From Iceland — Voodoo Economics

Voodoo Economics

Published December 7, 2011

Most bibliophiles have bookstores that mean a great deal to them, places where they have spent hundreds, thousands of hours. For many of Iceland’s bookworms, me included, that bookstore is Bókabúð Máls og menningar (BMM for short) on Laugavegur 18, which has been in existence for half a century (full disclosure, I worked there three holiday seasons in my late teens).
    There are few business establishments closer to my heart and yet there was a two year period when I barely visited. The store was a decaying hulk, with a pathetic selection and a lifeless atmosphere. That started to change last spring when the company that ran it for the past couple of years went bankrupt and new owners took over. In our last issue I wrongly asserted that the store is owned by a bank now, for which I apologise. In fact, the current owners are the same people who run the bookstore Iða on Lækjargata. To revive some of the good feeling that the store had lost, they hired Kristján Freyr Halldórsson to run BMM, who had been part of the store’s crew from 2000–06.
There are eight bookstores in downtown Reykjavík. Half of these are specialised, but the general public is served by Iða, BMM and two branches of the Penninn-Eymundsson national chain of bookstores, where Kristján Freyr once also worked. The corporation that owned Penninn-Eymundsson went under in the financial collapse. “Of course it stands to reason,” says Kristján Freyr, “that when everything comes crashing down, the state, and therefore its bank, will take over an operation that employs 2–400 people. The reasons for that are completely understandable.”
For a smaller business like BMM, a competitor that is financially supported by a bank is a daunting prospect, as Kristján Freyr explains: “There was a news story this fall which revealed that the bank is putting 2–300 million ISK into [Penninn-Eymundsson]. That is very unhealthy.” He stresses that his company is not alone in feeling that way: “Furniture makers, who are in competition with Penninn-Eymundsson when it comes to office furniture, bought a full-page ad the other day, to protest this situation.” He feels that Penninn-Eymundsson drowns his bookstore out in the media: “I have to think twice before I buy an ad in Fréttablaðið [newspaper] because if I did that today, I would be competing with 3–4 full page ads from Penninn-Eymundsson.” He thinks that soon the market for books will be different: “The sales process will start soon. So change for the bookselling business is around the corner.”

Returning back to his former place of employment has been odd, but fun. “A client I remembered from back then came into the store. He started to ask me about a few books. With one he stumped me. I said: ‘I apologize, I seem to be drawing a blank. I just started working here.’ He said: ‘Just started? You have been here some time, no?’ I replied: ‘Yes, but that was a while back, I just started again.’ Then he said: ‘Now that you mention it, you have been showing up to work rather spottily.'”
The store he came back too was a dim echo of its past self. The happiness of the staff had plummeted. Kristján felt that his first task was to reverse that trend: “I got called a voodoo doctor and told that my job was casting out evil spirits. We have been working systematically to lift the mood of this place.”
Before its decline set in, BMM had a notably extensive selection of books in languages other than Icelandic, especially English and the Scandinavian languages. For the last two years there has been little on offer beyond a few bestsellers and business guides. “Since we took over the store this spring,” says Kristján, “we have added 18 shelf metres of English-language books. We get about four to five boxes a week.” On the subject of books in other languages, Kristján admits that they are not a priority yet but that Scandinavian books sold quite well and that he feels it is important to offer a good selection.
Having watched one of the most important institutions of my youth shamble along half-dead for two years, I had begun to despair that it would ever come back to life. It still has some way to go, but it is heading in the right direction. I am not the only person for whom this is important. On the day that the previous owners went bankrupt I ran into my old boss from back when I worked at BMM. We talked in sombre tones, as if a close friend had died. But as we parted, she, a quiet woman in her seventies, bellowed: “There must be a bookstore in that house!”

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