Three subjects close to my heart — Iceland, chess and bookstores — come together in this article about the Reykjavik bookstore where chess expert Bobby Fischer spent much of his time during his last years:
Bókin, or The Book, is essentially a 1950s version of New York’s Strand Bookstore. Besides the books stacked head-high, under card tables, and on plywood shelves, the first thing you notice about Bókin is its smell, decayed and airless. Walking inside the 35-year-old establishment is like entering a Parisian flea market without the noise: overwhelming, a paralysis of the senses. But it was here, between narrow aisles lined with thousands of fraying biographies and history books, sitting in an ordinary chair whose varnish had worn thin, where Bobby Fischer could be alone in his thoughts. It was here where he could contemplate his place in history by [poring] through books on outlaws and rebels from Russia, Britain, Libya, and the Soviet Union with whom he could relate. And it was here, beneath the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights above, where Bobby Fischer could, for at least a few hours a day, seem to live a normal life.
“Bobby said he liked this kind of bookshop because it reminded him of his younger New York years. The mess everywhere, the stacks of books, the smell,” says owner Bragi Kristjónsson. “He was often sitting here so long, reading from these shelves, that he fell asleep.”
My first thought on reading this was a jolt of sympathy for the innocent Icelanders who, looking for a book, must have rounded a shelf and come face to face with this glaring troll. My next thought was that Fischer had found his own version of Drangey, the towering island off northern Iceland where the outlaw Grettir Asmundarson, hounded by the many enemies acquired during a lifetime of conflict, found shelter during the last years of his life.
Drangey is a huge table of volcanic rock rising sheer from the ocean. It’s not a place to visit unless you are in good physical condition: many of the slopes are so steep that even experienced hikers need to use the chain railings set into the ground, and the summit of the island can only be reached by using a chain ladder. It is spectacularly beautiful, but also demanding and unforgiving. The cliffs are pocked with bird nests that draw hunters and egg-pickers — a pretty dangerous way to get yourself some omlette fixings.
The place is reputed to be inhabited by trolls and other unsavory creatures that used to amuse themselves by cutting the ropes of hunters and letting them tumble down the cliffs. Finally, a bishop ventured out to the island and began methodically blessing the rocky terrain with holy water. He had covered most of the island when an unseen creature, which had been trying vainly to stop the bishop, called out: “Stop your blessing. Even the evil need a place to live.”
Grettir was not necessarily evil, just immensely strong and violently opposed to any sort of compromise. He craved human company, but was pretty much impossible to live with, so that he ended up on a lonely spur of rock, battling with wraiths and monsters as his enemies closed in. Bobby Fischer had an evil mouth on him but unlike that earlier outlaw he was essentially harmless. He, too, ended up alone, grappling with monsters of a more personal nature, given shelter by the country where he was still remembered with affection because of the crowning moment of his life — the 1972 chess match with Boris Spassky.
Even the pathetic need a place to live.