Whenever I tell people about the Globe and once co-owning a bookstore/coffeehouse, the reaction is always the same: "That’s my dream job!” And my reaction is usually the same too. I push back gently with a variation of the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”
The night of our opening party, July 28, 1993, wasn’t just the culmination of a frantic four months of preparation to open a business, it was the starting point for what would prove to be a long process of work and learning that would eventually take its toll on all five original partners. Looking back, we were so swept up in the positive energy of early-‘90s Prague that I don’t think any us truly grasped the enormous commitment we’d entered into. Anyone who’s ever owned a business will know what I’m talking about.
I was the worst of the five. Less than a year after opening the Globe, I came to the conclusion I wasn’t cut out to be a business owner and wanted to return to full-time journalism. (I also discovered at the time I was highly allergic to the dust from old books!) Much to the bafflement of my partners and friends in Prague, one day in May 1994 I suddenly announced that I was heading home to the United States to look for a job with a newspaper or wire service. I would keep my stake in the business, but my career focus would be elsewhere.
And that’s what I did. That summer, I moved back to my parents’ house in Ohio (the proverbial parental basement), and after a long period of frantically searching for work, I eventually landed a spot as an editor with Bloomberg News. My first job with Bloomberg was located in a relatively remote corner of rural New Jersey, outside of Princeton (about as far from Prague spiritually as you could get). I was later transferred to Bloomberg's home office in Manhattan, which was a big upgrade, but even then I missed the close-knit community I'd had at the Globe. Eventually, my homesickness for Prague would get the better of me and in 1997 I returned to Central Europe (where I still live).
A few months ago, as I was paging through some Facebook comments and photos from my earlier blog post, I realized there were many stories and photos of people that I couldn’t recall or didn't recognize, and then it dawned on me why. By moving back to the U.S. when I did, I’d missed out a lot on what had happened in those early years.
Although I love coffee, I was always more closely attached to the book side of our business than the coffeehouse, and most of my memories and stories revolve around buying and selling books and holding our sporadic evening readings.
Back in the day, people would often ask us where we would source our books (they were referring to our used books, as it was pretty clear that we bought the new books from publishers and wholesalers).
Indeed, finding quality used books and shipping them to Prague was always a pain. First off, we had to find books that our customers – mainly expats, backpackers and Czechs – would actually want to buy. Back then that meant lots of John Irving titles (“The World According to Garp”) and Czech writers in translation (and not too many shiny-cover romances or airport books). And then there was the question of cost. Even for the best books, our market wouldn’t usually support a retail price above a few dollars per book. We had to be ever-vigilant in looking for suppliers. That led us on more than a few wild-goose chases over the years.
One of our most memorable but least-successful book-finding trips was a seven-hour drive to Stuttgart, Germany, that Jasper, Maura and I took in my newly bought Škoda in the spring of 1993. A sketchy, middle-aged American guy named “Larry” had come through Prague just as we were preparing to open and said he had “warehouses and warehouses” of used books in Germany that he’d be happy to sell for “10 cents a kilo.” He told us he was involved in decommissioning U.S. military bases in southern Germany, so it wasn’t such a stretch to think he might have books to sell.
Fast-forward to Stuttgart, and in my mind’s eye, we’re partying with Larry and some his friends in his sleazy, ‘70s-era house that looked as if you might find Hugh Hefner (minus the bunnies) floating around in a bathrobe. As for the books, Larry did have kilos, but they turned out to mainly grade-school math and science textbooks for kids on the base. The U.S. military would no longer need the books once the soldiers returned home. The problem is, even at 10 cents a kilo, we’d never be able to sell them in Prague.
We ended up sourcing most of our used books in the United States, and all five of us had stories of stuffing those big U.S. Postal Service "M" bags with books and shipping them off to Prague on their trips home. I got my whole family in on the act, and my parents and brother grew quite adept over the years at filling up those army-green duffel bags.
One of my favorite book-buying stories is a trip that Jasper and I took in 1995 or ’96 to Riverrun Books, a private bookshop in Hastings-On-Hudson, north of New York City. I was living in New York and working for Bloomberg at the time and Jasper was passing through town. We met up and caught the train upriver to see what we could find.
It was indeed a major haul. Riverrun had exactly the kind of high-quality paperbacks we knew we could sell, and they were willing to make deals. Feverishly working in their storeroom at the back, the two of us un-crated box after box and neatly stacked all the titles we’d be buying and shipping back to Europe. And then we spied standing in the corner what we thought was the jackpot of all time: a big cardboard box filled with books that was labeled on top: "Eastern Europe."
English translations of books by Czech or other Central European writers were our bread and butter at The Globe. We simply couldn’t keep these titles in stock, and we salivated at the prospect of making some easy sales.
And then we opened the box. Much to our shock and amusement it wasn't filled with Central European titles at all, but rather soft-core pornography. Loads and loads of porn. I have no idea why the box was labeled as it was. Maybe someone had tried to hide the contents by giving it the most unusual label they could think of. To this day, it's still a mystery to me.
Our author readings were another high point.
Prague, back then, was still in the early phase of its re-opening to the world, and it seemed as if every international author coming to this part of Europe would swing through town. Once they were here, the Globe -- as an English-language bookstore -- was one of the few games in town if an author wanted to have a reading or meet their public.
In that first year of operation, the Globe hosted readings or visits by Allen Ginsberg, Amy Tan, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, James Salter, James Ragan and several others I can’t remember now. Over the years, that list would expand to resemble a “Who’s Who” of world-famous authors.
Czech and other local writers came by as well. It was their chance to meet a new readership. Well-known Czech authors like Ivan Klíma, Arnošt Lustig, Ludvík Vaculík and Jáchym Topol, as well as resident Prague authors like Prague Post Editor-in-Chief Alan Levy and Robert Eversz, among others, would drop in during those early days to see what all the fuss was about.
Our readings were always highly improvised affairs. We’d clear out the bookstore of stray customers, pull out some old benches we kept stored in the cellar, and set up an impromptu reading space in a cramped, sweaty corner at the back of the shop. As the speaker was reading, the din from the coffeehouse would invariably pour through the walls and the wail of the coffee grinder would pierce its way into every poignant pause. It was comical.
The best events, of course, were when the writers would arrive unannounced.
One afternoon in early 1994 I was working in the bookstore with Jasper (Maura, Scott and Markéta would also have likely been there at the time, but I can’t recall now), when a tall, thin guy with wavy, graying hair and an uncanny resemblance to the Pulitzer-prize-winning American writer Richard Ford strode in with a big smile on his face. Jasper and I looked at each other. Could it be him?
I remember quietly walking over to the fiction section where authors whose last names began with “F” would be shelved and finding a copy of one of Ford’s paperbacks. A quick glance at the author photo revealed it was indeed Richard Ford.
A couple of minutes later we approached him, introduced ourselves as the owners, and asked if he’d like to do a reading. He (surprisingly) accepted, and within the five minutes it took to rearrange the chairs in the coffeehouse, he was reading aloud from his collection of short stories, “Wildlife.” Even though the place was less than half full, it was a magical moment.
It only occurred to me how truly special this all a few months later after I had made that rash decision in the summer of '94 to leave Prague and found myself standing at a magazine rack at a drugstore in Youngstown, Ohio. Those first few weeks back home in Ohio were lonelier than I’d bargained for, and I spent many an hour killing time at the local shopping plaza and leafing through books and magazines. On this particular day, I noticed one magazine in the rack, Vogue, had the word “Prague” on its cover. Eager to see what was happening in the place I’d left not long ago, I started reading.
The article, by another prize-winning American writer, Edmund White, was an artful description of Prague’s beauty and rebirth after communism. And then I got to the part in the story where White began describing a memorable surprise reading by the author "Richard Ford" that had happened a few months earlier at a bookstore called “The Globe.” It felt like a punch in the gut. I was reading about our own reading.
People sometimes ask what was the most unexpected thing about being involved with the Globe. That’s hard to say, but something that often surprises me is how many people met their eventual life partners over a book or coffee at the Globe. I’ve lost count over the years of how many times people have “thanked” me for the Globe because otherwise they may never have met their future husband or wife. It was purely unintended, but things like that really do make you think about the consequences of our actions.
One of the first of these Globe couples was the union of partners Scott and Markéta Rogers, who were married in Prague just two years after we opened the store. The New York Times announcement of their wedding popped up on the first Google search.
These expressions of gratitude can occur in the most unlikely of places.
In those few weeks in May and June 1994, between when I told my Globe partners I was leaving Prague and I actually flew off for the U.S., I took a few solo trips around the Czech Republic to say goodbye to the country and get my last fill of the place. One of those trips was to the southern Bohemian town of Český Krumlov, about 160 kms (100 miles) south of Prague.
I can’t remember if I drove the three hours down or took the bus (I can’t even remember why I chose Český Krumlov for one of my goodbye trips – I probably wouldn’t do that now). Anyway, I got a room upstairs at Na Louži, a friendly pub in the center of town, and went down to the restaurant to get a beer. I had just settled in to my table and was startled to see a Prague friend, John Allison, sitting across the room and having a beer with a guy I didn’t recognize. It’s not unusual to run into friends by chance in Prague (it happens all the time), but in Český Krumlov, it felt like an odd coincidence.
John invited me over to his table and introduced me to his friend (whose name neither of us can recall now). We chatted for a while and John mentioned I was one of the co-owners of the Globe. The guy's eyes immediately lit up.
“You know,” he said, or possibly slurred (by then the beers were starting to take their toll): “The Globe will always have a special place in my heart.”
“How so?” I asked (maybe a little too skeptically – I‘ve been in these pub discussions before).
“That was the place I met my wife."
And then he related a charming story about how they had gotten together. Apparently, he'd been living on U Smaltovny street in Prague's Holešovice neighbourhood, close to us at the Globe, and used to come over in the evenings to relax. They met there by accident one night and the rest is history.
In 2013, to mark the Globe’s 20th anniversary, I arranged a party at the old Holešovice space – now a Czech bookstore and coffeehouse called Ouky Douky. This summer, though, I was too busy with work and deadlines to organize anything for the 25th. Thankfully, Michael Sito, the Globe’s owner these days, picked up the mantle and threw a bash at the store’s current location (since 2000) on Pštrossova Street in the center of town.
It was a wonderful party on a perfect summer afternoon. I gave a short reading about the early life of the Globe and was followed up by Czech-American author Mark Slouka, who happened coincidentally to live on Janovského Street, just next to the site of the old Globe. The third speaker was the American poet, James Ragan, who may have been the very first reader we ever had back at the Globe in 1993.
In the audience, Alan Levy’s widow, Val, was sitting there smiling, and there were many other old friends milling around. A quarter century had passed and it could have been yesterday.
*Most of the photos used in this post appeared originally on the Facebook group The (old) Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Prague and are reprinted here with the permission of the owners. Keep scrolling down for more pictures.
Find Part One of this post on the Globe here.