I’m not talking corporate dragon chains like Border’s, but the cavernous academic goldmines I knew in Cambridge and Chicago, where if it wasn’t on the shelf, it was across the street at Powells, or else it didn’t exist.
I miss used book stores so big you can get lost in them, where you emerge after seven hours of dizzying stack macking with a yellowed first edition of Naked Lunch and an old Bertrand Russell screed so long out of print your grandparents don’t remember it. I miss that smell of a great used shop, something between dust and woodchuck, that accompanies a collection so big just thinking about it gives you a migraine.
None of that here. There is no Prague equivalent to the Lower East Side’s Eight Miles of Books. In fact, if you put all of the English language booksellers together you’d be lucky to get a Canadian kilometer. But considering the geographical location of this nation, I suppose a kilometer of books we can read isn’t so bad.
My friend in Bucharest doesn’t think so. And taken as a whole, the few shops in this town deliver a good portion of the goods. True, it is difficult to spend more than an hour in each of them, but collectively they scratch Reader’s Itch 80% of the time.
The Mecca for piss-broke travelers, teachers, and English majors of all stripes is, of course, The Globe (Pstrossova 6, Praha 1, Tel: +420 2491 7229 Tram 3, 17).
Not only do they not totally butt-rape you on trade-ins, but on any given day they are likely to have six different editions of Jude, The Obscure. Literature is definitely the favored animal here, with everything else herded prisoner-like against the back wall. History is thin (with the exception of central European), as is Political Science and Philosophy, and somehow a Self-Help/Psychology section has almost come to surpass them in size. (Inexplicably, there is also half a wall devoted to Supermarket schlock.).
The turnover is a little slow, but weekly checks can bring pleasant surprises to those with good eyes. Be quick though, as everyone and their mother browse here. Price-wise, The Globe is fair. Dog-eared novels-irrespective of stature-are usually priced around 200 crowns and the cost correlates nicely with condition. The determined can find a fat novel for 120 crowns. Ripped up “as is” copies are sometimes even cheaper.
As for cafe atmosphere: Globe 1, Everybody Else 0. Three plush chairs and a disinterested staff equals hours of free reads as well as a perch from which to watch new arrivals slide across the desk. It is still an extremely relaxing place to be, even afterthe installation of the Globe Panopticon, the store’s official surveillance platform. There is also a an occasional surprise in the magazine rack alongside the New York Review of Books – to tantalize you with the variety the kids have back home-but mostly its just MTV on paper.
The Globe serves a purpose, but is annoyingly limited. For a more serious selection of academic titles, find Malá Štupartská 5 on your map, right off Old Town Square, and visit BigBen Bookshop (www.bigbenbookshop.com). Recently merging with the inventory of the now closed Anagram bookstore, the owners and staff are asfriendly as hell and will be more than happy to order any book for you directly from the publisher. The sections – which include Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Art, and all areas of specialized History – are small but tight, and as dense with quality as a jar of gourmet gummy bears.
Major works within a variety of fields appear soon after their release, and older “new” books regularly go on sale. (They carry Literature as well, but if you’re on an English teacher’s budget, you might be better off checking the Globe for a used copy first.)
You can expect to drop upwards of 800 crowns for fresh pulp, but the pristine beauty of these new releases help the guilt go down smoother. For those days when 800 crowns just isn’t happening, there is an entire six foot case of used books in the back. It’s easy to miss, and I probably shouldn’t be mentioning it, but its got some really great stuff on the cheap, the turnover is glacial, but you will almost certainly find something each time you mack it. BigBen also has travel books and the best selection of books on Prague, but, similar to grammar books and kids stories, they don’t really count.
Big Ben has been around a long time and serves a professional, niche purpose, and its worth popping in after a late afternoon game of pinball at the Chap Trap. (It’s directly diagonal-2 o’clock-from Chapeau Rouge).
Shakespeare and Sons might just be one of the best English bookshops in Prague. They have two locations, but our preferred one is located in the picturesque Mala Strana district. They have a great selection of English books spanning all genres. and hidden in the back of the store is a treasury of cheap classics. The Shakespeare and Sons in Mala Strana also has a reading room in their historic cellar, with spectacular views of the Charles Bridge, where you can chill out with your favorite book and a cup of coffee rain or shine.
If you’re looking for the cultural vibe, it’s worth noting that the basement hosts cultural events, like music, exhibitions and more. Wherever culture and books are your favorite things, then Shakespeare and Sons is the home for you. And if you happen to venture outside of Prague into Cesky Krumlov’s magical environs, Shakespeare and Sons has a great shop there too! (Shakespeare and Sons Malá Strana: U Lužického semináře 10, Praha 1, +420 257 531 894. Shakespeare and Sons Český Krumlov: Soukenická 44, +420-380 711 203, www.shakes.cz)
So, by now you have a backpack full of books-an ancient copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from the Globe, the The Chomsky Reader from Shakespeare and Sons, and an intermediate Murphy’s Grammar workbook from old Ben – the day is over, right?
Together, the Globe and BigBen fulfill most of the vital needs of the reading expatriate, with Shakespeare and Sons possibly filling in the rare gap. Bookwise, Prague ain’t Berkley, but then again, we ain’t in California, pardner…