The eighth place in the world (and the first in Scandinavia) to be declared a Book Town (1996)
The eighth place in the world (and the first in Scandinavia) to be declared a Book Town (1996)

“How do you hear about these places?” a friend often asks.

Like Fjaerland. At the end of a remote fjord in Norway. Population 300, the same number as in the Viking Age. Until 1986 accessible only by boat.

In a magazine (Travel & Leisure?) there was a brief announcement of Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word. I borrowed this delightful book from the VPL right around the time we were planning our trip to Norway. Fjaerland, it said, was “the most dramatically picturesque book town in the world.”

How do you become a Book Town?

The “Barnum of books,” an eccentric Oxford-educated man named Richard Booth, started the movement. Richard opened his first secondhand bookshop, The Old Fire Station, in the small Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye in 1962. He went on to collect a million titles and open half-a-dozen bookshops, transforming the fading twelfth-century village into “a mecca for secondhand book fanciers.” He filled his bookshelves by buying up household libraries in the UK and importing tons of books from American universities and public institutions. His vision for revitalizing the economy spurred others in Hay-on-Wye to do the same or to open relevant businesses, enlivening the village and leading to what has become the foremost literary event in the world, Hay Festival, which drew tens of thousands of visitors in its first year, 1988, and now attracts 250,000 people. Richard went on to lead the international Book Town Movement. As the organization’s honourary life president he was instrumental in helping small villages in quiet destinations around the world to attract tourists by becoming Book Towns. Villages like Fjaerland.

Standing silent, roomfuls (or in some cases just a handful) of books await you in Fjaerland’s dozen or so “bookstores.” At the Kaffistova Book-café at the ferry-waiting area. In hotels, like the gorgeous Fjaerland Fjorstove, where we had coffee and where I’d love to stay in one of its book-lined bedrooms. In abandoned buildings like the bank, post office and grocery store. At a bus stop, in a telephone booth, even in a former stable and pigpen. Most shops were unattended, on an honesty payment system the Norwegians call sjølvpluøk.  About 300,000 pairs of eyes have a look at these bookshelves every year but that afternoon in early September, every tourist could have had a bookshop to themselves.

On the shelves are an estimated total of 250,000 mostly secondhand books. Putting that in perspective, that’s five kilometres of books laid end-to-end!

Most of the books we saw were in Norwegian. Leather-bound classics, paperbacks, antiquarian literature, local fairy tales, pulp fiction, contemporary novels, thick textbooks, art books, yellowed magazines, How-To manuals, slim volumes of poetry…

Ah, bibliosmia, the attic-y aroma of aged paper, earthy leather, glue bindings, the quaff of vanilla, the smell of scholarship. Perfumists have even attempted to bottle bibliosmia with scents such as Demeter’s Paperback and Fueguia 1833’s Biblioteca de Babel.

In Bok og bilde, my favourite bookshop, the attendants told us about Boknatts, the annual summer-solstice festival. Fjaeland’s streets are lined with pop-up booksellers who stay open all night, accompanied by music—yodelling polkas, Irish jigs and 60s-style sunshine pop.

We asked them about life here in the winter when darkness overtakes most of the day. The tall, middle-aged man in his lumberjack shirt who had arrived from Oslo as a tourist three years ago and now makes Fjaerland his year-round home told us the fjord sometimes freezes over and the streets are covered with such a thick layer of ice that he wears crampons to walk around the village!

Are secondhand bookstores with their curious smells of ink on paper and dizzying kaleidoscope of dust-jackets simply niche nostalgia? Apparently not. Even before COVID, secondhand bookshops were growing at a rate of 8%-10% per year according to the BBC. Print books still comprise 80% of the market and indie bookstores are on the rise, despite, or because of, Amazon. Stats show 80% of Canadians read at least one book a year. (I would hope so!) Norwegians outread us.

Curiously, in Fjaerland we realized Norway has two languages: bokmål, which 90% of the population speaks, and nynorsk, which is dominant in Western Norway. “Courses {on nynorsk} are readily available, and Fjærland has many eager helpers to get you up and going,” it says on the village website, which also states, “Culturally, we may not differ much from other Norwegians, but we feel there is an atmosphere of openness for new ideas and people. We have a well-developed sense of independence, self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.” We sensed that, wandering this town for three hours.

Fjaerland is an amalgamation of two villages, the other being Mundal. Many of its citizens immigrated to America at the turn of the 19th century, including the family of former US Vice- President Walter Mondale. Which explains why he presided over the opening of the first road to Fjaerland.

Not only bibliophiles come to Fjaerland.

Named “the most beautiful glacier village in the world” by many, Fjaeland is surrounded by towering mountains, glacial rivers and U-shaped valleys that attract landscape painters from all over the world. From Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier on the European continent, two “pups,” the Supphelle and Bøya Glaciers, come down to the valley floor in Fjaerland, attracting mountaineers to some of the most challenging terrain in Norway. Right beside Bøyabreen Glacier the previous night Magellan and I had our most stunning freedom camp spot, ever. But our hiking attempt was cut short by rivers of water on the trail.

In Fjaerland I was hoping to find a copy of the classic Three in Norway (by two of them), a deadpan and humourous travelogue about the adventures of three friends canoeing and camping in the wilds of Norway in the nineteenth century that, based on this excerpt, I thought I’d enjoy:

It continued raining in a nice keep-at-it-all-day-if-you-like kind of manner, so we resided in the tent, and read, and indulged in whisky and water for lunch to counteract any ill effects of the reading—for some of it was poetry.

Like discovering unexpected wildflowers on a hike, serendipitous finds are the joy and thrill of poking around any bookshop, especially a secondhand one. At Bok og bilde I spotted a hand-knitted toque in a Nordic pattern of white, yellow and blue. And a homemade bookmark that reads: “One touch of Nature makes the whole world Kin.”


Here’s the Book Town website.

This site describes Boknatts.

The village of Fjaerland has a good website.

Have a look at the Fjaerland Fjorstove Hotel and you’ll see want to visit this town.

His obituary in The Guardian was the source of my info about Richard Booth.

Johnson, Alex. Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word. London: Frances Lincoln; 2018.

Lees, James Arthur and Clutterbuck, Walter J. Gutenberg, Three in Norway (by two of them). London: Longman, Greens & Company, 1882. Available to read online for free, courtesy Gutenberg in 2011. The illustrations too are magnificent.

8 Responses

  1. I LOVE books too; especially old ones.

    You know what else really thrills me: the “Norwegian Yellow” photograph in your blog that shows one long row of books on a shelf on a wall, ALL AT EYE LEVEL.. I realize I have always dreamt of such a shelf..

    I HATE all book shelves below eye level! I feel like going to Norway just to experience this shelf of books first hand..
    How wonderful it must be to explore books while leisurely standing and quietly stepping unhindered along such a shelf
    Those Norwegians are so smart.. What a wonderful invention… It seems so simple…

    I’m going to look for a copy of “Three in Norway, by two of them”. The title and the quote you have given has hooked me too…

    Thank you,


    1. So Wade, you will likely also love this old word I found this week (unknown to dumb me): “Fulvous:” a dull brownish yellow. Like the faded colour of the pages old books in secondhand shops. You can click onto the full copy of Three in Norway via our link in Navigation—not as good as a book in the hand but maybe easier to find. And the illustrations are marvellous, which as a painter, you will appreciate even more.

  2. This makes me think of the little libraries we have around Saskatoon. Ours are much smaller though. They look like tiny barns on a post in people’s front yards and inside are some books. It’s a take a book, leave a book type library

  3. Books are indeed a trip all there own, where else can you leave your current environment and travel to a vast array of destinations only limited by your own imagination. Best part, is the tour is open to anyone with the ability to read the printed word, and cost is really only pertinent to a very small percentage of the worlds population, sadly too many.
    Are books actually knowledge or possibly but a road map for the imagination and inner mind, no matter.
    I have met many people between the pages and learned about Mother Nature and her offerings to the world, plus the incredible array of educational articles offered for your course of study or possible simple amusement and enjoyment, good stuff all.
    Perhaps best of all is learning about the authors, a story within a story if you will, often this tale is as relevant as the title of the pages you behold.
    Not sure I understand looking at books in other languages, value of course is taken on by the viewer, or as often said by self, we look, but do we truly see.
    Book, a value we need to revisit, again and again.

    1. Seeing those delightful covers on the comic books, I bought a book of Norwegian Folk Tales and read them aloud to mom via Echo/Alexa. It led to a discussion of the differences/similarities in folk tales around the world; there’s definitely more of the latter.

      Also, there are some who would say secondhand bookshops are more like museums. What do you think?

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