...Through the eyes of the maternal figure behind Boston and the late Sirkus
Sigríður “Sigga” Guðlaugsdóttir’s induction into the world of running bars began by chance. She was working part-time at a bar in Boston while she was studying film in the ‘80s when the owners suddenly fired the managers and asked her to take their place. She was hesitant at first, but with time blossomed in the job. After returning home and working in a few bars in Iceland, Sigga fully committed to the life of a bar manager when she purchased Sirkus in 2000. The bar quickly attracted all manner of creative and artistic people, and she ran it successfully for nine years before it was torn down to make room for a new hotel, which has yet to be built.
Today Sigga may be 60 and her voice turned hoarse from smoking, but she’s still going strong. She owns the successful downtown bar Boston, which after eight years, shows no signs of slowing down. Although she brought her son Jóel into the business two years ago and he helps keep it fresh and up-to-date, booking the latest DJs and live bands, she’s still there, working behind the bar. And when we ventured there early afternoon on a Friday to chat with her, it was apparent that the staff was getting ready for the first round of patrons to show up at any moment. Sigga herself was on her first beer.
In the time that you’ve been running bars, do you feel like the drinking culture has changed?
Yes, absolutely, and I think for the better. For many people my age the whole point of going out was to drink until you dropped, but the new generation has a lot of people who have studied abroad and been introduced to a different culture—they go to the bar after work, have two beers and then go home. Then there’s another crowd that doesn’t go downtown until 10 in the evening and stays out late, but they don’t get as drunk as they used to.
So you think it’s going to keep developing in this direction?
Oh, I really hope so. [She laughs heartily.] I think it’s simply beautiful to be able to have a few beers during the day, and I don’t think that makes people alcoholics. When I was living abroad it was normal to see people drink beer instead of coffee, which is quite different than what you find with the coffee-obsessed people of Iceland. I personally think you sleep better after having beer than coffee—if I have a cup in the afternoon, I stay awake all night.
We frequently hear foreigners comment on how lively the Reykjavík bar scene is compared to elsewhere. Do you think there is any truth to those claims?
Well, we Icelanders of course have the dark winter during which we spend long periods indoors. While this affords us the chance to be creative and artistic, we can’t just rot inside and watch TV. We go downtown to vent, to dance a lot and have plenty of fun so that we can keep working through the week. I think it’s really good that people of all ages do this and enjoy themselves.
And what do you think about the trend of downtown bars giving way to hotels?
I think this hotel obsession in Iceland is completely nuts. Seeing building after building being replaced by hotels on Laugavegur is dreadful. It’s the only main street we have, and the tourists that walk up and down it aren’t here to just see hotels.
It’s not surprising though that so many people want to cash in on the tourism money—the industry is growing rapidly and the industry is barely taxed. Meanwhile, bars purchasing alcohol from wholesalers are paying almost the same price for it as normal people that go to the alcohol store because of how heavily alcohol is taxed.
You used to only have to pay 24.5% VAT, but after the collapse it became 25.5% plus an additional alcohol tax, which means you basically pay the whole price of the product again! I don’t give a damn about spirits, they’re all imported anyways, but locally-brewed beers shouldn’t have to pay this extra fee, the VAT is plenty enough.
How many whale-watching boats are there at the dock right now? There weren’t any a few years ago, and they are there because they aren’t taxed at all. Can you imagine what would happen to them if they suddenly had to pay added taxes? It’s very difficult to run a bar, and that’s why so many are closing down these days. Our Sigmundur [Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Iceland’s Prime Minister] promised to remove this tax if elected, but since coming into office I haven’t exactly see him deliver on his promises…
I’ve spoken to some of your staff members who say you are frequently the first person in and last person out of the bar. Is that what it takes to keep a bar afloat?
Yes. Running a bar isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t something you get rich from doing: it’s a 24-hour job that sometimes leaves you just about ready to throw in the towel. I now split the work with my son Jóel, which is good because he’s still young, fresh and hungry.
Your son currently owns and runs an iteration of Sirkus in the Faroe Islands. Have you considered opening up a Reykjavík branch again?
Oh yes, yes I would, but only if we could find the right kind of space. It would have to be a small house with a nice garden.