Children's Books and Ancient Icelandic Porno at Bókakjallarinn
Narratives of Reykjavík’s used book culture often take the form of jeremiads—languorous laments for a bygone heyday, a paradise lost through, by and with the fall of print media. By some estimations, there used to be as many as forty secondhand book shops in town, peddling old, worn and loved books to an eager customer base. But by the end of the aughts, there was only one brick-and-mortar store: Bókin on the corner of Klapparstígur and Hverfisgata. Founded in 1964, Bókin remains an institution, a hallowed hall incensed with must and dust, where the 1993 collaboration between early music group the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek plays on infinite loop from small speakers in the music section—a poignant meeting of old and new.
For almost half a decade, however, there has been another secondhand book shop in town and chances are you’ve walked by without noticing. Bókakjallarinn (“The Book Cellar”) occupies a small basement space just off of Laugavegur. If you’re not looking for it, you might not find it—the entrance is off a small driveway on the western side of the hardware store Brynja. There’s a white building with the word “DEAD” spray painted on it and a fake mounted cow’s head. You may think, “That’s a grim metaphor for print media,” but that’s Dead Gallery, not a bookstore. Turn right, walk down the wooden stairs, open the door.
You may feel like you’re intruding at first: there seem to only ever be one or two customers at a time. The radio plays very softly, not without a bit of static interference. The space is tidy and small, but certainly well-stocked. There are two distinct areas of the store: the first is mostly dedicated to old, attractive hardcovers, organised in sections (some of which are labelled, some of which are not): general foreign books, science, Icelandic classics, folklore, sagas, religion, poetry, art, books translated into Icelandic. The books are packed tight and double-stacked on some shelves. The second half of the store is filled with comic books, children’s books, crossword puzzles, and vintage Icelandic porn.
Tucked away behind stacks of Icelandic Tarzan and Donald Duck comic books, Svavar Brynjúlfsson, bookseller and store owner, stands at the register. Svavar is soft-spoken, unpretentious and warm. He will let you browse in silence for quite some time before asking if you’re looking for anything in particular; ask him a question and he’s eager to assist. Probe him deeper, and he’ll be happy to talk about the history of Bókakjallarinn and the space it inhabits.
Although the bookstore only opened in the summer of 2010, the basement has housed Bókamiðstöðin, the printing press and publishing company of Svavar’s grandfather, Heimir Jóhannsson, since 1964. The press specialised in children’s books, magazines and crossword puzzle books—many of which are for sale at the bookstore, shrink-wrapped and displayed like artefacts of the twentieth century. Spanish-born, Iceland-based painter Baltasar Samper collaborated with Heimir, providing original covers to Bókamiðstöðin’s earliest children’s books. Although, as Svavar tells me, you can still find his grandfather’s crossword puzzle books throughout the country, the presses themselves have ground to a halt. Now they sit, the byzantine machines, hand-powered, hundred-year-old behemoths, behind the bookshelves in the other half of the cellar. “I don’t think they even work anymore,” Svavar says, but without a note of melancholy in his voice—these ancient contraptions are actually the reason Bókakjallarinn opened in the first place.
Heimir and Svavar have dreamed of founding a museum of Icelandic printing one day, with artefacts like Heimir’s presses. “Here?” I ask Svavar. “Oh, no. Much bigger.” In the meantime, with nowhere to move the machines, they remain here. Svavar opened up the bookshop to help pay the rent on the space so as not to get rid of them. Bókakjallarinn began with Heimir’s extensive book collection, but the stock has increased since then. It’s a “work in progress,” Svavar says twice during our conversation. Browsing the shelves, I get the sense that it’s well thought out, but not too meticulous, not forced. “Every book is as important as the next book; every section as important as the next,” Svavar says. If a customer wants a particular book, Svavar will find a way to get it, whether it takes a day, a month, or two years. Most regulars, however, are contented browsing the collection as it is.
For members of Svavar’s generation, raised on classic comic books in Icelandic translation, browsing in Bókakjallarinn is something of a nostalgia rush. I wonder out loud if it’s the same with the collection of vintage smut in the corner, gesturing to the shelves stacked with paperbacks and magazines, their covers adorned with prints and pictures of naked women—”the crème de la crème,” Svavar jokes. With these, it’s much the same as the comic books. The veneer of 1970s nostalgia and tackiness render them sexless. “If people really want that, there’s the internet today,” Svavar says. Customers buy these as light-hearted gifts, jokes. One book, of which there are several copies, catches my eyes: Bósa Saga. On the cover, a centaur gropes a naked woman who seems to be riding on his massive phallus. I ask if this is a smutty reinterpretation of a saga but, as it turns out, it’s simply an edition of a 13th century text—”Ancient Icelandic porno,” Svavar laughs. The book was banned for its provocative cover and illustrations, and was rereleased with a red line covering (some of) the offending parts, but Heimir made sure to collect the uncensored editions, which could be found at gas stations throughout Iceland
For Svavar, in his dedication to the history of Icelandic print culture, these books are important artefacts. Bókakjallarinn already is a sort of prototype for Heimir and Svavar’s dreamed-of museum. From the crossword puzzle books to the leather-bound sagas to the plastic-wrapped “Tígulgosinn” (“Diamond Jack”) porn magazines, the collection demonstrates the breadth of the Icelandic publishing industry without trying to hide anything. The collection is frank and unassuming, much like the bookseller himself.
When I ask Svavar why Reykjavík’s used bookstores have disappeared, his answer echoes the laments of bibliophiles throughout the world: books are no longer the primary locus of accessible information. Shopping for used books used to be a practical way of tapping unexpected wisdom and information. Now there’s Wikipedia. To Svavar, however, books are not simply stores of information—they are intrinsically interesting objects with their own physical histories. Maybe used book shopping is becoming more of a hobby, a niche activity. If that’s the case, Svavar doesn’t seem to mind. But just in case the market really is drying up, Svavar has his own incentive to encourage book-buying: any purchase at Bókakjallarinn comes with a free piece of candy. Perhaps this is the secret that will save used book culture forever? It just might be.
Bókakjallarinn opened in 2010.
It lives at Laugavegur 29, and is open every day from 13:00 to 18:00.