There are three truths to every major city on earth – coffee, records and cocktails. You can replicate these truths wherever your travels take you and I would highly recommend it. Specifically, coffee and record shop culture provide deep insights into the tone and lifestyle of a city. Subtle clues are there if the right questions are asked. Are the cafes designed for community or are they fueling stations? Are the coffee drinks artfully prepared or is the experience a factory for those in need of a caffeine fix? When you enter a record shop, what type of music is playing? What is the volume? Is the shop clean or are the stacks dusty and piled high? Is there a local section and if so, who are the bands? How knowledgable is the staff? All key indicators to the lifestyle of the city and the vibrancy of the local music scene. This story is an exploration of Reykjavik’s coffee and record shops, but it’s also a guide on how to take a great walk and explore a city in unique way.
Upon stepping outside our apartment a rainbow in the sky caught my eye. An omen I thought. This was going to be a good day.
Reykjavik is totally accessible by foot. A warning though, asking for directions is an effort in futility. Not a knock on the locals, only a point on how challenging the language is to American tongues. During the trip research, I created a custom map that pinned all Iceland Airwaves venues (off venue included), shopping options, coffee roasters and record stores. The map is available at the end of this post. It was a handy navigational tool that allowed me to avoid murdering the local language in front of the natives.
Here, you try it – “Skolavörðustìgur”. Told you.
Iceland has a thriving coffee culture, but that wasn’t always the case. Kaffitár Bankastræti owner Aðalheiður Héðinsdóttir, introduced high quality coffee to Iceland and was instrumental in building the scene. The tables were packed with locals and Airwaves attendees alike as I entered the shop. Conversations plentiful and the warmth a much needed respite from the chilling wind along the street, Bankastræti. The barista was friendly and immediately spoke English to me. How did she know, I thought? Chalking it up to American good looks, I ordered an Americano and chocolate croissant. Cordially, she placed a second croissant in the bag stating that the pastries were a bit small. So very kind and much appreciated. Waiting for my coffee, I picked up a copy of the Reykjavik Grapevine. It’s the local weekly and is written in English making it a good resource for travelers. Definitely recommend going on their website prior to visiting Iceland to get your cultural bearings. My first cup of piping hot coffee in hand and not a seat available, I headed back into the streets is search of more coffee and records.
My first stop, an institution of Iceland’s music scene…
12 Tonar is a record store I would own if I owned a record store. Part cafe, part record label, part community center – it is a hub for Icelandic music and supports it’s distribution worldwide. The shop was founded in 1998 and since 2003, has released over 50 albums from the rich and varied local music scene. There was a selection of vinyl upstairs, but downstairs is where you want to go to do your digging.
One marvelous gesture of hospitality the store provides is complimentary tea or espresso as you shop. In addition, comfortable couches and listening stations are available both upstairs and down to sit, sip your drink and enjoy vetting your selections. You could easily spend a morning or afternoon here. It’s warm, friendly and the perfect place to explore Icelandic music both old and new.
Make sure to dig through the boxes underneath the cabinets, there are some older selections there and you may find a gem. Do your research before you get there though so you get your Iceland bands down. You won’t want to pass up on a rare record you won’t get back home.
I added the following records to the collection:
With two coffees in me and my first Icelandic vinyl purchased, I was buzzing and ready to eat. The chocolate croissant was in fact small and sustenance was needed. Making my way down into the heart of the city I noticed a gentleman standing outside a hotel. He wore a Ramones-eque leather jacket, had long hair and a very distinct face. It was David Fricke, Senior Editor of Rolling Stone Magazine. We spent 10 – 15 minutes talking about music, travel, our wives and, of course, records. He’s a legendary collector and this was a true “Airwaves Moment.” Here I am. In Iceland. Record shopping and having a chat with the Senior Editor of Rolling Stone Magazine… Awesome.
It was chilly and I had paced up and down the street, lost in my pursuit of Stofan.
Stofan is warm with large tables for families and groups of friends to collect and spend time together. The name Stofan translates to Living Room and the vibe is on point. To note, Stofan is not a cafe dedicated to coffee. It’s more general and offers greater selections of food and drink. You can have a local beer or a glass of wine. Iceland Airwaves can lead to heavy bouts of drinking during the evenings so it’s a good spot to gather, eat and possibly have a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you. Hangover lacking, I opted for coffee and a bagel with salmon.
There was a quant and inviting table along the side of the cafe. I sat, sipped my Cappuccino and read a story in the Reykjavik Grapevine about “Story Island,” where a “fresh young crop of writers are busy carving out a space, making way, creating culture all of their own, in defiance of what came before.” I love the fierce creativity of this country. It’s uplifting.
The bagel and lox came and I ate quietly while casually ease dropping on the table next to me. An English couple, married and in their 30’s, had partook of many local beers the night prior and were well hungover. They shared a story of coming home smashed and trying to make a late night toast – as in bread toast. Toast? Who makes toast when they’re drunk? The English I guess. Next time I come home a bit tipsy I’ll give it a go.
My meal complete, it was back to the street in search of the next record store, but along the way…
Future Islands were sound checking as I walked by and decided to stop into the Hafnarhus location of the Reykjavik Art Museum. Founded in 1973, the Reykjavik Art Museum is Iceland’s largest visual art institution. The Hafnarhus location – there are three venues: Hafnarhus, Kjarvalsstadir, and Asmundarsafn – houses exploratory works of contemporary art and is also one of Iceland Airwaves’ official venues. There were no coffee or records at this stop, but I took time to read through the design books of the museum’s library. A collection any one of my designer friends would cherish back home.
Iceland’s largest flea market was in close proximity to the museum so a drop in was warranted…
Kolaportið Flea Market is open on weekends and holidays. It feels like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal and a yard sale had a lovechild. A mish-mosh of clothing, toys, fermented shark parts and yes, records. It’s a cash location so find an ATM before you get there. I only did a quick lap here and left. If you have the time and are into vintage and secondhand then plan on stopping, but it’s not a must see.
Reykjavik Record Shop is the newest shop in downtown Reykjavik. It’s small, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in selection and simplicity. Like Origami Vinyl in Los Angeles, what inventory is available is honestly curated. I ended up chatting with the owner, a casually cool dressed man in his 30’s, friendly and well versed in the local music scene. As always, I asked for any recommendations. He handed me an Epic Rain album and stated David Fricke said it was the gem of last year’s Iceland Airwaves Festival. Turned out to be a good record, but my least favorite of the haul. Sounded like Tom Waits. Unfriend me not, I respect Tom Waits, but I don’t listen to him much or by choice.
I bought a Reykjavik Record Shop tote that has since become my go to bag of choice and added the following records to the collection:
Time for an espresso…
Reykjavik Roasters was my absolute favorite stop of the day. The shop reopened as Reykjavik Roasters in 2013, but the origin dates back to 2008. Located outside the downtown with simple decor and good music, the focus is undoubtably on the quality of coffee served. The passion for which they approach the caffeinated arts is evident when you read their website’s “about” section. Boldly, they proclaim the importance of acting locally while partaking in a large global discourse of high quality coffee. Their direction is towards a higher cup quality, more traceability, eco-friendly innovations and to convey proper appreciation of every single producing link in the chain from harvesting to brewing.
As I sipped my well crafted espresso, the local’s style caught my attention. Reykjavik is a city that unequivocally understands layers. It’s a combination between the ruggedness of Portland mixed with the tailoring of San Francisco. Wilderness gentlemen? Fisherman creative designers? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s cool. The ladies all have a rose in the cheeks from the cold wind and accent it well with bright red lipstick. Cold style. I dig.
My late afternoon espresso and cookie hit the spot. If you have a chance to spend few days in Reykjavik, I would highly recommend pinning this coffee house. Bring a book, sit down and enjoy a pleasant morning.
I purchased a bag of Reykjavik Roasters’ “Monte Sol and Jesus Maria” from Producers, The Brothers Jamie and Ricardo Rosales. As I write this post I am sipping the last bit, prepared in a Japanese Siphon, the flavors are bright and the coffee delicious.
So five or, hmm… possibly six coffee drinks in, I am electric. Second wind achieved…
Bad Taste Record Store, born of the 1980’s Icelandic punk scene, was my last record shop stop and I didn’t really spend a lot of time here. Surprisingly, Iceland’s record shops still sell a lot of CDs. Most of the record stores have healthy inventories and Bad Taste Record Store is no exception. Not a huge vinyl selection here, but they had the Iceland Airwaves bands well stocked. If you don’t have plans to be in Reykjavik anytime soon, you can pick up Icelandic music recordings from their online store .
I added the following records to my collection:
With the day growing late it felt time to transition from coffee to a beer, but along the way I passed the Nordic Playlist pop-up shop.
Looking for a well curated intro to Nordic indie music? Nordic Playlist is a great resource. Each week, a trusted artist or tastemaker compiles a 10-track playlist made up of songs from Nordic countries. The pop-up shop was a good duck-in for cheap Gull (local beer), and Brennivin shots. Brennivin, also known as “black death,” is an unsweetened schnapps made from potato mash that is flavored with caraway seeds, cumin, angelica, and other herbs native to Iceland. My first sip was from a bottle passing through Kex Hostel when FM Belfast played a KEXP showcase. It tasted a bit like rye.
Now it’s time for that beer…
My day was coming to an end and seven new records were added to my blossoming new Iceland music collection. Kex Hostel, a former biscuit factory, was a welcomed stop to sit and enjoy a beer – in this case an Einstök Pale Ale . Kex has an Ace Hotel vibe, but it’s truer to hostel type accomodations. The amenities are varied and include a bar/cafe, meeting rooms, kitchens and a vintage gym where you pump old school iron. Think 1950’s strong man type gym. KEXP, the iconic Seattle public radio station, has a constant presence here during Iceland Airwaves. Definitely check out Kex when you are in Reykjavik. It’s a cool spot.
I finished my beer and was headed back to the apartment when I looked across the harbor and saw the orange hues of sunset splashed across Mount Esja.
I stopped, sat down on a bench and took in the past 8-hours. Here I was, in a land far from home and having a day much like many back home in Los Angeles. A day filled with coffee, records and a beer. Some would argue that’s like every weekend of my life. Yet, this was different. Though the through-line of the experience was the same – those three truths I spoke of earlier – it was tailored Reykjavik. Slower and designed to be appreciated. Coffees prepared with care and the records, all new to me. Lucky. That’s all I can say about how I felt about life in that moment. Lucky to know that experiences such as this are readily available if we seek them. That they’ll never be repetitive. Never old hat. Lucky to understand that all of us have similar needs in life. The need to gather and converse. The need to get lost in and surround ourselves with great music. The need to unwind and relax. We are all so similar and yet unique in our own ways. It is in the variances that we define our cultures and it is in the exploration of the variances in others where truly great adventure is found.
Happy traveling friends…
XO // JRS