The tiny Westfjords town of Flateyri juts out into the blue sea of Önundarfjörður on a thin spit of land. The main street has a quiet café, an empty sports field and a lonely gas station. On the pavement, a sole sign proudly proclaims: “Home of Iceland’s oldest store.”
The store in question is The Old Bookstore. I walk into the wood-lined storefront to find the shopkeeper, Eyþór Jóvinsson, behind the counter. He’s dressed in a tweed three-piece suit, and smiles broadly, saying, “Hello! Welcome!”
Licensed to book
Eyþór, it turns out, is the great-grandson of the store’s founder. “My great-grandfather started this business,” he says. He gestures to a display of open ledgers with small hand-written entries filling the pages. “We can trace every penny that has come from the business from day one. I can tell you what we sold exactly 100 years ago.”
Enquiring about the reading habits of people four generations ago, however, is a no-go. “It was just a general store, back then,” says Eyþór. “In 1919, we didn’t even sell books. You needed a license to sell books back in those days. In 1920, we got a license. One corner was the book section. Everything else was food.”
An eccentric selection
The books today are mostly second-hand, and sold by weight for 1,000 ISK per kilogramme. The selection spans everything from nature to medicine to competitive swimming, and from Icelandic-language textbooks to Bridget Jones—and two copies of the David Beckham autobiography. “One of them is in Icelandic,” says Eyþór. “It’s probably the only book I have in two languages.”
The Old Book Store also has a selection of new editions, including the Halldór Laxness classic ‘World Light’ and Jón Kalman’s ‘Heaven and Hell.’ “Many of them are connected to Flateyri,” says Eyþór. “For example, ‘World Light’ is about a guy who was born in Flateyri, and spent his first year being raised here. And then of course ‘Independent People’. And then ‘I Remember You’—one character in that book lives in Flateyri as well. And then Jón Kalman—just because I love this book. It takes place in a small fishing village 100 years ago. When I read it, I can easily place it in this town.”
There are also some photo books made by Eyþór himself, and others by his friends and associates. It’s an eccentric selection, but one gets the feeling that in this particular store, that’s the continuation of a great tradition.
Walk-in time capsule
The Old Book Store also acts as a time capsule—both figurative and literal. Visitors can write messages and post them to future Flateyri residents who’ll read them in 100 years. Across the hallway lies the perfectly preserved apartment of the store’s founders—Eyþór’s great-grandparents—who moved there in 1915. It’s a treasure trove of old photographs and decorations, a box of bookbinding tools, and fascinating period furniture and accoutrements.
“Absolutely nothing has been changed since they passed away,” says Eyþór. “My great-grandfather passed away in 1950, and my great-grandmother in 1983—and this house is just how it was that day. Museums have reconstructed homes in the way they think people lived—but this apartment is how it was.”
As I step back out into the street, and the new millennium, something tells me Eyþór’s forebears would be proud that he’s still keeping the lights on at The Old Bookstore.
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