West on Books: Scandinavian Bookshops
By Richard West
In Scandinavia, unlike America, independent English-language bookshops do not seem to be going the way of the last Tasmanian, the Dodo, the final passenger pigeon, politicians with a conscience. Amidst every major city there’s a truffling of stores selling new and second-hand books, offering reading clubs, appearances by writers, cafes and free wifi, unique shops reflecting the personalities and individual tastes of wise owners . Not long ago, once again, I became infected with a case of biblio-dromania, a manic urge to travel & visit bookshops, this time in lovely Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Despite knowing from previous visits that they all charge like the Light Brigade.
First stop, Stockholm. “Fair thoughts and happy hours attend upon you” says Lorenzo to Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”, and I thought the owner of the small, cozy, welcoming English Bookshop (Lilla Nygatan 11) in the city’s Gamla Stan section deserved the same salutation for creating such a charming oasis in the city’s Old Town. And here’s a bulletin early in the trip: Scandinavian bookshops don’t only sell mysteries featuring girls with tattoos. Many genres are represented. Not only that, no matter how many you buy the postage remains the same.
The English Bookshop feels and looks traditional, certainly pre-E-book, but il faut entre absolument modern, one must be absolutely modern, so against the wall: NewspaperDirect’s contraption that print’s the day’s newspaper for you: 1,500 titles from 85 countries in 40 languages. Actually who’s surprised: Stockholm’s more cosmopolitan than Isabelle Adjani.
You can see a bit of the shop’s interior by YouTube’s presentation of Sam and Ann Charters chanting Beat poetry, accompanied by local Bjorn Lundquist on stand-up bass. (“Beat Thing at English Bookshop in Gamla Stan Stockholm). Solid, man.
In Malmo, on one of the busiest pedestrian-only shopping streets, the tres-modern Hamrelius Bokhandel (Sodergaten 28) looms, a roomy, two-story buildings with weird-but-intriguing ceiling fixtures. Turns out they are “glo-balls,” special Japanese lamps. Just the thing in a bookstore that specializes in design, architectural, and art books. Also, a very fine selection of filofax and moleskin notebooks. And, appropriately for this part of the world, a huge selection of crime fiction.
Walking down the street in Helsinki, wondering if Preparation H really did try to buy the rights to “Ring of Fire,” I wandered in The Academic Bookshop (Keskuskatu 1), Scandinavia’s largest bookstore and the region’s most architecturally renowned as it was created by famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the 1960’s. Three floors of austere white marble highlighted by almost crystalline skylights with escalators taking you past 450,000 volumes and to and from Café Aalto on a second-floor balcony. There’s an IT section for missing gadgets, allegedly the finest stationery selections in town, and Friday afternoon get-togethers with writers. For new visitors, the book to buy: Deborah Swallow’s “Finland” in the Culture Shock series. A huge selection of magazines and newspapers, of course.
Take a tour of the place on YouTube (Academic Bookshop Alvar Aalto Helsinki).
Bookstores, like oysters, need to be winched open and drunk for their sustenance. Where better than Oslo’s grandly named House of Literature (Wergelandsveien 29) right behind the royal palace. The name ain’t marketing jive: on the ground floor, books-restaurant-café; another floor just for kids and young adults; the top floor has working spaces for 50 writers; and somewhere in between a large auditorium for lectures, seminars, plays, and public meetings. And if it’s all too much, sit outside on the nice porch. Perhaps order one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks, the “Montgomery Martini,” 15 parts gin, one part vermouth, the ratio being the superiority of troops needed before British Field Marshall Bernard “Monty” Montgomery needed before going into battle. So claimed Ernest anyway. Skal!
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.