An Expat Icon Turns 20

An Expat Icon Turns 20

No matter how you feel about The Globe Bookstore & Café’s surly wait staff and hit-or-miss menu, there’s no denying its role as an institution among the Czech capital’s English-speaking expatriates.

For more recent arrivals, it’s easy to forget now just how vital the venue was in the early 90s when you couldn’t make new friends, look for a roommate, or find out how to get a zivno just by posting a thread on Expats.cz. “There was nothing at the time,” explains Mark Baker, “no Internet […] but also no central bulletin board.”

In 1993, Mark, along with a small band of pioneers—Jasper Bear, Maura Griffin, Scott Rogers, and Marketa Rogers—decided to fill that void by creating a meet-up point where expats could hang out, have fun, and exchange experiences. After a frantic search for suitable properties in the days when realtors were thin on the ground, the group settled on a former laundry in Holešovice and The Globe was born.

Pioneering the books-and-coffee combo

“We wanted to offer a place for people to come once they’d finished teaching their English lessons or their stint at Price Waterhouse or whatever […], a chance to unwind and relax where they didn’t have to speak Czech necessarily and could meet other people,” explained Mark.

Part of the key to The Globe’s success, according to Baker, was the book-coffee combo it offered, unique in Central Europe at the time, he believes.

“Several times people would come up to me, sometimes older Czechs […] and say ‘Is this a bookstore?’ It was such a novel concept it had to be explained.”

Literary leanings and nineties Prague

In its early years, The Globe had a reputation as a magnet for aspiring beat poets, wannabe Kafkas, and intellectuals. It hosted readings by some of the great literary and intellectual heavyweights of our time, including King of the Beats Alan Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes. These could be highly impromptu affairs, as happened with the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Richard Ford.

“He didn’t even tell us he was coming,” Mark told me. “We vaguely recognised him from the book jacket and asked him if he wanted to give a reading, thinking we could schedule it for an evening or something. He said ‘I have time right now,’ came into the coffeehouse and […] spoke in front of twelve people!”

In Baker’s view, was the so-called “Left Bank of the Nineties” scene a magnet for those with real literary talent or merely an excuse for pretentious posturing?

“The people who came to Prague in the 1990s are the same as the people who come now – cynically oriented slackerites […] They didn’t want to take themselves too seriously. There were poets who were too into their own poetry but the majority of people had at least one foot in reality.”

Opening a new business in a foreign country is a risky enterprise. What was the biggest surprise for Mark?

“The most unexpected turn for us was that it became very popular. We obviously wanted to be successful but we never envisioned that it would gain some kind of iconic status.”

During the past two decades, The Globe has been through many fundamental changes, most obviously in location but also in its management. Having switched hands several times, the Globe is now owned by Michael Sito, who has held the reins of the Nové Město site for the past seven years.

The Globe today

I was curious to know what Sito had to say to The Globe’s detractors. What does he think about the most common complaints – that the food is unreliable and the service patchy?

“We have had our ups and downs,” Michael admitted in an email interview. “Sometimes, especially when we are very busy, errors do occur. We have made our fair share of mistakes and we are sorry about them.”

“In regard to the quality of our food,” Sito continued, “it has improved dramatically over the years and I think it currently rates among some of the best American food in Prague. Our prices are competitive, as we are dramatically cheaper than the international chains and cheaper than many local, independent places as well.”

Michael believes that The Globe is unfairly looked down on by long-term expat residents who haven’t set foot in the place for years but remain unjustifiably dismissive towards it.

“I often meet some of Prague’s medium and long-term expats and find that many of them […] have written us off as being just an expat hangout […] but when they do come back, they are often pleasantly surprised at how diverse it has become, so we often see veteran residents of Prague ‘rediscovering’ the Globe, which is encouraging.” 

Still raucous after all these years

While it’s no longer the main locus for readings by major authors in Prague, The Globe continues to attract those with literary leanings. There’s the bookshop, of course, with a decent range of titles in English to browse through while sipping a cappuccino and a book club too should you want to talk about reading with like-minded folk. The first Tuesday of the month is Open Mic night, at which all forms of artistic expression are welcome from music to poetry.

However, what really pulls in the punters these days are more raucous events like Saturday night karaoke
 —so successful it’s often standing room only—and the Wednesday trivia nights. Doesn’t attempting to cater to both a highbrow and party animal clientele leave The Globe with a schizophrenic identity? 

“I think our diversity is a strength and it shouldn’t be seen as something erratic or ‘schizophrenic,’” Michael responded. “We are just providing the local community with events and services that are desired and not so available.” 

You are cordially invited

Perhaps The Globe’s 20th birthday party will prove a happy fusion of this expat stalwart’s literary heart and fun-loving soul. On Saturday 3rd August, an all day programme of events is planned at the Pštrossova site, including a barbeque, two sets of live music and a book launch. (The novel in question, The Last Bohemians, centres around the adventures of an American expatriate in hedonistic nineties Prague.)

The anniversary celebrations will see The Globe return to its roots in a literal sense, too: on Friday 2nd August original co-owner Mark Baker plans to host an informal gathering of Globites old and new at the café bookstore’s original Holešovice location, Ouky Douky. The party will kick off at 18:00; a limited amount of free drinks will be on offer for early arrivals.

If it’s anything like the old days, it’s sure to prove a blast. “We had so many crazy and weird experiences,” said Mark of The Globe’s beginnings. “It was incredible.”

Have you got fond memories of The Globe? Share them here.


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