It’s hard to believe as I write these words in March 2018, that 25 years ago this month, we (myself and four fellow expats) had just made the gut-wrenching decision to rent a decrepit space in what felt like a far-flung part of Prague (that not even many residents knew very well) to open up an English-language bookstore and coffeehouse.
The rooms we would be renting, in the district of Holešovice (2kms north of Old Town Square, and well off the tourist track), had most recently housed a communist-era laundry service (praní prádla in Czech) and were little more than dank, dusty hovels of exposed concrete and dangling wires. There was a small window carved into one of the walls through which residents would push their dirty clothes and pick them up a few days later.
The building, though, had great potential. It’d been built in the early 20th century, and between the world wars had housed an opulent pharmacy. The high ceilings still had their pretty moldings, and there was even a room with running water at the back where we could build in a small kitchen. It felt right, but we still weren’t sure.
As I mentioned, the chief downside was location (see the map plot, below). Holešovice, these days, is an up-and-coming neighborhood that the city is working hard to transform into Prague's “art quarter.” Business Insider UK even ran an article identifying Holešovice as one of Europe’s “23 Coolest Neighborhoods.” That’s debatable, but there’s no denying it’s on the way up.
Back then, it was poor, working class and isolated. We wondered to ourselves how tourists who could barely find the Charles Bridge at the time would ever make their way out to visit us.
The other big worry, of course, was the whole idea of starting an English-language bookstore in Prague. Were there enough tourists and expats around to sustain this kind of business? Would Czechs actually want to buy books in English?
Those were just some of the questions we asked ourselves that spring 25 years ago as we sat around a dingy table with our future landlords to sign what would be a five-year lease. The building’s owners, a Czech family, had recently come into their property through restitution and were as unskilled at leasing a storefront as we were at running a business.
When people ask me how I got myself involved in owning a bookstore and coffeehouse, I still don’t have a good answer (even 25 years later). In 1992, when the five of us first met and agreed to open the business together, I was an editor with one of Prague’s two main English-language newspapers, “The Prague Post,” and had settled on a career in journalism. Like everyone else back then, I guess I got carried away by the optimism unleashed by the fall of communism just a few years earlier and wanted to be part of it. There was something in the air in Prague back then.
The idea to open up a bookstore wasn't actually mine, but came from two of my prospective partners, Jasper Bear and Maura Griffin, who were also working for The Prague Post. I remember the circumstances pretty clearly:
One morning, sometime in mid-1992, the three of us happened to be sitting at the same Prague cafe, Kavárna Velryba, when I overheard the two of them discussing their bookstore idea. At one point, I walked over to their table a few meters away, confessed I’d been listening in, and asked if they might be looking for a partner. They politely declined, but they must have had a change of heart not long after. They invited me in a few days later.
Our partnership became five with the addition of Scott Rogers and Markéta Janků (now Rogers) at around that same time. Scott and Markéta had been helping to run a popular expat-owned club and restaurant, Radost FX, and were thinking of branching out into their own business. We fused the two ideas, and that’s how the Globe became both a bookstore and a coffeehouse.
Signing the lease, of course, was just the first step. None of us had much money at the time, and once we started paying rent, the pressure mounted to open the business quickly and start recouping some of the initial investment. We set an opening for sometime in July – to capture at least some of the tourist season – but that was just a few short months away and the race was on.
As I mentioned up top, none of us had any real business experience. We’d each pitched in our share of foundation capital, $10,000 per partner, which gave us a little bit of cash to start renovating the space as well as to buy kitchen equipment, coffeehouse furniture, and books. But there was still the problem of where to find all of this stuff in Prague (in 1993) and how to pull it all together.
Having just carried out a small renovation of my Prague apartment that took over a year to complete – in 2017 – I marvel now at how we were able to create the semblance of a bookstore and coffeehouse in such a short amount of time in the early '90s. Markéta, a Czech-American, was the only Czech speaker among us, and she focused on the local and legal angles. Scott honed in on the kitchen. Jasper and Maura pitched in on sourcing books and finding personnel, and other odds and ends.
As for me? I was the only one of us at the time who owned a car. My little forest-green Škoda Forman “Excellent” regularly made the hop to the used-furniture warehouses over on Prague’s Libeňský ostrov, where we bought the lamps and chairs, and over to Žižkov, across town, where we bought a lot of the pots and pans and plates and cutlery. Being the Globe's driver was a full-time job.
And that was only the half of it. There were still tons of decisions -- both big and small -- to make. Would we serve food in the coffeehouse? If so, what kind of food? Would we sell used books? New books? Both? Oh, and what color would we paint the walls?
We didn’t even have a name for the place until a few weeks before opening.
In retrospect, “The Globe” seems like such a natural name, it may come as a surprise to learn it could easily have been something else. Markéta seemed to like the name “Under the Blue Lamp” – mainly for how it sounded in Czech: Pod modrou lampou. Some of the other contenders included – jogging my memory here – “The World” or “The New World” – which works pretty well in Czech as Nový Svět, and recalls Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony of the New World.” I personally liked (but didn’t push very hard for) “Café Niagara” (not for the famous waterfall, but rather for a cryptic Hungarian short story from 1963). It’s a cool story but probably would have been a disastrous name.
We settled on the name once and for all a few weeks before the opening at a writers’ retreat Scott had set up at a villa on the outskirts of Prague. He was working on an anthology of contemporary English writing from Prague, "Bohemian Verses," that would be published at around the same time as we planned to open the store. I don’t remember the deliberations very clearly, but we hashed out the possibilities, and after some back and forth settled on “The Globe.” The name had both a reference to Shakespeare going for it (it's an unwritten rule that all English-language bookstores in Europe need a Shakespeare tie-in) and, in a larger sense, evoked the symbolism of the world returning to Prague after decades of Communist-era isolation.
I remember the period from May to July as both exciting and exhausting. When we weren’t buying furniture or deciding on names, we were doing more ho-hum stuff like scraping the old linoleum off the tile floors. On many days -- on just about every day -- it looked like it was never going to come together.
For all of our initial anxieties, we needn’t have worried too much. From our July opening to the day the Globe closed its doors at that location, seven years later*, there seemed to be a steady stream of backpackers leading all the way from Prague’s main station straight to our door. The place proved to be a big hit both with expats and Czechs, who (at least at first) were amazed that out our store, you could touch the books (and read them) before buying them – and even get a decent cup of coffee.
Though we didn't fully grasp it then, the summer of 1993 proved to be at or near the high-water mark of an expat explosion in Prague that would last at least until 1995 or '96. Editors of newspapers and magazines around the world -- in trying to explain the odd influx of thousands of young foreigners to a city in Central Europe -- latched onto The Globe as an easy-to-understand symbol. They could leverage Prague's beauty and prewar reputation as a literary haunt while at the same time giving the city a then-timely "Gen X" gloss.
I suppose we should have gotten an inkling of the tsunami that was coming on that late-July evening, July 28 to be precise, after we'd finally finished stacking all the books, painting the façade and mounting that big “The Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse” sign above the door. As we prepared to welcome the public in with a bash on opening night, we wondered who -- if anyone -- might be coming to the party.
The festivities were set to start at 7pm, and within an hour, the crowds were already lining the street.
(Click here to jump to Part 2.)
*We unwound our partnership around the year 2000, though the Globe continues on at a different location, closer to the center of Prague. It may lack something of the original store's quirky atmosphere, but it still has great books and food.