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Once hotbeds of political resistance, Czech secondhand bookstores are slowly disappearing

An antikvariát store in Prague. In order to sustain it, the owner runs the store during the day and works as a private security guard at night. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

In communist Czechoslovakia, authorities considered books a key vector for strengthening socialist values among the population. Soon after 1948, private publishers were either shut down or confiscated by the state — and from then on they could only print or sell party-approved titles. Many books from Czechoslovakia's First Republic were banned, along with anything else that was deemed critical of communism.

Typical atmosphere of an antikvariát in Prague that hasn't changed much since the 1980s. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission

But the system had a loophole: authorities tolerated the existence of antikvariát, shops that sold secondhand books, as well as art prints and records. Those shops helped individuals to clear their private libraries — the manager of an antikvariát would typically buy books from individuals looking to get rid of old volumes. Pre-1948 and other “undesirable” titles ended up seeping into those bookstores and then circulating in a sort of clandestine market.

Whenever they came across banned books, antikvariát managers would pass the information to friends and sell them under the counter to trusted individuals only. An underground culture developed around that and soon people were visiting antikvariát not just to buy books but also to mingle with like-minded individuals.

Karel Stránský, a man in his fifties who for decades worked in Prague's used bookstores, recounted the atmosphere in antikvariát shops under communism: 

To byla úžasná příležitost. Když ses skamarádil s antikvářem, tak ses dostal k jedinečným knížkám. Byli tam zaměstnáni a zároveň se i kolem toho motali zajímaví lidé. To byl ráj. Jeden můj kamarád třeba viděl ve výloze antikvariátu knížku od Ivana Klímy, tak tam stál dvě hodiny před otvíračkou, aby si to koupil. Bylo to úžasné místo setkání. Mohl ses dát do řeči s člověkem u jednoho regálu o nějaké knížce, a on ti třeba řekl, to mám doma, to ti můžu půjčit. Cenově to bylo dostupný. Nebyli závislí na zisku, byl to totiž státní podnik a antikváři pobírali fixní mzdu.

It was a remarkable opportunity. If you knew the manager, you had access to unique books. The employees and the visitors used to be interesting people. It was paradise. I remember a friend once saw in the window of an antikvariát a novel by Ivan Klíma, who was forbidden back then. He waited two hours before the opening of the store to make sure he would be the one buying it. It was an interesting place to meet people. You could strike a conversation by a bookshelf and this person would say, I have this book at home, I could lend it to you. The books were affordable. People did not depend on earnings, it was a state-owned enterprise and people had a fixed salary.

How the internet is saving and destroying antikváriat culture at the same time

With the fall of communist censorship in 1989, that underground market lost its purpose. And in the following decades, as internet access became more affordable, private owners of antikvariát began opening online shops too. Stránský recalls:

Vše se uvolnilo, i cizinci měli zájem o naše zboží. Třeba Japonci kupovali ve velkém dětské knihy s ilustracemi, do Japonska jsme občas posílali i tři banánovky knížek. To se rozjel internetový obchod, a třeba dvě třetiny zisku přinášel kamenný krám a zbylou třetinu prodej přes internet. Antikvářům se dost dařilo.

Everything was liberalized. Foreigners got interested, for example Japanese clients would buy children books with illustrations, we would send three boxes of books to Japan. Then the Internet happened, and two-thirds of sales were made in the shop and one third came from online sales. Some antikvariát really made it then.

But then came the 2008 financial crisis, which hit the Czech Republic hard around 2010. As Stránský explains:

Spousta antikvářů zavřela kamenný obchody, aby neplatili drahý nájem, pronajali si levný sklad a prodávali jenom přes internet. To byly jenom výdejny, nikoliv antikvariát, kde se dají potkávat lidi. . 

A lot of people abandoned brick-and-mortar shops, in order to avoid paying for rent. They just kept a cheap storage place and sold everything online. They turned into mere providers and were no longer antikvariát where one would interact with people. 

One of the largest antikvariát in Prague that has turned into a storage place and where books are no longer physically accessible but can only be purchased online. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

These days, the internet is where most secondhand books are bought and sold in the Czech Republic. According to Stránský, everything changed irrevocably with the establishment of the site Můj antikvariát (“My antikvariát” in Czech), the largest online marketplace for secondhand books in the country, where both shops and individuals can trade. Today, the site offers over 2 million titles.

Some remaining shops use social media to find customers. The store Staroknih (meaning “old books”), from Slovakia, advertises its rare titles on Instagram. The post below features a Slovak short story published in 1923.

View this post on Instagram

Páči sa vám obálka povesti Jána Kalinčiaka s názvom Orava z roku 1923? 😍😍 ⁣ ⁣ Jej autorom je ANDREJ KOVÁČIK (1889-1953), ktorý sa v Budapešti učil za zinkografa a neskôr študoval v tomto meste na VŠVU. 🎓 Keď však prišla prvá svetová vojna, musel tak, ako mnoho iných, narukovať a v rakúsko-uhorskej armáde potom pôsobil ako frontový maliar. 🎨 ⁣ ⁣ Po vojne pôsobil v Turčianskom sv. Martine ako výtvarník ilustrátor Kníhtlačiarskeho účastninárskeho spolku. Práve tento spolok v roku 1923 vydal druhé ilustrované vydanie knihy Jána Kalinčiaka Orava, ktoré by ste si v tom čase mohli zaobstarať za 12 Kčs. ☺️📚👌🏼⁣ ⁣ Príde nám neuveriteľné, že táto knižka za pár rokov oslávi storočnicu. 😳 #staroknih #antikvariát #dnescitam #kalinciak #kalincak #jankalinciak #povesti #orava #turcianskysvatymartin #andrej #kovacik #maliar #starakniha #knjiga #knihovert #knihomolka #knihomol #kniznitip #viaccasunacitanie #copravectu #tipnaknihu #tipnaknizku #knizka #knizky #dnesctu #bratislava_ #antikvariat #antikvariatet

A post shared by Staroknih (@staroknih) on

A symbol of nostalgia

As the retail industry moves online, brick-and-mortar antikvariát are also becoming rarer. They now came to symbolize a symbol of the past revered only by a declining number of adepts. Alain Soubigou, a French expert in Czech history, says in an interview to Czech Radio International that the number of shops in Prague is diminishing:

Sur la vingtaine d’antikvariát que j’avais l’habitude de fréquenter dans les années 1990, il n’en subsiste plus qu’une demi-douzaine, mais avec des fonds intéressants et avec lesquels j’ai conservé des liens de sympathie qui leur font mettre de côté des livres qui pourraient m’intéresser.

From the twenty plus antikvariát shops I used to visit in the 1990s, half a dozen are still around, but they have interesting collections and as I maintain a close friendship with them, they put aside books that could interest me.

Ironically, the shop he mentions at the end of the interview is now closed.

Nostalgia for antikvariát culture has made it to popular culture — the song “Antikvariát” song, by the legendary Czech pop band Tata Bojs, being a notable example:

Já tě vítám
V antikvariátě svém
Já tě vítám
V koutku světa zapadlém

Tohle je můj antikvariát
Je tu všechno, co mám rád
Desky, knížky, mapy, noty
Chybíš tomu už jenom ty

I welcome you
In my antikvariát
I welcome you
In a lost corner of the world

This is my antikvariát
Here I have everything I like
Records, books, maps, music sheets
The only thing missing is you

I have also asked Stránský about his most cherished memory of his time in an antikvariát:

Obsluhoval jsem kambodžského krále, koupil tehdy spoustu knih o Praze a tanci.

I served the King of Cambodia, he bought a bunch of books about Prague and dance.

Karel Stránský remembering the golden age of the antikvariát. Photo by Soňa Pokorná, used with permission.

Indeed, Norodom Sihamoni, the current King of Cambodia, grew up and studied classical dance in then-Czechoslovakia. But Stránský is also making a pun: one of the most sought-after books in the antikvariát of old was Bohumil Hrabal‘s novel “Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále” (“I served the King of England“) which used to be banned along with much of his work.

Stránský concludes by acknowledging that it's the pull of nostalgia that keeps driving people to those places:

Za komunistů to bylo exkluzivní místo, pak se to změnilo na fabriku. Já tam pořád chodím, protože žiju postaru. Knihy přes internet nekupuju. Do antikvariátu jdu s tím, že hledám něco konkrétního, ale pak najdu něco jiného a to mě na tom baví. Myslím si, že takoví lidé ještě jsou. Antikvariát, když funguje, tak lidi tam chodí dál, protože to má pořád své kouzlo, i v dnešní době. 

It was an exclusive place under communism, then it turned into factories. I still go there because I am a man of the old ways, and I don't enjoy browsing on the Internet. I look for something and and find something else, and that is what I like. I think there are still people like that around. When an antikvariát works out, then people go there because it has magic in it.

The Czech Literary Center compiled a list of the best antikvariát in the Czech Republic.

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