Legendary Prague expat, long-time friend

Remembering Glen Emery

Glen as he typically looked in later years, with a hat and big, bushy beard. I really like the setting here, with the Prague skyline in the backdrop. From a Radio Prague International interview titled 'My Prague.' Photo by Ian Willoughby.
Glen in a still from the first of many Canadian and American television reports about the phenomenon of young expats in Prague. This is from a Canadian TV report in 1991 on 'Prague Pioneers.' YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tAug1Xaxfg
From a feature story in the Czech magazine 'Reflex' on the 1990s that was published in November 2019. That's Glen on the right. Moving left are Tonya Graves, Leah Gaffen and me.
Another photo from that 'Reflex' magazine feature in 2019. During the photo shoot, Glen and I joked that the two of us had by that time become museum pieces.

I first met Glen in 1991 when I was working at The Prague Post and he was planning to open the first of his bars, Jo’s Bar*. Our friendship circles overlapped at the time, and I clearly remember all of us hanging out together while he sketched out his early, ambitious ideas for that first bar. Over the course of that decade and in later years, I considered the two of us to be kind of peas in a pod. We were both long-time expats who had come to Czechoslovakia before the fall of communism in 1989 (Glen had lived here in the early-1980s) – and experienced something of the country under the old regime. We had both opened businesses in the 1990s that came to be closely associated with the expat explosion at the time. We had even both published books in Czech about our experiences. Glen published “Žízniví psi” (Thirsty Dogs) in 2010.

When magazines or newspapers would write anniversary stories about those old days (like the Czech magazine Reflex did in November 2019, see photos), they would occasionally trot out the two of us (and a few other old-timers) like totems, representatives of those bye-gone, glory days when Prague was first shedding its shoddy communist clothing. During that Reflex photo shoot, Glen and I joked with each other that we’d somehow both become museum pieces. (Not at all true in Glen’s case, by the way. He was still running successful bars all the way to the day of his passing).

But if there were similarities between us -- if we’d been in a sense doppelgängers from those good, old days -- there were differences too. Around Glen I sometimes felt like I was a bit of an impostor. When it came to embracing adventure, bonding with people and places, and taking risks, he was the real deal. I was just along for the ride.

This 10-page spread on the exploding expat scene in Prague in the '90s-- 'All they are saying is Give Prague a Chance,' by Stanley Meisler -- appeared in Smithsonian magazine in June 1993. An article like this, in a bellwether pub like Smithsonian, was proof-positive that Prague had entered the media mainstream.
'Details' magazine titled their story on Prague in the '90s the 'Wild, Wild East.’ My favorite line: '[Prague] is the magnet of the moment for assorted and sordid drunks, Samsonite-toting carpetbaggers, snake-oil salesmen, hangers-on, recession refugees, moths to the torch of history and other seekers of fortunes.' I don't know, that sounds like just another night at Jo’s.
A classic photo from Jo's Bar in its 1990s' heyday. Jo's was the first privately owned, Western-style bar to open after the fall of communism, and it remained a popular meeting spot for several years. Photo credit: Matt Pollitz.
One of my favorite photos of Prague expat life from the early 1990s. This is from November 1994 and the second anniversary party of the opening of Jo's Bar. Pictured are Roman Slepica (left) and Emanuela Ricci (right). Photo credit: Matt Pollitz.

Prague in 1991 -- when Glen first began to imagine Jo’s -- was much different from how it is today. Just two years removed from the Velvet Revolution, there was very little outward evidence of the great economic (and in a sense cultural) promise the city held. Prague was undeniably beautiful, but it was also dirty, badly neglected and beaten down. There weren’t even initially many tourists. To his great credit, Glen was one of the first – if not the first – to recognize that potential. To give you a flavor of the city back then, this is how he memorably described it in his own words (from an early draft of his book, “Prague Unplugged,” that he shared with me in 2006):

“Back in the early ‘90s … when us originals got here, the country was still called Czechoslovakia, the currency was still inconvertible, money was changed with the Arabs in sleazy backstreet bars, piles of lignite coal lined the streets, every fifth car was a Trabant or some other two-stroke aberration, the street-sweepers used willow branches, temperature inversions kept the school kids at home, every fourth building was abandoned, there was no AMEX and no McDonalds… The public transport smelled like low-tide, Mama Club was hip and Bunkr was cranking, the tank was pink, there was not a cop to be seen, and Havel was still smoking and drinking.”

Jo’s Bar opened to great fanfare in November 1992. It was both a smash hit among younger Czechs and Prague’s new foreign residents, and an instant epiphany of the city’s potential. It set a template for the dozens – even hundreds – of expat and locally owned bars, clubs and restaurants that would come later and thoroughly transform Prague within a few short years from an insular city behind the Iron Curtain to a lively, cosmopolitan capital.

Part of that formula for success was to offer different types of food or drinks from what had been available during communism (Jo’s served cocktails and Mexican food). Another part of that formula, though, came more directly from Glen’s own irresistible, pragmatic, “get it done whatever it takes” personality. This would become an essential element for anyone wanting to navigate Prague’s then-murky commercial underbelly, with its vexing bureaucracies, shady characters and unclear ownership structures. Glen showed it could be done -- and how to do it.

An early menu from Jo's Bar around its opening time in the early 1990s. Glen had the Midas touch when it came to giving people what they wanted -- in this case, Mexican food and cocktails in a city still dominated by fried cheese and bread dumplings. Photo credit: Bobby Herron.
A poster of “Železné Dveře” ('Iron Door') in the Old Town from the late 1990s. The Iron Door had an edgier rep than Jo's Bar and became Prague's bar of the moment for a while. The premises was later bought and renovated into a luxury hotel.
Prague's splendid Art Nouveau Municipal House. It's one of the city's undisputed architectural treasures. Largely thanks to Glen, in 1993-94, the building served as the unlikely home of the city's craziest and most memorable bars and clubs. Photo: Mark Baker
Poster announcing the closure of Repre Klub, on July 3, 1994, following the expiration of Glen and John Bruce's lease to operate the Municipal House spaces. 'No one gets out of here alive.'

Jo’s Bar, however, was just the first of a remarkable run. In 1993, Glen and his business partner, the late John Bruce Shoemaker (another larger-than-life expat, “JB” passed away in 2010), somehow managed to snag a one-year lease to operate a complex of bars and clubs inside Prague’s opulent Art Nouveau Municipal House (Obecní dům). However that crazy deal came together, and it’s never been made entirely clear, it was an absolute coup and brought the rapidly evolving expat circus directly into the heart of one of the Czech Republic’s most-treasured buildings.

Glen and John Bruce transformed the space into an American-style café and added several louder, late-night establishments, including the now-legendary Repre Klub, to the opulent salons of the building’s basement. It’s hard to exaggerate how groundbreaking Repre was at the time. “The Clash” front-man Joe Strummer joined local band “Dirty Pictures” in April 1994 for a benefit concert and famously started the show with “London Calling.” Another of the complex’s pubs, “The Thirsty Dog,” attracted the attention of Nick Cave, who’d been passing through town at the time. He was so impressed by the bar that he dedicated a song to it, complete with the now-famous refrain: “I'm sitting feeling sorry in The Thirsty Dog.”

The year 1993 was also a big one for me personally. That same year, I and four friends were preparing to open our own Prague business, The Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse. We had located a decent site in the Prague neighborhood of Holešovice but still had loads of work to do in reconstructing the premises before we could open. Finding good workers at the time was nearly impossible and we were at our wit’s end. We turned to Glen for advice and he kindly sent over one of his own guys, a former airport-controller-turned-carpenter named Honza Král, to help design and build our bookshelves. Honza turned out to be quite a character, but we got our shelves (as I write this, they are still holding up books at “Ouky Douky,” as the bookstore is called now).

All of these dates and events run together in my mind, but it’s worth mentioning one more happening from around the same time that sheds light on Glen’s big personality and outsized role in Prague’s recent history. In the aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, as I wrote above, many businesses found themselves caught up in shady business dealings and ownership disputes. Unfortunately, the Café Slavia, the city’s most-revered coffeehouse (founded in 1881) was one of these. Somehow in the fog of revolution, the rights to manage the café had inexplicably passed to an American investment group, HN Gorin, which promptly closed the place and showed no intention of ever re-opening it. The shuttering of the Café Slavia had become one of the biggest scandals of its day.

In September 1993, Glen along with some of his Repre guys and a group of Czech activists, led by Marek Gregor, cooked up a kind of “Merry Prankster” scheme to break into the closed café and re-open it to the public. Glen wrote in his book that they had timed the break-in for November 17, 1993, the fourth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. This is how he described the start of the action:

“The night of the takeover was surreal. We didn't tell anyone what was going on until the night of the action. We shut Repre early and then told the bouncers, the bar staff and the janitors that they had to follow us down to the Café Slavia. It was 4:30 in the morning. Over 25 of us walked down Na příkopě from the Obecní dům to the Slavia. JB, myself, Joey Knuckles and six big bouncers led the way…”

Incredibly, they managed to bust open the door and “operate” the café for a while, handing out beers and drinks to anyone who happened to come by. I recall that Glen later told me the whole thing cost him a ton of money and was one of the dumber things he’d ever done. That said, the action worked. It generated a firestorm of criticism in the media against HN Gorin, which was soon stripped of its lease. After a long period of reconstruction, the café re-opened to the general public in 1997.

Glen appeared together with his business partner, John Bruce Shoemaker (pictured), on NBC's 'Today' show in 1994 to talk about the expat scene and business ventures they had opened in the Art Nouveau Municipal House. Source: https://youtu.be/hr7AC21QwcU
A still of Glen during his interview on NBC's popular 'Today' show in 1994. Here, he talks about the phenomenon of young foreigners coming to Prague and of opening new restaurants and clubs in the city's revered Municipal House. Source: https://youtu.be/hr7AC21QwcU
In 1996 and '97 Prague, you couldn't go too far without seeing this iconic poster from the wildly popular film, 'Trainspotting.'
Jo's borrowed the imagery from the film poster to publicize Jo's Bar. (That's Glen on the right doing his best Ewan McGregor). It became instantly iconic -- the best-known street poster in Prague of its time.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Glen opened several more memorable bars and clubs. These included “Jo’s Garáž,” a music and dance space below Jo’s Bar; the dank but fun “Železné Dveře” in the Old Town; and the quieter Napa bar and gallery in Prague’s Malá Strana. Each pre-opening generated its own buzz. Just the words “That’s Glen’s new place” was enough to bring in the crowds. The venues, remarkably, shared the same ambience from location to location. Indeed, they embodied the ideal mix for a good bar: relaxed, entertaining, a little edgy. You never knew what was going to happen next.

In the 2000s, Glen opened arguably his biggest bar ever with “Bukowski’s,” in the traditionally hard-drinking, working-class Prague neighborhood of Žižkov. Bukowski’s gave Žižkov something it had sorely lacked for many years (despite its reputation for great watering holes): an actual good bar worth crossing town for. It’s still an awesome place and a true crossover venue -- equally popular with locals, tourists and foreign residents. Hoping to bring a little of that Bukowski's magic to the other side of the Vltava River, Glen recently rebranded a pub he’d opened in the district of Holešovice as “Bukowski’s Letná.” I stopped in over there for a drink just a few nights ago. I hope they can keep it going.

Glen has been a fixture in Prague for the entire time I’ve been here. Whether I’ve consciously acknowledged it or not, until now I’ve lived with the thought somewhere in the back of my mind that as long as Glen’s out there somewhere, lifting a beer around a crowded table, something of that old Prague spirit carries on. As of last week, Prague is suddenly, simply a different place.

The last time I hung out with Glen, just briefly, was at the end of September. He had sponsored a play, “The Beggar’s Opera,” being put on by actors with the Prague Shakespeare Company. Somehow he had caught wind that I was planning to go, so he sent me a text to tell me he’d put aside some free tickets at the door for me if I wanted them. That was not at all out of character. He was a thoroughly decent guy.

When I got to the theater, I saw him walking around outside. He was clearly a little down, but I had no idea why. We traded small talk. “What’s new?” “How are the bars doing?” That kind of thing. It was low-key. I didn’t give it much thought. In spite of Glen’s flair for epic adventures and telling great tales, in person-to-person interactions, he was often surprisingly soft-spoken.

When the show was over, I went outside to look for him in order to tell him how much I’d enjoyed it. I didn’t see him. Maybe he’d already gone home. Looking back now, though, I wish I’d had one last chance to thank him for making this Prague ride so much fun and entertaining for all these years. RIP.

Click on the links below to learn more about Glen and Prague:

Glen’s FB page with many tributes from friends over the years.

Glen's obit in Reflex, written by Marek Gregor (in Czech).

The video 'Crazy Train', by Ian Adam Bull.

Ian Willoughby’s Radio Prague interview with Glen in 2022.

Ian's radio interview with Glen for 'My Prague.' 

Glen and John Bruce Shoemaker appear on The Today show in early 1994.

 *Jo’s Bar is still operating in its original location as “Original Glenn’s

 

 

Comments

  1. thanks for this. i met glen a couple of years ago, long after my drinking the nights away career was over, maybe a a concert, and he’s like hey how is it going and all that, we had a nice chit chat, somehow I’d never thought he would remember me, i really was just an ordinary even if frequent joe at jo’s (and repre and the dog) but i guess we caused enough mayhem with my friends for him to remember us. maybe setting fires to tables in the back room worked. he never said a thing. great guy.

  2. Thanks for this…all those places, all those nice moments…I lived above Jo’s, which had a huge influence on my life… maybe The Tiger Lillies should be mentioned too…this season, there is a bar opening in heaven they say…

  3. I spoke to Glen last in August when my daughter had her 18th birthday and I was asking him if we should go to Letna or Zizkov. We went to Zizkov. He said he would come if he could, but he doubted it. That was the last time I talked to him.

    I also wasn’t in his inner circle. We shared the fact that we were Canadians who came right after the revolution. Glen’s superpower was that even if you weren’t in his inner circle, he made you feel like you were each time you met him. Prague has lost a bit of itself, because he was simply part of Prague.

  4. What a humbling and poignant tribute to a man who touched so many lives in the city emerging from the Velvet Revolution. Glen would have been overjoyed to read this and how his legacy is celebrated in such tender words and memory #flyingbaguette

    Jan – https://flyingbaguette.com/

  5. Wow. Reading this tribute has brought to life so many of my 90s memories frozen in time. I was only there in 98-99, long after Glen was already a fixture in Prague, but I had the privilege of hanging with him a few times. In my early twenties at the time, I had no idea of his personal impact on the city’s expat culture. Jo’s Bar made a deep impression on me and has never left my dreams and my soul. Some of the best nights of my life really. Thanks for writing this thoughtful, lovely piece about Glen and the special signature he left on such a magical city.

  6. Well done, MB. Although the occasion is sad, this walk down memory lane has played an integral role in making my day. Just as those two rascals (JB and Glen) played integral roles in making my life in Prague a thrill ride. Thank you.

  7. Fare well Glen – met him first time around 10 years ago at Bukowski´s, and serveral times after, when I visited friend Michal Bohac in Prague. Everytime we had value times together – will miss his stories with a good drink in one of his bars or at a cart race – his philosophy – his spirit and his humor (the joke with the “Vietnam knee” brings me tears in the eyes still). He was an humble guy who let you feel that you knew him (and he knows you) for many years. I am pretty sure that he will watch us from heaven and will give his funny comments on our comments here. Rest in peace Glen – you will be missed badly! Cheers from your german Bourbon lover Nils.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker