There are times when I’m traveling, and feeling exhausted by the strangeness of a place, when the appearance of a bookstore with literature in a language I can read makes all the difference. An hour or two browsing the shelves is like running into an old friend on the street in a foreign city. As I grew up in Bergen, Oslo’s Tronsmo bøker og tegneserier, once called “the best bookstore in the world” by Allen Ginsberg when he visited in the early ’80s, has on several occasions done the trick.
In 2007, I stopped in Oslo on my way to spend five weeks writing in a sleepy Bulgarian village by the Black Sea. As the selection of books available in Ravda was limited to a shelf of British romance novels in a bar, it was lucky that a friend brought me by Tronsmo’s annual backyard sale the day before my departure. It was my first time inside the store, and my friend quickly pulled me out, over a windowsill, to where tables piled with books at amazing prices were set up on the cement. Despite my meager funds, I was able to purchase a tall stack, including my first discovery of Martha Gellhorn’s hilarious collection of travel horror stories, Travels With Myself and Another.
Tronsmo today is one of very few bookstores in Norway not owned by the large publishing houses. It was founded in 1973, during the heyday of the radical left in Norway, from the desire for a communal leftist bookstore. It was formed when Ivar Tronsmo and Asbjørn Øverås joined forces with Oktober, the Norwegian Marxist-Leninist party AKP(ml)’s bookshop, out of an explicit wish to affect political change.
In the beginning, Tronsmo didn’t have a license to sell books in Norwegian. They sold only international books, almost exclusively political literature, nonfiction, and pamphlets. It has since broadened its range considerably. Forty years of offering a relaxed setting with obscure books that you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in Norway, including a large selection of Queer literature, has made it deeply beloved by its customers. Tronsmo also provides a way for many self-published comics and small magazines to reach readers, too.
Tronsmo is located right around the corner from the National Gallery, not far from Karl Johans gate, Oslo’s main street which runs from the train station to the royal palace. The big display windows stand out because of the variety of books they feature, rather than just bestsellers. Inside, books are laid out on tables, arranged lovingly by theme. The large, utilitarian room is packed with brightly lit shelves. During the Christmas season, the checkout line often winds through the entire store.
Large art photos of Patti Smith, who has visited the store on multiple occasions, hang on the walls. There are gorgeous photo books and cheap art postcards, with a great selection of William Eggleston and Nan Goldin, among others. There’s also a fashion and style section, books in Swedish, books on music, an array of funny feminist magnets and postcards, and even a respectable kids’ section, as well as a special shelf for Beat literature. The constantly expanding selection also includes an extensive array of theory and philosophy, and a great poetry assortment that recently got room to stretch when it switched places with the crime fiction. Many of the books are in English, making it well worth the visit for travelers. Downstairs is the comics section, definitely one of the best in Norway, with greetings from big names such as Jeff Smith and Neil Gaiman drawn directly on the walls.
The crush-worthy staff is always brisk but friendly. Many a literary person has worked here, and according to the manager, Eva Stenlund Thorsen, Tronsmo may have had some hand in their making. Per Petterson, whose breakthrough novel Out Stealing Horses has been translated into 40 languages, worked here for 12 years, and still launches his books at Tronsmo.
Eva considers the fact that the staff can choose what to stock and promote, rather than having lists handed down from on high, to be the biggest advantage of being independent. In 1999, the store was close to bankruptcy, but fundraising by loyal customers, and support from a foundation to support freedom of expression, saved the day. Last year, Tronsmo published a limited edition 40th anniversary package containing music made by friends of the bookstore, comics (some where Tronsmo is featured), a book of art photography with rights donated by the artists, and several books detailing the store’s history and impact. With continued community support like that, one can only hope Tronsmo will be around to soothe and inspire the hearts of readers for another 40 years.