”
As he spins around, Ari nudges a small tower of sci-fi novels, triggering a minor avalanche of books to flood a nearby row and sending a small cloud of dust skyward, in turn triggering my dust allergies and sending me spiralling into a sneezing fit. He assures me not to panic, this kind of thing happens all the time around here.
A lady in a beret whose name I learn is Unnur comes in and steals Ari’s attention. She is an old friend he met through a poetry group many years ago. They speak excitedly for a moment before Ari turns back to me. “We are looking for a birthday present for her husband,” he says. “Would you like to come with us?”
I say yes, flattered to be invited along on a bookhunting mission and suddenly realise I’ve misunderstood Ari’s title. The ‘hunting of books’ in question happens internally, not externally.
We’re hunting for a book by Halldór Laxness. “He collects different editions, even different types of the same edition,” Unnur says of her husband with disbelief.
The three of us ascend three floors and enter a small low room which I don’t immediately identify as Ari’s office as his desk is buried under yet more piles of books. A narrow trail has been paved through the foliage of books to access all points of the room. Perched sagely on the far wall is a taxidermy owl Ari mentions he received as a gift from a group of old ladies at the Roman Catholic Church in Hafnarfjordur 10 years ago.
Ari tells me he doesn’t read many of the books that come through the door. “I mostly read Tintin and poetry,” he says. He scans a shelf for a while before pulling ‘Tinni í Kongó’ from the shelf, holding it up admiringly. “This is the racist one. Well, it’s supposed to be racist,” he tells me in a hushed voice.
Midway through the book hunt, Unnur walks over to me looking conflicted. “I only found a book for myself,” she says, shaking her head. “The same thing happened yesterday. I was looking for a present for my husband and found two books for myself.”
A GAME OF CHANCE
Unnur and Ari talk about how fifteen years ago at least ten antiquarian bookshops existed in Reykjavík, but one by one they disappeared. Now it’s just Bókin and a mysterious little underground store on Hverfisgata, which Ari tells me opens for just half an hour each day.
“It’s like the bookshops that have tried to come on the market have been taken out by hit men,” he jokes.
Ari believes a large factor in Bókin’s on-going survival comes down to chance. Unlike at the chain bookstores around the corner, you don’t know what you’re going to find at Bókin and the appeal lies in the practice of bookhunting itself: the pleasure of trawling through a room of old books in search of one, and the excitement that comes with stumbling upon it.
“There are always people coming and going, hunting for books—Icelanders and people from the family of the world,” he says.
I decide to buy a book, and solicit Ari’s services in recommending something for me. After about three minutes of serious consideration he returns. “I found one I think you’ll like.” I stare down at the title, ‘The Book Of Murder,’ and wonder what kind of impression I’ve given Ari.
I leave ‘The Book Of Murder’ for someone else to hunt down and instead choose a couple of classics. At the counter, before I can haggle down the 800 ISK price tags Ari does it for me, giving me both titles for 500 ISK.
Bókin’s pricing system is predominantly based on condition and market value. “It depends on how rare and popular books are,” he explains. “Many of the books we have on the website are not necessarily valuable, but to us they are. Then we have some books from several hundred years ago for just one hundred krónur.”
Are there any books you refuse to sell?
He gestures to a shelf of books high up on the wall behind the front counter. “They’re mostly old bibles and some other personal books we don’t sell.”
And suppose someone made you an offer, I ask with a wink?
Ari assures me they still won’t be sold. “They are so difficult to get. But they’re also so difficult to physically get to, that they just won’t go anywhere,” he laughs.
Enter if you dare! Bókin is located at Klappastígur 32, open 10:00-18:00 weekdays and closed weekends. You can also visit online at www.bokin.is.