27 February 2011

Obituary for an independent book shop

The independent book and stationery shop Bókabúð Máls og menningar has just closed its doors, probably for the last time.

This shop had been situated on the corner of Laugavegur and Vegamótastígur, in the heart of Reykjavík's shopping and entertainment district, for as long as I could remember. It had, in fact, been there since the year I was born, but had been in operation elsewhere since 1940. It was a regular stop for book lovers who were taking a stroll up or down the Laugavegur, and for the last 15 or so years you could sit down in a cosy café on the first floor and enjoy your coffee and Danish while reading a book or a magazine from the book shop.

The shop suffered a serious injury in 2009, when the operation was taken over by new management, and it had been slowly bleeding to death ever since. When the owners of the shop decided to move to a new location due to the extortionate rent being demanded by the new owners of the building, the building owners decided to continue to run a bookshop there, and acquired the rights to the Mál og menning name. However, they failed to realise that the key to running a successful indie bookshop in Reykjavík is to offer a big variety of books. You can get Icelandic books and foreign best-sellers in every bookshop and some supermarkets, but if you are independent you have to sell the Icelandic books at a little bit higher price than the chains and supermarkets can do, so you need to focus strongly on foreign stock. This the new owners failed to do.

The old shop had a large section of foreign books and was famous for its sales, when it unloaded excess stock, but the new shop had a relatively small foreign section, mostly expensive art books and best-sellers. It was still a nice place to visit for a cup of coffee and a browse, but when you wanted to find the latest novel by someone not on the best-seller lists, you went to Iða or Bóksala Stúdenta, or you visited the big Eymundsson shop (aka the Icelandic Barnes & Noble) in Austurstræti. So the shop had really been living a kind of half-life since then, neat and welcoming and full of books, but sorely in need of more visits by more serious book-buyers and fewer by casual browsers.

I am still sad to see it go - it has been such a feature of my book-buying life that it is going to leave a hole. I do hope they have a closing sale so I can visit it one last time.

1 comment:

George said...

We're down to a handful of used bookstores here in Western New York. Buffalo alone used to have over a dozen. The big-box stores like BORDERS and Barnes & Noble killed many of them in the 1990s. Now, the ebook seems to be killing off the rest. Our two giant BORDERS bookstores are still open, but the BORDERS corporation is in bankruptcy. Cozy bookstores will soon be only a fond memory.