Norway, and Scandinavia in general, has many beautiful libraries. But even the most impressive and majestic buildings can’t hold a candle to a small, remote village between a fjord and a glacier, in Western Norway. Mundal only has 280 residents, but what it lacks in people it makes up in books: more than 150,000 used books are displayed promptly in various makeshift bookcases, making every moment a perfect opportunity to turn the page.
Book towns are actually a thing : think small villages, that are all about selling second-hand books. It all started in the 1960s, in a small village in Wales called Hay-on-Wye, when one of the locals had the idea to fill up the village’s abandoned cinema with thousands of second-hand books. This soon attracted the attention of book lovers from all over the world, while inspiring the rest of the inhabitants to open relevant businesses (like book-binding shops) and ultimately gave new life and a source of revenue to the village.
The concept is very similar to that of an antiquarian bookshop, where every nook and cranny is filled with used books — just on a larger, town-wide scale. We live in a time when more books than ever are being produced, and ‘ordinary’ bookshops have to change their supply quickly to meet expectations. And with more and more people reading e-books, there is a surplus of used books out there, making the idea of a book town more relevant than ever. In places like Mundal (or Hay-on-Wye), book lovers from all over the world can find rare books to bring home, or just read in a beautiful scenery.
Mundal is about memory, and preserving it. The memory of books (who find new life here, whereas otherwise would end up on a landfill), but also the memory of old buildings. Ever since it became Norway’s first book town back in 1995, Mundal’s old buildings started filling up with tons of books and gaining a sense of renewed purpose. From ferry waiting rooms (before 1995, the only way to get to Mundal was via ferry), sheds and stables, to local banks and the post office… even the grocery shop and the old phone booth offer a book or ten.
Locals love to tell you that if you line up all the book-containing shelves one next to the other, you’ll get a line that spreads for at least 2,5 miles. What is also very notable, is that many of these makeshift bookstores are self-service: you are expected to be honest, and place 10 kroner in the coin slot for each book you pick.
Of course, Mundal also has ‘brick and mortar’ book shops that are actually quite large and thorough, like Den norske bokbyen. And there are also other stores: hotels, an arts and crafts shop, cafes, art galleries… but the whole mentality of the village is book oriented. There are book fairs taking place, especially in the summer when the sun sets really late — book Night in June being the most prominent.
If you visit between May and September, you will find all bookshops open every day from 10am to 6pm. In the winter, they’re closed on weekends and open 9am to 2pm on weekdays. You could also browse their books online, of course, all year long. But if we’re being honest, that’s like missing the best part of the experience in this quaint book town.