The shelves in U Zlaté Číše are filled with snug rows of spines that overflow into piles on the floor. There are huge, dusty copies of the Old Testament, German story books and a collection of Goethe Werke. A colorful Czech alphabet book was almost falling apart, probably loved by too many children. There are photos of Bon Jovi, an antique atlas section and a French biography of Steve Jobs. The English section has Star Trek paperbacks, a guidebook to Ethiopia and Eritrea and posters of Elvis Presley. Kept under an elaborate crystal chandelier, the Czech section includes translations of the Koran, William Faulkner and an encyclopedia of Moravian fruits.
The alluring bookstore is an attraction to both visitors and locals. On a Thursday afternoon, two young American tourists stopped in and pointed at a framed Pilsner Urquell calendar.
“I want to get that for my Dad,” one said. “That’d be so dope.”
After they purchased a black and white postcard of Prague, a local man walked in, warmly greeting co-owner Jitka Karasová in Czech. His black wool beret and scruffy salt and pepper beard made him look like an off-duty philosophy professor. He quickly made himself at home among the antique photographs of anonymous couples dressed in furs and trench coats. They mindlessly flipped through the piles together, exchanging small talk and comparing photos. The man spies one on the top shelf, and Jitka climbs on top of a pile of books to reach it, but eventually resigns to a creaky ladder on wheels. They were briefly interrupted when a British woman came in, attracted by some of the antique prints of nude portraits in the store window. Jitka quickly pulled out a box of prints for her to sort through, but the woman insisted she was in a rush to meet friends for dinner. Like a classic Czech businesswoman, Jitka reminded the British tourist that these prints were “the most beautiful of their kind and sold only here for a good price.” The woman earnestly promised to return tomorrow.
Forty years ago, Jitka Karasová sold her books in secret. She hid banned books under the counter of the Socialist magazine shop where she worked, and sold them to special customers at great risk of punishment. Even 27 years after the fall of communism and the end of censorship, Jitka still has a noticeable fear in her eyes when she begs not to answer too many questions about her past. Since 1949, years before Jitka began working, lists of banned titles have been circulated by the Czechoslovakian government. Throughout the 1950’s libraries owned by monks were demolished. Public libraries were left standing, but only after they were emptied of anti-Soviet literature and authors such as Trotsky, T.G. Masaryk and Edvard Benes. About 27.5 million books were destroyed. In the ’60’s and ’70’s, a new wave of censorship took over the country. This time, bookshelves were cleared of anti-socialist literature, works that praised capitalism or pre-war Czechoslovakia and even “unproblematic works with problematic prefaces or epilogues,” according to the former Office of the Press and Information.
Three years after the fall of Communism in Prague, Jitka stopped selling state magazines and opened her own bookstore with her colleague, Antonin Herudek.
“We did it because we love books and loved to earn money without being in factory or under a boss,” said Jitka. “Under Communist period there were no good šefs.” Now that she is free from Communist rule, she opens her store on Nerudova in Malá Strana every day, only closing for an hour-long lunch break. The store offers books in Czech, German, English and French, as well as antique photos and maps. Both co-owners speak every language of the books they carry. Jitka leaves the counter to greet every customer in their own language and offer help navigating the crowded shelves. Her front desk is covered in postcards, bookmarks and felt sheets of antique pins, topped off with a bouquet of bright purple paper flowers.
In the beginning, keeping the business alive was not easy. Jitka and Antonin knew that books were a luxury for most people, something that there was not always money for. And even without strict censorship, there was still tension.
“After Communism, the quality of books was good, but we had to be careful what we said and what the books said,” explained Jitka.
But U Zlaté Číše has stayed open for 24 years and neither co-owner plans to retire. Even in old age, they enjoy doing their own buying for the store. But my questions about the buying process were politely declined.
“Every shop must have some secrets,” Jitka said with twinkling blue eyes. But there is one buying criteria she sticks to for books, maps, and photos: “They must be interesting.”
I have no idea how much time I spent shuffling in slow circles around U Zlaté Číše, but I ended up with a copy of Kafka’s Castle, a sleeve of Czechoslovakian postage stamps, a Czech-English paperback on the body and photography, and a small flipbook on women’s fashion in the 1960’s. Jitka thanked me for speaking slowly throughout our conversation, making a rocket gesture to demonstrate how American visitors usually spoke to her. Although she firmly reminded me she could not answer more questions about selling forbidden books, she did draw me a map of her favorite libraries in Prague. Then she carefully held each of my purchases and told me something about their history before adding up the total on an old calculator.
“I will give you discount and a nice bag,” Jitka said as she wrapped my books in a plastic bag with a kitten sitting on a pile of autumn leaves. “And come back to take some photographs,” she said with a smile. “We don’t have to be afraid.”