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Second-hand story from Prague

Monday 30th June 2014

Street-corner treasure filled our flat. In the Czech Republic, every day was an inorganic throw out day and if you wanted to get rid of something, the sidewalk was fair game.

I liked the idea that you could strike gold on any walk to the shops. For over four years we hauled every kind of item up the hill to our place: jackets, mirrors, flasks and nicknacks. Without a car this meant some sweating, but we took pride in having a sharp eye, and in the surprise finds that gradually took over our home. Sometimes a broken chair is just a broken chair - most times, actually - but I can't count the number of “can you believe they're throwing this away?” moments that we had.

Jo and I were newlyweds living in Prague,where “old” really meant something. Castles, bridges and fancy baroque architecture brought in mobs of tourists year round. But some forms of “old” got more love than others. A cathedral covered in gargoyles or a gold-leaf opera house is never going to lack admirers, but what about a 1970s subway station done up groovy in shades of gold and tan? What about a boxy Eastern Bloc car, or a red-and-white swimsuit from the Moscow Olympics? And what if you added all the historical baggage of Communism to that second kind of  “old” ? As an outsider with a serious 1970s fetish, I saw and loved all of the above. To many Czechs, though, “retro” had extra connotations: an old life in an old system, not being able to leave the country, or your mum queuing three hours just to buy some bananas.

When Jo told me she wanted to open a consignment shop in Prague, I had my doubts. To begin with, Prague had no such shops. The whole concept of “Hey, bring in your old clothes; we try to sell them and take a 50-50 split” would need introducing. I thought it might confuse people. It might not catch on. I didn't want to think about the cost if we did flop.

Then there was the human factor – us. It simply hadn't occurred to me that opening a shop was something people like us could do. We weren't exactly poor, but we definitely weren't rich. The idea seemed as off-kilter as if Jo had proposed running for office or becoming a rapper. Besides a few jobs in Auckland, Jo had no special training or experience in the vintage-thrift-consignment universe. As for me, I'd studied French Lit and had never even owned a car. If Jo had business questions, she'd have to ask somebody else.

"And for people over 30, nothing stunk of communist times more than having to wear hand-me-downs, used clothes."

We were both teaching English full-time, mostly riding the tram out to offices, squeezing in 90 minutes with white-collar types. We'd need people like these, if only to supply us with clothing, so we used our classes as discreet test-marketing sessions: “What do you think about fashion in Prague?”, “Have you ever worn second-hand clothes?” Our sneak survey made the general feeling clear: polite but sceptical. And for people over 30, nothing stunk of communist times more than having to wear hand-me-downs, used clothes.

At this point, I should clarify that when the shop did open, I was just the help. I put in a few hours on Mondays, covered lunch breaks and occasionally lifted things. Ownership was divided between Jo and Tereza, an ex-student she used to meet in cafes for conversational English. Tereza was young, cultural, and always well-dressed; she hung out with graphic designers and had decided that her apartment should be a “cubist flat” – she definitely made an impression; sitting in a specially designed “cubist chair” was as angular and uncomfortable as you might expect. Always happy to gripe with Jo about Prague’s shopping options, Tereza became a true believer in the idea of opening a consignment shop. More importantly, Tereza spoke Czech - real Czech, not the clumsy stuff that Jo and I spoke. With an insider to make things happen and guide us through the Czech bureaucracy, maybe the idea could pan out after all.

To function, we'd need customers regularly bringing in clothing, but we'd have to start with our own supply. At its most exciting, starting the business entailed Tereza driving us on a thrift shop road trip to Belgium. At its least appetising, it meant poking around Prague's existing second hands which shared many common traits: the words “Anglická Moda” (English Fashion) printed in a Union Jack font, grimy storefront windows that turned everything grey, no matter what time of day; and Prague's gruffest, sourest, most suspicious old ladies at the cash register. Anglická Moda shops didn't produce much for our starting supply, but they gave Jo and Tereza a model in reverse: ''Whatever they're doing, don't do it.''

We finally explained our plan to students and friends, and convinced many to bring us their clothes. With a few forms signed, we gained our first clients. At home, stacks of other people's clothing seemed to block my every move and the wardrobe needed an extra-firm push to stay shut. Jo and I scrambled to get our Czech up to speed - I knew how to say “I am a leper” and “nipple” in Czech, but not how to answer basic questions about clothing size and return policies. We couldn't possibly learn everything in time, but we reassured ourselves with the thought that there's no teacher like experience. When Jo and Tereza signed a lease for a hole-in-the-wall shop near the university, there was no turning back.

"Aside from a wild-eyed man who tried on some Diesel sneakers and bolted out the door, we had good luck with customers."

“Your wife has a thrift shop? Cool! What's it called?” People would ask.

Fru-Fru, a Czechified spelling of “frou-frou”. It was a silly name, especially when you said it aloud.  Pink, frilly, girly things; at least one customer seemed impressed, “wasn't Fru-Fru the name of the horse in Anna Karenina?" A literary reference! In fact, no, we just needed a name that could be pronounced in Czech by locals, and in English by expats and tourists.

This local-foreign balancing act happened every day, particularly in the vintage section. Young Czechs studying art, film or photography were as hipster as anyone, but felt vintage was for foreigners. For Czechs who remembered communism, the reaction to vintage usually fell somewhere between indifference and disgust. And nobody hated it more than Tereza. Even getting Tereza's consent had been a battle. “Fuj!” she said (Czech for yuck), holding an expat's retro shirt at arm's length; she picked up the next piece, a 1980s top, “Purple. Nightmare.” 

Tereza knew what our Czech customers wanted, and wrote it out in fluorescent ink on the storefront window: “Boss. Armani. Versace. Guess.” She wasn't wrong. With Czechs, nothing sold faster than designer labels, the more conspicuous the logo, the better.

Ironically, this attitude made Prague a paradise for vintage hunters. Whenever the vintage section was running low, you could catch a train to a village past the city limits called Úvaly. It was an obscure place, but donated clothes went there in bulk, dumped out by the crate into a lonely warehouse. An afternoon in the warehouse meant stale air, cold fingers, and a beat-up radio playing an endless loop of Queen: Greatest Hits II. In winter it also meant crossing open fields up to your calves in snow. But at 50 cents per item, with an ocean of clothes to hunt through, Jo was in heaven. We'd emerge with every bag stuffed, looking vaguely homeless and almost too weighed down to walk back to the village.

Aside from a wild-eyed man who tried on some Diesel sneakers and bolted out the door, we had good luck with customers. Jo's go-to phrase "Sorry for my Czech, I'm a New Zealander" worked wonders; if there's one country Czechs idealise, it seems to be New Zealand. A core of regulars developed. One older Czech man came in weekly, always with a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet and another handbag to sell. He was clearly homeless, and spoke a strange, old-fashioned English, as if he'd only studied from Jane Austen novels. After one good haul I heard him say, "One trembles with excitement at the thought. Why, imagine the number of bibles one might buy!" His handbags quite possibly came from rubbish bins, but after Jo had given them a good wash, they didn't look out of place in the shop.

Occasionally someone famous (or famous-seeming; we didn't watch Czech TV) would visit the shop. One had escaped Communism and wound up in Sydney, starring in Neighbours. Another time, the ex-President's wife visited. She had to change in the back room -  if someone saw her trying on second-hand clothes, the tabloids would be brutal.

"You're going to be rich. Are you ready? You're going to be rich," a student of mine told me. His calm and certainty made the words sound magical. But one year later, it seemed the better prediction would have been, ''Are you ready? You're going to break even''. We loved certain aspects of the shop, the customers who became our friends and the feeling that we had made a tiny stake in a foreign city. But other factors pushed on us – the shop was too small to make a profit. Jo and Tereza couldn't agree on the next step. Renewing our visas got more difficult every year. And we missed home.

The shop continued after we left, but eventually shut down. Memories of Fru-Fru now sit in a mental file labelled, ''interesting experience/do not repeat''. But give us a drink or two, and it's just a matter of time until Jo and I are rehashing events in the shop and laughing about the things we experienced.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

Frank Rogers comes from the USA, but has worked in France, the Czech Republic and New Zealand. He will gladly talk your ear off about podcasts, walking, soul music or 1970s movies.