Oslo: Absolute Top 5 bookshops
Like everywhere else, big chains have taken over the Oslo bookshop market. Independent bookstores around the world are struggling to survive, like any independent store — not because people don’t love them, but because of the frenzied property market. Thus, indie book havens that offer something special are increasingly becoming a destination in their own right, a place you can wander around undisturbed, in your own world, while humming Paul Simon: ‘I have my books, and my poetry to protect me’. Oslo doesn’t have many independent bookshops left, but there are some great ones, including one that’s world-renowned. And despite the corporate takeover, new, dedicated outlets are still popping up.
This list is a homage to all neat and spruce bookstores, run by dedicated experts, and how vital they are to our cultural wellbeing.
Tronsmo has long been an institution in literary circles and is known for high-quality literature. It would be criminal to visit Oslo without stopping off at this landmark just around the corner from main street Karl Johan. It’s strong on comics and graphic novels, has an art book department with special focus on photography, and offers the country’s best selection of Norwegian literature in a foreign language (ideal for bookworms visiting from abroad). The shop frequently hosts book launches (about that, we still crave bolder events), and is full of original works by selected artists.
In an interview with Per Petterson, author of Out Stealing Horses and a former employee at Tronsmo, The Observer (UK) wrote: “The bookshop [is] still doing brisk business in central Oslo, with almost as many books on display in English as in Norwegian. Petterson was chief buyer, in which role he gave expression to a taste for writing that dwells on the margins. He likes James Kelman, Alice Munro, Charles Bukowski. ‘When I went to City Lights in San Francisco, people in Norway asked me what it was like. I said: It’s a little like Tronsmo, only Tronsmo is better for American literature.’” Endorsements don’t get better than that.
Cappelens Forslag (or Cappelens’ Proposal) is a high calibre secondhand and vintage bookstore (and mini-café) focusing on the modern canon, first editions, antiquarian titles, cult literature and other rare books. This independent joint in central Oslo has become a ‘speakers corner’ in the urban renewal happening in this part of downtown — between the streets of Torggata and Storgata — an area lacking in intellectual refinement. ‘Forslaget’ not only has a great selection of books, a cosy atmosphere and sofa (plus a comfy barber’s chair) it also has an in-house publishing house that prints its own Conversational Lexicon, ‘freed from factual accuracy’ as the ad proclaims. Starry international contributions from the likes of George Saunders and Jarvis Cocker have helped to turn this ‘freak of publishing nature’ into a hit.
It’s run by Pil and Andreas Cappelen — who are not brothers, but share the same surname and dialect. To complicate things further, the Cappelens share their surname with one of Norway’s biggest publishers, Cappelen Damm. They have sporadic poetry readings, harmonica concerts, TV shoots, live radio, and, if you ask the vendors politely, a small glass of absinthe. A perfectly conducive atmosphere for discussions about literature — even if you think Kafka is a café, you can still look smart here.
This edgy art bookshop was once lured by Mammon to move from their occupied squat to an elegant location in gentrified Bjørvika. (Yes, that’s the mini-skyscraper ‘Barcode’ that greets you as you alight from the Airport Express.) Although inevitably corrupted, Torpedo continues to be Oslo’s finest independent bookstore for contemporary art and visual culture. At the moment Torpedo is on the move together with art space Oslo Kunsthall (kunsthalloslo.no) to another even more classy location.
Luckily for art book lovers, they do have an outlet at the artist-run Kunstnernes Hus (The Artists’ House), overlooking the Royal Park. Here they continue to eagerly promote artist-produced books and publications, art theory and criticism. Torpedo also hosts exhibitions and events related to book launches. You won’t find many slick coffee table books piled high here, but they do stock stuff you won’t find elsewhere. Talking of sophisticated establishments, the Artists’ House itself is one of a kind — the focal point for Oslo’s arty crowd since 1930. With its neo-art deco exterior, it was one of Oslo’s first modernist buildings. The entrance hall can rightly claim to be the loveliest space in town; the terrace is wonderful on a sunny afternoon; and its newly opened cinema is like your sofa with a better sound system. Together, the Artists’ House and Torpedo fulfil every modern culture-vulture’s needs: exhibitions, events, repertory cinema, arty books and athletic mingling. Plus artisan sourdough pizzas to boot!
Fabulous travel emporium, with books, maps and all kinds of travel equipment. When it opened, before the Poles started melting and the bookstore was still small, half of it was filled with maps from all over the world. These included details of freezing places like the Arctic Northwest Passage, through which nobody could actually travel, and while even now it wouldn’t be very smart, they still have maps of the area just in case. Nomaden is worth a visit for the dreamer.
The National Gallery houses a marvellous art bookstore that you can visit independently from the gallery and its most attention-seeking item, Edvard Munch’s The Scream. If that painting makes you anxious, the bookstore — set between a bijou chocolate lounge and the foyer –feels like a carefully selected candy store of books, fancy gifts and cocoa. The book selection has an emphasis on the period up to the 1950s-60s, while the accessories are mainly by Norwegian designers (and also reflect ongoing exhibitions). About that hot chocolate — the most important information here — the French café is an absolute gem hidden in the gallery, seemingly designed in collaboration between some Baroque architect and Ziggy Stardust.
Grab it while you can, though: unfortunately in 2020 the national gallery is moving to a new, voluminous and uninviting structure next to the harbour, designed by German hard-rock-lovin’ romantic Klaus Schurwerk. Still, the Norwegian government don’t know what they’re going to do with the old National Gallery space. (It’ll most likely be converted to an info centre for the ever-swelling Norwegian bureaucracy.) Until then, head over to the old National Gallery, buy a book or three, drink chocolate, take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
Sagene Bok og Papir is a dedicated little bookstore north of the city centre, which has been in the same place since 1936. Bislet Bok has good deals on paperbacks and fanzines (only a (assorted) few English titles). A new but equally dedicated little store is Schous Bøker, vintage in its interior as well as exterior, east of the city centre. At Vulkan, next to the Mathallen food market, a new pub and bookstore has opened up, focusing on cookery books. The stressfully trendy lifestyle store YME, which extends over three floors at Paleet shopping mall on main street Karl Johan, has a bookstore, and café at the 3rd floor, displaying an eclectic selection of books on fashion, design and photography. Last but not least, Litteraturhuset (The House of Literature) is Europe’s largest centre dedicated solely to literature. Go there to lounge in the cozy reading corner (under the big photo of ‘Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires’.)