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Mind Your Thorns & Eths: A Letterpress Travelogue

Used books adorning a printing press at Bókakjallarinn in Reykjavík. (A. Fontanel)

A winter vacation to Reykjavík, Iceland is a must if you want to trade cold Northern cityscapes for colder, but breathtaking, geothermal hot springs, ancient geysers, and a chance to view the Aurora Borealis. Those attractions were so alluring, but this printing historian was inevitably drawn to used bookshops and thrift stores for the true flavor of this capital city. My busman’s holiday led to a mini-tour of the letterpress establishments in town. 

Reykjavík was proclaimed a UNESCO Creative City of Literature in 2011. This designation acknowledges Iceland’s rich literary tradition—stemming from the medieval Sagas and continuing with the high ratio of authorship in the population. Heck, the Icelanders even celebrate an annual event dedicated to book giving, Jólabókaflóð, the “Christmas Book Flood.” No surprise that the city center boasts plentiful sites for bookstores, including several of the national chain, Penninn-Eymundsson. However, acting on a tip from my traveling companion who remembered a small private bookshop off the main tourist strip Laugavegur, we visited the Bókakjallarinn or “Book Cellar” at Laugavegi 29B. The delightful chaos of overflowing bookshelves of used comics, cookbooks, children’s stories, and novels greeted us at the door. The best surprise was that some dusty book piles were perched atop vintage printing presses: a Grafotechna platen and a Maxima cylinder both from the former Czechoslovakia, as well as a Challenge tabletop platen from the United States!

R: Mr. Heimir Jóhannsson of Bókamiðstöðin with an original illustration for a book cover that he published. R: Jóhannsson with a poster he printed for his grandson’s bookshop, roughly translated, “Good buy! Older books and magazines …” (R. Kegler)

The owner, Mr. Svarvar Brynjúlfsson, said they belonged to his grandfather, and introduced us straightaway. Mr. Heimir Jóhannsson, 87, ran  Bókamiðstöðin a book selling and publishing enterprise in Reykjavík. The elderly gent proudly showed the original artwork by an illustrator named Baltasar, for a series of illustrated children’s books with four-color letterpress covers, once printed on the premises. He rooted through the store’s wares to show off full galleys of Linotype page forms and their proofs. He then cast aside clutter to dig out a case of a bold serif metal typeface, and a hand-carved French Clarendon wood type, both complete with the Icelandic thorn (Þ, þ) and eth (Ð, ð) characters. (These glyphs remind English speakers as P and D, but they represent the initial and medial “th” sounds in Icelandic.) At the end of the visit I was shown a handsome leather-bound volume that Jóhannsson published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Framfari, an Icelandic-language newspaper published by nineteenth century immigrants to Canada in what is now New Iceland, a region on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. The vigorous Mr. Jóhannsson expressed hopes to soon make his print shop a museum, as his grandson was moving the shop in the near future. We suggested that he perhaps join the Association of the European Printing Museums to gain some insight into such a venture.

L: Icelandic metal type in the collection of Mr. Jóhannsson. R: A hand-carved woodtype capital thorn character in the collection of Mr. Jóhannsson. (A. Fontanel)

Framfari 100 ára 10. sept. 1877–1977 or Framfari 100 years 10 Sept. 1877–1977. Reykjavík: Árni Bjarnarson: Heimir Brynjúlfur Jóhannsson, 1977. (R. Kegler)

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Another afternoon’s walk to the downtown Kolaportið flea market was a stimulating way to get in from the cold. One could buy anything from fresh fish to lava-bead jewelry, Icelandic wool sweaters, and happily, used books. Several stalls had a fascinating selection of Icelandic titles, with many English-language volumes mixed in. Bargains are hard to find though, as the remoteness of Iceland with its high cost of living has led to much inflation in the cost of goods, including vintage ones. The proprietors are shrewd too, knowing the value of their books. The only book I bought that day was about the traditional Christmas story of the pesky Jólasveinarnir, or “Yule Lads:” a mere 500 króna (~$5.00) at the local Salvation Army.

L: A used book stall at the Kolaportið flea market. Again with presses as display racks! R: Vintage editions of Þorsteinn Erlingsson’s Thorns, 1897 and Matthías Jochumsson’s Passion Hymns of Iceland. (A. Fontanel)

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L: Hildur Sigurðardottir of Reykjavík Letterpress. R: One of two Heidelberg Windmill presses at Reykjavík Letterpress. (A. Fontanel)

Just hours before leaving the volcanic island, we ventured to the waterfront Grandi neighborhood with its low-slung offices that have been stylishly converted from former fish markets. Why? Because a Google search directed us to Reykjavík Letterpress. The co-proprietress, Hildur Sigurðardottir welcomed us into a well-organized studio that led into a cheery print shop, complete with Heidelberg Windmill presses set up for polymer plate printing. Hildur trained as a graphic designer in Denmark. She and her partner Ólöf Birna Gardarsdottir, worked in advertising design before they bought their press equipment from a Reykjavík typesetter and printer. They now provide fine job printing, design services, and their own line of clever cards and printed paper goods. Although the shop focuses on digital design for letterpress, they had a full bank of metal type. (It was mostly cases of “Spartan,” which confused me, as I expected those fonts to be the Linotype/ATF knock-off of “Futura.” McGrew set me right though: the British renamed “Copperplate Gothic” as “Spartan.”) Regardless of the typeface, those Icelandic thorns and eths felt good in my hand: so exotic as glyphs, but common in how we all knew how to print with them on a press.

Lowercase thorn and eth characters in metal type at Reykjavík Letterpress. (A. Fontanel)

I don’t want to misrepresent my original purposes for traveling: I enjoyed the Blue Lagoon spa and braved the freezing spray of the great Gullfoss waterfall like hundreds of other tourists that weekend in Iceland. However, my enduring memories will be the forging of real connections with fellow Icelandic bibliophiles and printers. I hope to continue the rapport, regardless of how we spell our th, þ, or ð sounds.

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