Iceland's Last Rare Bookstore

Bobby Fischer chair
by Spencer Stuart
9/7/2019
On the corner of Klapparstigur and Hverfisgata, a stone’s throw from Reykjavík’s famed Harpa Concert Hall, lies a portal into the past of Iceland’s book culture: Bókin. The floor-to-ceiling storefront already alludes to what awaits inside. A miniature Santa Claus reclining on an analyst’s couch, an early 1950s radio with a model bird perched on top, a collection of miniature wooden boats, and, of course, books. Much has been observed of the annual ‘flood of books’ (jólabókaflóð) that takes place during the Christmas season in Iceland, spurred on by the publishing of ‘book news’ (bókatíðindi) which is distributed to all households prior to the holiday season. According to Jóhann Páll Valdimarsson, director of Forlagið publishing house, this cultural phenomenon (that locals are adamant must be seen to be believed) is the result of isolation during World War II. With limited access to the outside world due to treacherous trade routes, Icelanders took to giving books to one another around Christmas time. Following the war, the tradition grew and has become a crucial marketing period for publishers to ensure their authors sell. It has also been said in recent years that jólabókaflóð has led to a glut of titles that are ultimately returned to publishing houses and destroyed to make space for the next deluge. 
 
Located in a low region, Bókin is an estuary for many of these titles and more. In an alcove of the service closet leading to the basement (filled with catalogued books), I sat down with Ari Gísli and Eiríkur Ágúst Guðjónsson over pastries, coffee, and a box of Opal black licorice buttons to discuss their lifelong involvement in the trade.
 

 The story starts with Ari’s father, himself a bookseller. Now 80 years old, Bragi Kristjónsson has always been an innovator in the rare book trade in Iceland. Abandoning his legal studies, Kristjónsson returned to Reykjavík from Copenhagen in 1960 and opened his first bookshop at the age of 22. Shortly after he married Nína Björk Árnadóttir, a poet and novelist. Together they fostered the bohemian environment in which Ari was raised, influencing his early aspiration to become a writer.

 

Looking back, Ari recalled a bibliomanical Iceland. By the time he was a teenager in the early 1980s, there were fifteen used and rare bookshops in Reykjavík alone, and eight more in the countryside. The shops were primarily run by old men who had little concern for the future of their stores, resulting in their businesses shuttering permanently when they died. Eiríkur was quick to interject that this image was not entirely genuine. A few of the shops were fronts for selling pornographic material under the counter, a phenomenon that disappeared with the advent of video.

 

 Amongst all this however, Kristjónsson carved out a unique niche for himself as a bookseller that looked beyond Favaflói Bay. With the help of a Danish dealer, he was given the names of fifty international clients to sell to and he began sending his catalogues overseas. Through these catalogues (of which he produced close to ninety by the time of his retirement in 2010) Kristjónsson was able to reach institutional and private collections the world over. They were eager to collect important works from Iceland’s unique literary and linguistic heritage. Eiríkur, who got his start with Kristjónsson’s closest competitor, Guðmundur Axelsson at Klausturhólar, remarked that Kristjónsson’s ambition was the ire of many sellers in the region.

 
“People loved to hate him,” chuckled Eiríkur looking to Ari, who was himself laughing. Kristjónsson also worked as an advocate, raising public awareness of rare books and their history through public television, appearing regularly on Iceland’s public broadcasting (RÚV) programme ‘Kiljunni’, a mainstay of Iceland’s literary culture.
 
 During this time, Kristjónsson also developed a friendship with controversial American chess master Bobby Fischer. The two became close during Fischer’s successful challenging of Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship in 1972, an event that would later aid him in becoming an Icelandic citizen near the end of his life with the deterioration of his mental and physical health. During those stressful days leading up to the match, Fischer, an insomniac, would go down to the hotel lobby where Kristjónsson was working as a night-watchman to make ends meet. Kristjónsson would stay up with Fischer, playing chess and keeping him company. Once he became a resident in 2005, Fischer spent most days in Ari’s store browsing the aisles, playing the occasional match with a visitor, and taking naps in his chair by the window, before passing away in 2008. During that time, the shop periodically served as Fischer’s mailing address. Laughing to himself, Ari remembered Fischer having him open letters for fear they were laced with poison. In a sincere tone, Eiríkur agreed, “it was a safe place for him, somewhere he could feel comfortable”.
 
 Despite his immersion in rare books at a young age, Ari’s path into the trade was a circuitous one. In the beginning, his relationship to the written word was that a of creator; he wanted to become a writer. Inspired by the work of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, Ari achieved his aspiration of publishing. He is the author of four books of poetry. However, he is quick to downplay this achievement. “It’s rare to meet someone who hasn’t published a book on the island,” he jokes. But to get fully involved in the book trade, it took Ari leaving Iceland. In the early 1990s he traveled to West Virginia to study with Jesuits. Returning in the summers, Ari began in earnest to work with his father who, by that time, had a well-established location in the centre of the city. Nearing the end of summer between his second and third year, Ari did not get on the plane back to the United States. “I wanted to do something else, but I started working here. It was like destiny, which is not necessarily a good thing,” he chuckled, kneading his thighs.
 
 Through the 1990s, Ari was involved in the development of his father’s business, learning the financial side of things, the trials and tribulations of running a book shop, expanding during one period and cutting back at another. In 2001, the store moved to its current location and, in 2003, he began working with Eiríkur. With the combination of their skills, Bókin took on a completely different profile, far more suited to connecting with the international rare book market. By 2007 they published their last physical catalogue, something Ari somewhat laments; their website now offers a robust collection of titles. The site includes catalogue descriptions that can only come from the handling of an enormous amount of books.
 
 Eiríkur’s entry into the trade came from a very different angle. A self-proclaimed farm boy, he was raised in rural Iceland and did not learn to read until the age of seven, beginning with a children’s edition of Homer’s Odyssey under the close instruction of his grandmother. This exposure in the early 1970s lead him headlong into the world of books. He became a voracious reader and, on account of there not being a local library, Eiríkur would venture out to neighbouring farms to borrow books. By the time he entered the trade in the late 1980s, it was as a collector. However health issues caused him to begin selling his collections and getting involved on the other side of the counter.
 
 As a team, Ari and Eiríkur keep the store going. By association, they are fueling the trade itself on the island, which continues to heavily feature the literary explosion from the Modern period of Iceland’s cultural history. Although most of these titles do come from people bringing their collection into the shop, they continue to travel overseas to Germany, the Scandinavian countries as well as North America, not only to buy Icelandic authors but also popular titles within the English language that have been translated by Icelandic publishers who have immigrated, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Twain, and Dickens, to name but a few. Speaking of their travels to ‘buy back’ older Icelandic titles taken to new lands by Icelanders, there is a sense of duty in Ari and Eiríkur’s efforts, as if there is a cultural shift taking place that might see such contributions recede from cultural memory. Faced with growing space shortages and administrative costs that come with digitizing libraries, institutions are forced to jettison important titles from the history of Icelandic literature. Weeks before visiting Bókin, Eiríkur relayed a story of the public library in Laxness’s hometown having to throw away close to 200 of the laureate’s books. He goes on to express concern for the academic and national institutions rarely playing an active role in the collecting community on the island, buying only two copies of everything produced by its inhabitants.
 
 In the face of this, Ari and Eiríkur push on and maintain an enduring connection and fidelity to the rare book, setting their sights toward posterity. In recalling his recent trip to Germany to purchase a collection, he remembered when the collector first visited the island as a young man and the way he moved feverishly from shop to shop buying up essential Icelandic titles. Examining these books decades later, Ari recognized the cataloguing notations made by his father and other colleagues, as well as the fluctuation of prices, both up and down, caused mostly by booksellers publishing their catalogues online. Closer to home, Ari was recently offered one of his own books of poetry, printed in a limited edition of 300, which he had dedicated ‘to a loyal friend’, a story Ari relished telling.
 
 Indeed, Ari and Eiríkur’s experience in the trade and their maintained position as students of it keep them engaged. They were quick to point out, to their surprise, that during the recent economic crisis they recorded their best sales. It is in this anomaly that they seek solace and find proof in the power of the book and, by association, collecting to endure as a vital component to a fulfilling and healthy interior life.

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