Mál og menning Bookstore Starts a New Chapter

Earlier this summer, Reykjavík’s Mál og menning bookstore closed its doors “indefinitely,” after some 80 years of operation at Laugavegur 18. It seems, however, that the cornerstone bookseller will soon be turning the page on its old life. DV reports that real estate developer Garðar Kjartansson has signed a ten-year lease with the building owners and intends to keep the Mál og menning (‘Language and Culture’) name but transform the space into a live music venue.

Garðar was quick to assure people that the new Mál og menning would honour its bookish roots. “There will probably be more books than ever before,” he said. The primary design focus will be books, he explained, which will fill the shelves along the walls and be available for purchase or just on-site browsing. “I’m not going to start spending money on decor—everything [we need] is already here.”

To further drive the book focus home, the new Mál og menning is bringing a venerable neighbour into its space: the iconic antiquarian bookstore Bókin (‘The Book’), which has been in operation since 1964. Bókin has been owned and run by Ari Bragason and his father since 1997, and they will now move it into the basement of Laugavegur 18.

Garðar envisions Mál og menning as a bustling live music venue, and then some. “We’ll have concerts here every night from around 8 – 10 pm,” he explained, and there will also be stand-up comedy nights. And chessboards. And two cafes—one on the ground floor and one on the second floor where the Súfistinn café used to be.

The idea is to have all different kinds of music, but Garðar says that jazz musicians have been particularly eager to stage a weekly jazz night. Whatever the genre, however, he says that Mál og menning is not going to be a part of Reykjavík’s late-night djamm circuit. “It’s going to have a laidback Helgi Björns atmosphere,” he said, referring to Helgi Björnsson, the Icelandic actor and singer whose “Ef ég nenni” (‘If I Bother’) is arguably the go-to Icelandic Christmas pop song. “It’s not going to be a nightspot at all. It’ll be open from noon to midnight, every day.”

Originally, Garður had planned to open Mál og menning in December, but obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed his plans. “We’re just going to have everything ready and then open when we open, as you say.”

Testing, One, Two, Three…

Húrra music venue

I’m standing in the lobby of Hlemmur Square, a hotel and hostel in downtown Reykjavík. All around me, tourists pore over maps, drink beers, and happily discuss their traveling plans. Yes, they are going whale watching in the morning. Yes, that Icelandic beer they’re drinking is delicious, and no, they don’t seem to be listening to the ambient music that streams from a set of speakers in the corner.

Between the speakers stands Nicolas Kunysz, musician and co-owner of independent music label Lady Boy Records. A guitar lies on a table in front of him, and he intermittently strokes the strings whilst fiddling with electronic effects boxes strewn around him. The resulting sound is more akin to a gentle cloud than guitar music, but it’s entrancing. As expressed by its progenitor Brian Eno, ambient music’s core philosophy is that it should be “as interesting as it is ignorable.” But standing here amidst the tourists, whose chatter is threatening to drown out Nicolas’ tender music completely, one wonders if ambient music has been demoted to “just ignorable.”

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