“It was complete madness” – Glen Emery’s stories of ‘90s Prague
For three decades now Glen Emery has been one of the best-known foreigners in Prague. The charismatic Canadian was a pioneering bar and club operator in the city back in the “Wild East” days of the early 1990s and is still running pubs today. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Emery has accumulated lots of fantastic stories over the years, tales which he has collected in an as yet unpublished memoir. We touched on some of them in a wide-ranging chat, though I began by asking my guest about an unusual teenage experience.
You spent some years in the ‘80s living in Slovakia, because your dad was working there. What was that like?
“Living in Slovakia in 1979, 1980? It was very, very strange.
“Especially for us. We were kids, my sister and I; she was 15 and I was 14 when we moved there.
“So it was an incredible culture shock, out of this world.
“You can totally imagine – coming from suburban Canada to deepest, darkest communism, in the middle of a small town in the mountains of Slovakia.
“So yeah, it was very strange. Very strange.
“Both the good things and the bad things.”
Also for the locals you must have been like somebody from another planet?
“Yeah, it was also a big shocker for the locals.
“You didn’t really see police around. They kind of went underground, for a little while.”
“There were the engineers there, their wives, their families.
“Some of the engineers were in their 60s, even 70s some of the older guys, and some of them were in their 20s – single young people.
“Then there were the children of the families.
“There were 300 Canadians there, all together.
“I think there were about 50 engineers, wives… well, some of the engineers were women.
“So it was the engineers, their families, their spouses, their children.
“In this town, at the time, there were maybe 12,000, 13,000 people. It was called Ružomberok.
“So there the 300 Canadians. Then there were 1,000 Yugoslavs, who were the subcontractors, from all over Yugoslavia.
“They were pretty much all single guys, so you can imagine – it was completely haywire.
“Plus there were Cubans in town. There were about 50 Cubans, who worked at a big factory making textiles.
“So there were the Cubans [laughs], and then there were some Vietnamese, of course.
“You can just imagine: In some backwater, mountain, small town, Communist Czechoslovakia/Slovakia, all of a sudden it was very cosmopolitan.”
You came to Prague a few months after the end of communism. What were your initial impressions when you arrived here?
“I always say that it was like being in a cartoon that you drew yourself.
“It was just complete madness – nothing made any sense.
“When I first got here right after the revolution, I think I got here in April 1990, there were no police around.
“There were people on Můstek with a couple of beer crates on either side and a plank in between selling porno magazines and apples and everything in between: bottles of booze, cigarettes, T-shirts and baseball caps.
“This was going on night and day.
“There were gangs of thieves roaming around and pickpocketing.”
What do you mean, there were no police?
“Well, the police kind of disappeared after the revolution.
“You just didn’t seen any. Very seldom did you see police, especially on the street.
“You would always have the lollipop guys, the guys who stand on the side of the road and indiscriminately pull over cars. So they were still around.
“But generally you didn’t really see police around. They kind of went underground, for a little while.
“They came back, they had a resurgence [laughs].
“But when I first got here, yeah, you didn’t see many cops around.”
Later you became known for operating bars. But what were the first things that you did when you arrived here?
“It was a new country, it was very dynamic, things were changing, it was wild, it was radical, it was very anarchic.”
“When I first got here I was here for the summer of 1990.
“I got here in April, then May, June, July, and I went back in August.
“So I was here for a few months in 1990 and then I went home, back to university.
“Then I finished and I came back, so I got here in 1991.
“When I was here in 1990 I met some other Canadian guys and we decided that we would try to do some business together.
“The first thing we did was we tried to do some T-shirt selling: tourist T-shirts. You know, that stuff you do when you’re young.
“Then we opened actually Laundry Kings, up in Dejvice; we opened the first coin-operated laundromat.”
That was you? I remember that place.
“Yes. That was Grady [Lloyd] and I, pretty much.
“There were two other Canadian guys involved, but it was mostly Grady and I that organised and put the whole thing together.
“Then I had a falling out with my Canadian partners, and basically was left by myself, and that’s when I decided that I would try to open a bar.
“That was the end of ’91. In ‘92 I signed a lease on a space in Malá Strana, in I think March or April of that year.”
You’re talking now about Jo’s Bar, which I guess is maybe one of the most famous expat bars ever in Prague. You say you were the first foreigner to legally own a bar here. What are your strongest memories of the early days of Jo’s Bar?
“The strongest memories [laughs]…
“Well, it was pretty crazy. Everybody was young and footloose and fancy free, or whatever the expression is.
“I guess the general impression was that it was a really crazy time.
“It was a new country, it was very dynamic, things were changing, it was wild, it was radical, it was very anarchic.
“And the people that came through at the time were very adventurous sorts.
“Because back in the day there was no convertible currency – you basically were changing money on the streets, in back alleys.
“There was no American Express. Traveller’s cheques were not accepted. There was no McDonald’s.
“You know, none of the trustafarians could come, because there was no way that their daddy could send them money.
“And if you did get money sent it would disappear into the backwaters of the Czech banks for weeks on end [laughs].
“Who knows where it went? You’d have to go in there ultimately and fight with them to get your money out.
“So things were pretty crazy back then.
“They were a very different kind of people that were coming through Prague, as far as the adventurers and travellers that were coming through.
“There were a lot of wild and wonderful and strange and curious people that were around in the early days, till about ’95, ’96 – even later maybe, ’97.
“It was really wild, really anarchic and dynamic. Exciting.
“And everybody was in their 20s, so [laughs] the way you look at life is completely different.”
Obecní Dům [Municipal House] is one of the grandest buildings in Prague. But still, you and your business partner John-Bruce Shoemaker somehow took over half of it and were running cafés and stuff. How did that ever happen?
“John-Bruce, for all of his faults, got a lot of stuff done.
“He had somehow been sniffing around Obecní Dům.
“There were a couple of Czech guys who were running the whole thing and they were really strange individuals.
“Somehow JB got in touch with the management of the building – maybe about a different space in the building – and got talking with the guy who was in charge of renting the spaces.
“People running around half naked, drunk – yet a few metres above their heads were original Art Nouveau crystal chandeliers.”
“And he said, By the way, those guys are out, because they haven’t paid the rent for half a year or whatever.
“So JB said, Well if it’s possible, maybe I can take over the spaces.
“They said, Yes, it’s possible.
“It was only a short-term thing, I think only a one-year contract, because they were going to shut the Obecní Dům for reconstruction.
“Then JB came to me, because he didn’t have anything legal at the time and I had a limited company.
“I had all the paperwork. I had the licenses for running bars and restaurants.
“So he came to me and [laughs] he also needed a lot of money.
“I knew some investors who were hanging around my place and they would always say to me, Glen, if you know of anything interesting that’s happening, give us a call.
“So I gave this guy a call and we showed him the project and he came up with the original down-payment, because we had to put a deposit down on the rents.
“We also had to clean up the place and buy stock, etcetera.
“Basically JB did the groundwork, getting hold of the space, and then he came to me and the two of us got it together, somehow.”
Did you ever walk in there in the morning and look around at this space and think, How the hell did I become the boss of all of this?
“Every day. Every minute of every day.
“I would sit there and look around and think, What the hell is going on here [laughs]?
“I really just couldn’t believe it.
“Yeah, we had the Café Nouveau, it was a spectacular place. And downstairs the Repre Klub, which was ginormous.
“It was ridiculous, really ridiculous.
“So running a nightclub, you can imagine: A night club with a discotechque and a DJ on a big scaffolding platform and a 12- or 13- metre long bar.
“People running around half naked, drunk, dance floor, punk bands – yet a few metres above their heads were original Art Nouveau crystal chandeliers, hanging off the ceiling.
“There were Art Nouveau murals on the walls. All the frescos and all the plaster work were all original.
“Two floors above us was the whole Alphonse Mucha museum, and downstairs we had this complete bonanza going on.
“We had seven-foot tall Nigerian bouncers. You’d walk in and people were getting thrown out on their heads.
“It was surreal. It was like walking into the bar in Star Wars, you know.”
Glen Emery and John-Bruce Shoemaker were interviewed for US TV at the Café Nouveau in Obecní Dům.
You had several bars, including the famous Thirsty Dog, also in Obecní Dům. Of all places that you had, is there any one you look back on with particular fondness?
“Well, all of them for different reasons, yeah.
“I would probably rate them more for the troubles they made me than the good times.
“Because all of them were full of good times, all the time, but each one…
“What’s the quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina? All happy families are very alike, but every unhappy family is different in its own way.
“And the bars were like that with respect to the fact that the good times were very similar – a lot of people drinking and having a great time, interesting people and great conversation – but each one of those bars created different problems for me in very different ways.”
You were in your late 20s at the time. How did banks and building owners and people like that respond when this young guy comes in, I guess not wearing a suit, saying, I want do business?
“I think you had a ‘Good looks get you there, but brains keep there’ kind of thing.
“We decided we were going to go down to the Slavia, clean it up and run it. And that’s what we did.”
“So coming in from the West, even though I was young, gave me a certain amount of credence, just because I was from the West.
“Some people would take it as a good thing. Some people, like I said, had been taught their whole lives that we were the enemy.
“That sort of attitude usually came from the city officials that I had to deal with, from the Hygiene Department and City Hall, etcetera, etcetera.
“Because back in those days the people who got to any sort of position were apparatchiks, so they weren’t necessarily in their jobs because of any inherent skills or capabilities.
“It was because they toed the party line.
“They were classic apparatchiks. The kind of people that Trump hires – incompetent people, but they’re loyal to the cause.
“So I would usually not have so many problems with the landlords of places.
“Also I had just come out of engineering school, so when I went into these negotiations I was speaking very logically and in a straight line.
“So yeah, I never really had any problems with the landlords. It was usually people around the landlords: other family members.
“There was always some conspiracy: ‘Where’s all the money?’, and so on.
“It was between them, but somehow you would get involved.
“Like I said, with every place something different was going on [laughs].”
Earlier we spoke a little bit about John-Bruce Shoemaker [who died in 2010 at the age of 48], a name familiar to any expats who were in Prague in the ‘90s. He was a larger than life character. He ran bars. You knew him well. What kind of stuff would you guys get up to?
“[Laughs] Well, he was a really wild and crazy guy.
“He was a bit of a culty personality.
“It’s so funny, because I mentioned Trump before.
“I never liked Trump; I knew him from the ‘80s, when you’d see him on TV with Ivana Trump and his casinos. He was always in the press.
“But when he became president and the way he spoke, so many times I would look at him and go, That’s exactly what John-Bruce would have said, in these situations.
“It’s this sort of gaslighting and this whole conman persona.
“Some people are just naturally like that, some people work on it.
“To John-Bruce, it was just sort of a natural way of dealing with life.
“But he and I, and others – there was a whole bunch of us who used to hang around together – got into all sorts of really wild and crazy situations [laughs].
“And John-Bruce was always one of the prime movers in all of these.
“He would get up to all sorts of crazy things. He was a really wild individual.
“I knew mafia guys. I knew quite a few. But they never bothered me.”
“It was funny, because he came from a really good family, quite a wealthy background.
“He went to the University of Oregon. He was an athlete. He was a middle-distance runner, quite a good one.
“The University of Oregon in Eugene is quite a famous school for athletics.
“So he came out of that and he was very well-educated.
“He wrote a book that actually got turned into a film. He worked as a journalist for many years.
“He was a very intellectual guy, incredibly interesting – one of the greatest ever to sit down and have drinks with, or to get drunk with.
“Because he was a great storyteller, he was very well-versed in most subjects.
“He was a journalist and journalists are always great people to sit and have drinks with, or to talk with, because they know a lot of things about a lot of different subjects.
“JB was like that, but he was also this incredible storyteller.
“He would gesticulate. He’d be spitting and sweating and rolling around and everybody would be falling over, laughing their heads off.
“It was really fun to hang out with him.
“But you had to watch out [laughs], because he was a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
When I was preparing for this interview you very kindly let me read your as yet unpublished memoir, which is full of brilliant stories. One of them that I didn’t know about was that you were involved in the squatting of Café Slavia in 1993. I remember going there when it was occupied by people who shouldn’t have been there. Tell us that story, please.
“At the time Marek Gregor had started working for us, doing some different events, at Repre Klub and in the café, promoting different things – not just bands.
“It was around the end of October and somebody floated the fact that November 17, the anniversary of the revolution, was coming up, and we thought we should do something for the anniversary.
“At that time the Slavia was in the press all the time, because [restaurant] Parnas next door to Slavia had been rented by the dean of FAMU, I think.
“FAMU owns that building and the dean had rented it out to this company called HN Gorin, which was run by a Boston developer.
“And the guy who was the general director was a Czech-American guy.
“He didn’t like what had happened, because basically they were supposed to put so many millions of crowns into reconstructing the whole building – and as a reward they were supposed to get their hands on Slavia and Parnas.
“What these guys did is they didn’t put any money into the building and sublet Parnas out to this Indian restaurateur.
“He started running Parnas as a high-end restaurant and they shut down Café Slavia and turned it into a storage room basically.
“It was just full of rats and rotten apples and rotten meat and whatever.
“Everybody was pissed off because we used to hang out there all the time – it was a fantastic café.
“It was in the press all the time and this company HN Gorin was trying to hide from the whole thing.
“Then ultimately we started talking about it and at the same time the daughter of this managing director – I won’t say any names, she’s no longer with us, rest in peace – came to me, because she was a regular at my bar.
“She said, Hey, my dad is the general director of this company that’s supposed to have the Slavia and he’s really pissed off with what’s going on, and he wants to talk to you.
“We said to him, It’s funny you should say that, because we were thinking of doing something and this could be the perfect storm.
“So we decided that we were going to go down to the Slavia, clean it up and run it. And that’s what we did.
“The cops were trying to find out if there were any improprieties, other than us breaking down the doors.”
I was going to say – how did you get in?
“Basically we tried to drill out the lock, but guy who showed up at 5 o’clock that morning was drunk and his cordless drill ran out of batteries [laughs].
“So we had a few bouncers and we just pushed the door open and changed the locks.
“We were in there for about two weeks.
“Finally the cops – I was talking all the time with the cops and the officials – were just about to arrest me and I turned and the guy, the Czech-American managing director guy, was there.
“I said, Listen, mate, you’ve got to do something or I’m going to end up in jail.
“That’s when he finally stepped forward and said, I’m the guy on the paperwork.
“He showed the paperwork and then the cops pissed off. And then it went to a different level.
“At that point I just wanted out of there. I didn’t want anything more to do with it, because we were losing a bunch of money.
“And of course it got co-opted by all the Czechs and Marek Gregor and blah blah blah.
“They all co-opted the whole project. When all this was going on they never mentioned myself or John-Bruce, even though we were the ones who organised the whole thing and funded the whole action.
“It was all over the Czech press and on the front page of The New York Times, but only on the front page of The New York Times did they mention John-Bruce and me.
“Anybody that’s lived here for a long time knows that deeply embedded in the Czech psyche is this love of discordance.”
“In the Czech press they never mentioned us ever.
“So I was getting all pissed off and said, You know what, I’ve had enough of this.
“Then it sort of went to another level. After that I didn’t really care – it was sort of out of our hands.”
One thing that I found striking reading your book was the amount of violence in the pages. For example, you talk about your dad visiting and you had drinks with some friend and a few days later the guy was shot dead in the street. Other people you knew were killed. Did you find yourself in a lot of hairy situations?
“Yeah. Sure. But I’ve found myself in a lot of hairy situations all through my life: Back in Canada, up in the gold fields, I’ve been in a lot of places.”
Was that kind of background good preparation for dealing with mafia in Prague and stuff like that?
“I never really had to deal with mafia much.
“I knew mafia guys. I knew quite a few. But they never bothered me.
“You know, it was Yugoslavs on Yugoslavs, Russians on Russians.
“But they would never come after some Canadian guy [laughs], or some American guy.
“They’d say, Who? What?”
I must say that’s one thing that’s easy to forget – how much of a Yugoslav influence there was in Prague in those days.
“Yeah, when I first came to Prague all my friends were Yugoslavs. All of them.
“I’ll say something about that too, because there’s something interesting that I learned, that I never ran into anywhere before.
“When I came to Prague you’d run into Yugoslavs and if you became a friend with one Yugoslav…
“I’ve lived in the UK, the US, Germany, Holland and all these different places in Canada.
“And there when you make a friend and they introduce you to their friends, their friends will make their own judgement about you.
“They won’t, just by virtue of being your friend’s friend, be a friend of yours too.
“With the Yugoslavs it’s completely different [laughs].
“You make friends with one and all of a sudden all of their best friends are best friends with you. It’s unconditional.
“So I ran into a lot of Yugoslavs in the early days, because there were so many of them here. This is before the war.
“They were here studying at FAMU, most of them, studying film.
“Then there were a lot of other Yugoslavs, ex-Yugoslavs: from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia.
“Other ones were here at university: at ČVUT [Czech Technical University], or at Charles University.
“And some were here just to get away from Yugoslavia.
“So when we’d go out at night there were are all these students we would hang out with.
“They were like… They always said that Tito had one leg in the East and one leg in the West.
“When I first got here, it was quite difficult to get along with the local people.
“But with the Yugoslavs it was like talking to the guy next door.
“So we got along really well and for the first two or three year all my closest friends were Yugoslavians.”
One thing you write also in the memoir is “I have conflicts with Czechs almost on a daily basis”.
Why is that, Glen?
“Well, it’s not so much anymore, but back in those days, yeah, sure, absolutely.
“Anybody that’s lived here for a long time knows that deeply embedded in the Czech psyche is this love of discordance.
“If they can throw a clanger in your works – in any way, shape or form – they get off on that somehow.
“It’s part of the soul of the people.
“And coming from a country where it’s inherently the other way round, you have conflicts.
“There’s just no way around it.
“If you’re trying to make things work and you’re always running into people who throw a clanger into that, you will have conflicts.
“Even just walking down the road.
“I don’t know if you remember, I don’t know how long you’re here, but you could be walking down the road and there’d only be 10 other people on the street and one of them would bump into you.
“One of them would bump into you, and you’re like, What the hell just happened?
“If you were looking up at the tops of buildings, where all the nice stuff is, somebody would bump into you.
“I was like, What the hell? There’s only five people on this whole street.”
Maybe it’s a different concept of personal space, or something?
“You could and sit with a bottle of wine in the Golden Alley till the sun came up. Today you’d end up in jail.”
“There’s that. But there’s also this whole thing about being discordant.
“Whatever they can do to screw with you, make things difficult, they’ll do it.
“It’s not so bad any more, but it still happens.”
Almost 30 years later you’re still running bars in Prague. I have to ask you, how do you, in general, view the way that the city has changed over the last 30 years?
“When I first got here, people were running around crazy, doing all-nighters.
“There was not a worry in the world. The revolution had just happened and the world was their oyster.
“But then all of a sudden bank loans came out. Car loans. Payment programmes.
“Then the lifestyle magazines came out, the Cosmopolitan and the GQ and the magazines that taught the women how to spurn the men and taught the men how to dress and how to shave and how to act and how to behave.
“All these things collectively started to put fear in the eyes of the population and [laughs] started forcing people to get out of bed in the morning – to go to work to pay the debt so they can get the car to keep up with the Joneses.
“This sort of rat race started to develop, and it developed really quickly.
“So there’s that, and of course all the superficial things, like seeing McDonald’s and this bank and that bank and American Express and Cartier and all the high-end shops on Pařížská St.
“Then the shopping malls. And everybody’s driving a flash car.
“I was up in Denmark a few years ago on my motorcycle and I was like, Nobody drives flash cars in Denmark – everybody’s driving little Opels and so on [laughs].
“And you come to Prague and all of sudden everybody’s driving super, uber flash cars.
“On the good side, I used to have to deal with officialdom and recently I have too, and it’s really nice.
“There are young people, they’re friendly.
“They try to help you; it’s really changed.”
Yes, it’s like night and day. The change is enormous.
“Total night and day.
“I remember back in the day when I had to go to the foreigners’ police it was a nightmare.
“It was out of a Kafka… horror film. It was so disgusting.
“And the last time I had to deal with them they were like, Come in, you speak Czech, how is that possible?”
They even have a little spot for kids in the corner.
“Yeah, last time I was shocked.
“Everybody there was younger than me, they were super friendly, getting me a coffee. I was in shock.
“And also the service industry is much better.
“Remember what it used to be like? It was really horrible.
“Now you go to places and usually the staff are friendly.
“Of course a lot of this is a product of the Czechs being big travellers, as they are.
“In the last 25 years the young people have gone out and lived overseas and lived in other places.
“They’ve seen how things work in Western civilisation.
“They come back and they open their own places and they sort of set the bar, they set the pace.
“Everything percolates from the top down and so if the person who’s running the place is trying to set the level to something they’ve seen in Australia, or in London, you walk in as customer and you feel that straight away.”
I don’t want to sound like one of those guys in the Monty Python sketch: “When I was a lad” and all that stuff. But obviously when we were first living here – you got here a couple of years before me – in the early ‘90s, Prague did feel like a kind of magical place. There was something in the air. Do you think it’s still here, somewhere?
“Yes, I do.
“Prague has always been a very magical place.
“When I got here and was in my 20s and you’re young and [laughs] you’re much more romantic than I am now in my 50s…
“And of course it was dirty and it wasn’t painted – it wasn’t all Disneyland-ish – so it was really magical.
“You could walk at night straight into the Castle.
“You could and sit with a bottle of wine in the Golden Alley, with a candle and a few friends, till the sun came up.
“Today you can’t get anywhere near [laughs] – you’d end up in jail.
“So it was really magical. You could end up in all these weird places.
“But Prague is still a very, very magical place. Incredibly magical.
“You walk around at night and when there’s a bit of fog and nobody around it’s an incredible town.
“It’s a magical, enchanting, enchanted town.”
Glen Emery is planning to publish his memoir Thirsty Dogs: The Left Skank of the ‘90s in 2022.
Nick Cave wrote this song after hanging out at Emery’s pub The Thirsty Dog.