The best record store in the world?

Andrew MellorFri 21st June 2013
The best record store in the world?12 Tónar's listening room: somewhere under that coffee table is the latest issue of Gramophone

12 Tónar in Reykjavik isn’t just a charming wonderland of music, it’s a big iron-clad lesson in how to shift CDs in the 21st century

‘The problem’, remarked a Gramophone reader on the phone to the reviews desk the other day, enquiring about the availability of a new recording we’d covered, ‘is that you have to go an awfully long way to find a decent record shop.’

Too right you do – try Iceland. If you’re out there, mister reader-enquirer, book yourself a seat on a Wow Air flight to Reykjavik and head for Skólavörðustígur, the straight street that shoots up towards the rocket-like facade of the Hallgrimskirkja. There, a short way up on the left hand side, you’ll find a strange and wonderful world of recorded music, live music, passionate musical advocacy, charming domestic decoration…and free coffee. 

I was in Reykjavik last week and had been tipped-off about the ‘legendary’ record shop, record label, listening lounge and general hang-out, 12 Tónar. It sits there upright on the street, a classic double-fronted Icelandic building lined with pale-green corrugated iron. There’s all sorts of music inside, including a thorough and eclectic classical section which isn’t banished to a back cupboard but instead greets you on entry – the front-room of the ‘house’ that is 12 Tónar. 

You’ll want to find the back room, though, because there – on a sink-in sofa underneath playfully positioned black-and-white portraits of great Icelandic musicians – you can take any CD from the shelves and listen to it on a genuine compact disc player. Not listen to sample of it, not click somewhere on a screen to have it suddenly and uncontrollably blast into being, but open the box, peruse the booklet, fondle the silver disc, clip it onto its little bracket and spin off into a full experience of the whole, finished product. Then, just as the gigantic worm-can of Götterdämmerung’s Prologue begins to twist itself open, one of the staff will arrive with that espresso you asked for a few minutes ago.

So who comes in here and buys stuff from the shop’s classical shelves? ‘People of all ages’, 12 Tónar’s co-owner Lárus Jóhannesson says. ‘It’s young people, old people, people in between.’ And why, when a huge retailer on the main shopping artery of seven-million strong London can’t shift satisfactory amounts of CDs, do they come here and not to the Icelandic Amazon? ‘People trust us to take them on a journey and steer them’ says Lárus. ‘There’s so much music to explore, and we have a lot of people visit us who are really interested but don’t have the time or the capacity to find what might be right next to them. That’s where we come in.’

The human element is central to 12 Tónar’s ‘business plan’ (as it wouldn’t be called here). You get decent, fun, unobtrusive and non-patronising discussion from the staff who are able, Björk-like, to segue easily between Edvard Grieg and Ragnheiður Gröndal (a characteristic that pervades the Icelandic musical community). There are regular live gigs and recitals, and the whole place exudes a deep love of music and the healthy disrespect for orderly cataloguing engendered by that love. Cardboard boxes sprout CDs from below the shelves – you’re trusted to explore as you would be round at a mate’s house. And no matter how wonderfully easy the likes of Spotify and iTunes make musical discovery, there’s no substitute – once in a while – for being in a room full of CDs in all their physical uniformity and design diversity.

Across genres, the stock at 12 Tónar is impressive. ‘Yeah, we’re all pretty much involved in music here so it’s an eclectic mix and it reflects our interests at the time’, says Lárus. ‘We have the basics, but there might be a lot of baroque one month and a lot of piano the next. The most boring shops are the ones where you can predict what they’ll have, and you can go through it blindfolded. If it’s just based on the best recordings, it doesn’t have any soul.’

And what of the elephant in the room – the digital trend which has such stark advantages in a little, faraway country like Iceland? ‘I don’t consider it a threat’, says Lárus. ‘It’s more about us working together and obviously the CD and vinyl won’t be the only thing any more. We have a saying in Icelandic which basically translates as ‘a person is another person’s joy’. We’re all excited by this new technology, but we’re human beings and we have to relate to each other – to meet up once in a while.’

And meet up they do in 12 Tónar – a healthy mix of local students, skateboarders, lecturers, musicians, politicians, pop stars and Iceland Symphony Orchestra subscribers (the latter come in to shop for repertoire coming up in the orchestra’s schedule at the start of each season, the discs specially called-in by the store). ‘You can come, have an espresso, listen to anything you like, and even if you don’t buy anything I’ll still let you back in the next day,’ Lárus says with a laugh.

And he may well laugh, because his model appears to be working. A second store in Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall opened last year and trades every day from 10am. I reckon it impossible for anyone interested in music and its recording to leave the Skólavörðustígur 12 Tónar without something of a warm glow. It might be born of far less cynical impulses, but it’s precisely that sort of feeling – the marketing experts tell us – that makes you more willing to part with your hard-earned kroner. As I head out, Lárus calls down the steps from the high front door behind me: ‘When you come back, I’ll have something special for you.’ Now that’s what I call customer service.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014