Secret doors to Narnia: the brothers who own sister teahouses
As children growing up in Yorkshire, brothers Andy and Martin Fell drank a lot of tea – and for almost a decade, the two have owned a pair of quirky sister teahouses, one in Prague and one in Glasgow. Born in Scotland to a Czech mother and English father, the brothers fused the British tea-drinking tradition with the concept of the Bohemian-style teahouse to create two establishments which are each unique in their own locales for very different reasons.
The first time I walked into A Maze in Tchaiovna, I thought it was just one room. I sat and ordered some tea and read a book and then left. The second time was the same. And the third.
But the fourth time, I was completely taken by surprise when someone walked past me to the bookcase at the back of the room, reached for one of the shelves, and pulled – and the whole thing swung open to reveal a hidden room which I had been completely unaware of until that moment.
Beyond that were other secret doors and hidden rooms: walk through a Tardis from Dr Who and there’s another secret corridor; open a wardrobe and, like in the classic children’ book The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, you’re in Narnia (the secret smoking room).
“I had always had an obsession with secret doors. We used to have an uncle who lived near Edinburgh who had a castle, and I remember him showing me his secret doors in the dining room when I was little. I was just obsessed.”
Andy Fell is the proprietor of Prague 6’s legendary A Maze in Tchaiovna. For the last near-decade, “Tchaiovna”, as it’s known to regulars, has been a hub for musicians, artists, and those seeking a sense of community.
Serving the traditional array of teas from around the world that you would find in a classic Bohemian teahouse, as well as coffee, Czech microbrew ales, and British products such as pies and Yorkshire tea, the hard-to-define establishment has attracted expats and locals alike – but usually for different reasons, says Andy.
“British people come in and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’ve got Yorkshire tea here, brilliant! I’ll get a pint of beer, please.’ Whereas the Czechs come in and they’re like ‘Oh, proper cuppa!’ and then they order like, ‘Já jsi dám proper cuppa a bacon butty, prosím.’ And it always cracks me up every time.”
According to Andy, it’s this unique blend of teahouse and pub, mixed with a healthy dose of community centre, a dash of café and a generous dollop of culture, arts and events space that has made his establishment popular.
“We do seem to attract mostly a more chilled clientele, which is nice. Because if you go to a normal teahouse you can’t get a nice beer, but if you go to a normal pub you can’t chill out like you’re in a teahouse.”
Martin, his older brother, owns the older and more established Tchai-Ovna House of Tea in Glasgow. He says he started it because of an exaggerated story he told a Czech girl to try and chat her up.
“I met a lassie called Lutra (Lucie) who I lied to – she’s a friend of mine now – but when I was 19 and we were in a teashop, I told her as a chat-up line, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a teashop in Glasgow.’ And then she said, ‘Oh that’s great, I’m actually coming to live in Scotland.’ And I was like, ‘Oh crap’. And I had to make this dream come true by the time she arrived.”
22 years later, and after a short-lived relationship, Martin and Lutra are no longer together, but the Tchai-Ovna is still going strong – not only serving tea but also providing a space for musicians and poets to perform. Unlike his brother’s teahouse in Prague, the Glaswegian establishment doesn’t serve alcohol. But that’s precisely its unique selling point in Scotland, says Martin.
“It’s a hard drinking culture in Glasgow. And that was basically all that was happening – people drinking. There were some coffee houses starting up, but everyone was like, ‘You can’t do a teahouse because that’s out of fashion’. The alcohol culture was so ubiquitous that I and my friends felt that we needed to have some place that was an alternative to that. So while in the Czech Republic teahouses were a reaction to this encroaching Westernisation, in Glasgow it was a reaction to this hedonistic ‘get drunk as quick as you can for as cheap as you can’ culture. That Bohemian counter-culture thing works for different reasons in Scotland than it does here.”
A little history
That “Bohemian counter-culture thing” that Martin references was the flourishing of Bohemian teahouses in the early 90s shortly after the Velvet Revolution. Martin summarises it like this:
“The history of Czech čajovnas is basically that a guy called Luboš went out around the world and he came back to Communist Czechoslovakia and would do underground festivals with Arabic tea tents, bringing a selection of teas from around the world. And so the Czechs invented that concept and probably invented the concept of the chai tent at festivals, which is ubiquitous at festivals nowadays. But then in 1991 or 1992 they decided to make a permanent one, which is on Václavské náměstí and then they also made another one on Michalská ulice, and that’s dobrá čajovna. There was two halves – one that was done as a traditional English tea shop and one that was more Moroccan-y with world influences – and the traditional English one wasn’t as popular.”
The Luboš he references is Luboš Rychvalský, who together with Aleš Juřina and Jiří Šimsa founded the company Spolek milců čaje (the association of tea lovers) and the well-known Dobrá čajovna on Wenceslas Square in the early 90s. Dobrá čajovna has since expanded all over the Czech Republic, as well as Slovakia, Poland and even the U.S.
Although Dobrá čajovna is now a franchise, Martin believes the ethos behind the first Bohemian teahouses was spiritual, counter-cultural, and a reaction to the rampant free-for-all capitalism of the early 90s in Czechoslovakia.
“The Czech Republic is quite an amazing place in terms of the imagination that goes into things, and the willingness to create and realise that imagination. Going way back – the Czech brethren were the first to incorporate parts of Buddhism into Europe, which is amazing. So the Czechs have always had this weird imagination thing going on, and so it is Bohemian in the sense that it’s imaginative, creative, alternative, slightly counter-cultural – especially in the early 90s when American corporations were taking over everything, it was very counter-cultural. So in every sense of the word it’s Bohemian.”
The teahouses were a kind of sanctuary or safe haven for the people who frequented them, a little pool of calm. And this was intentional, says Martin, who recalls speaking to Luboš Rychvalský.
“I think what the Czechs successfully did, and this is straight from the horse’s mouth, from Luboš, is to create a different world within your world. So you can go to a different place right on your doorstep.”
But the success of teahouses and the devotion to the art of tea is somewhat surprising when you consider how hard it was to get good tea in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era, says Martin.
“Before it was just this really really bad Georgian tea. Georgia now produces very good tea, but back then it was mass-produced and my dad would call it dishwasher tea or witch piss tea, and it was absolutely horrendous. So you would want to put lemon and sugar in that as the Czechs used to do, anything to drown out the taste. But now Georgian tea is excellent, so that’s not to detract from that. So the Czechs have done really well with making a tea culture out of literally nothing.”
He puts this down to what he describes as the Czechs’ devotion to doing things properly when they like something – or, as he calls it, their ‘nerdiness’.
“Nerdy – this is a very generalized thing but I’ve realised Czechs tend to get very nerdy about stuff when they get really into something – like beer, tea, coffee. But as far as I can see, the Czechs are the first to really bring different traditions of tea-drinking into one place. And that’s essentially what we picked up. So we copied off the Czechs but the Czechs copied off the whole tea-drinking world.”
From Prague to Glasgow and back again
Andy’s teahouse in Prague is much less of a traditional Bohemian-style teahouse than his brother’s in Glasgow. While in Scotland, a place that only serves tea was something of a novelty, in Prague the ‘čajovna’ was already a well-established tradition, as Martin says.
“To do a traditional čajovna in Scotland is unusual and in fact, unfortunately, unique. I wish it wasn’t. Whereas that obviously has been done in the Czech Republic.”
For Andy, that meant finding other influences to mix in and other ways to make his teahouse unique in Prague.
“When we were reimporting a čajovna that’s come to Glasgow and bringing it back, we had to make it a bit different from your average Czech teahouse – so we have beer. We have a limited range of alcohol – not like a bar with loads of cocktails, but a range. I like standard Czech teahouses, but rather than just having stuffed vine leaves or whatever we have bacon sandwiches and Yorkshire tea and pies and stuff like that – which here is a bit Oriental I guess.”
Martin agrees that the British products are a unique selling point in Prague, while in Scotland they would simply be mundane.
“There are a lot of people who are interested, as far as I can see, in the aspects of British culture, which I think is great. Here it’s quirky. The proper brew – that just wouldn’t work in Scotland.”
On the other hand, getting people in Scotland to expand their definition of what tea can be beyond a “proper cuppa” and embrace all the different kinds of tea around the world presented a different kind of challenge.
“Because Britain is traditionally tea-drinking, to bridge the gap to actually persuade people to start drinking tea was probably less of a challenge than to persuade Czech people to start drinking tea. But to start to get British people to expand their knowledge of tea beyond just teabags was a fair challenge. Whereas with Andrew, I suppose in the Czech Republic it was a new thing so people were just game for anything.”
The importance of community building
Andy says a bigger factor even than tea was the drive to create a community space – a place where people could come together, meet and have dialogue.
“My wife and I were talking about what we could do to improve the world around us. It sounds daft but genuinely that was the reason why we started it. You can’t really protest against the ridiculous stuff that happens, that doesn’t seem to solve much, you can’t use violence – I don’t think that solves anything. But what we decided upon was that we should make little bubbles of nice that could create other little bubbles of nice.”
As part of this ethos, A Maze in Tchaivona is as much a cultural and events space as a teahouse. It hosts events of all kinds – everything from open mic poetry nights and informal concerts to clothes swaps and non-violent communication workshops.
While in a traditional Czech teahouse, the atmosphere is usually quiet and serious, both the Fell brothers' establishments are much livelier. That’s the main difference, says Martin.
“I think there’s a certain amount of pretentiousness in quite a lot of Czech teahouses. Making tea approachable – what makes us substantially different from Czech teahouses is basically the Glaswegian attitude. It’s a completely different mentality. It’s a lot louder, really fun, it’s a lot more – you know, there’s music happening, people talk louder – people don’t put up with pretentiousness, so whilst you might do something like make tea with integrity, you can’t really get overly self-righteous about stuff.”
A labour of love
Both brothers admit running a teahouse is a labour of love, not money. In fact, more than a decade after Martin started his Tchai-Ovna in Glasgow, when Andy decided to set up his own version of his brother’s teahouse in Prague, their dad tried to warn him off.
“We set up the teahouse against my dad’s advice – he was like, ‘don’t go into the tea business!’
“I also had the same advice from our dad at the beginning,” Martin chimes in. “He actually took me to a tea room in Bradford, and he asked the owner, ‘So you run this place?’ ‘Yeah’. ‘So my son wants to open up his own teahouse. It’s hard isn’t it? It’s really hard, isn’t it?’ And the owner said, tearfully, ‘Yes, it is!’ Such a terrible thing to do [laughs].”
Clearly, their dad’s sage advice didn’t work – both brothers went into the tea business anyway. But the journey has not been without its struggles.
Martin jokes that his teahouse has been running on bankruptcy for the last 22 years and they just haven’t admitted it to themselves, and both brothers have other sources of income to support themselves. Now in its third location, A Maze in Tchaiovna has moved premises twice and sadly, has recently become a victim of the current energy crisis. Andy says the rent plus bills and associated costs of running the place have almost doubled over the past 12 months.
As a result, Tchaiovna will soon be closing its doors permanently. There will be a closing party on 1 April and from 9 April, Tchaiovna as its clientele have known it over the past nine years will cease to exist.
However, he plans to do some pop-up events in the following months, with a view to opening up something smaller later in the year, so the spirit of Tchaiovna may still live on.