Bells tolled across the country at noon last Monday to mark the anniversary of when the pandemic’s first Czech casualty, a 95-year-old man, died in a Prague hospital. On March 22, 2020 and for some days to come, the Czech Republic reported daily COVID-19 deaths in the single digits. Few imagined then that the nation of of 10.7 million eventually would have one of the world’s highest per capita death tolls.
But it’s not just grim statistics that have torn the fabric of Czech life. There’s always a personal story behind each life lost. And the deaths of some people affected entire communities.
Jaromir Vytopil’s was one of them. Without him, the town of Pelhrimov won’t be the same.
As the country’s longest-serving bookseller, Vytopil had served the town’s readers for almost six decades. They came to his eponymous shop to buy books, maps and music, or just to have a chat with him when they passed by. Books and customers literally were his life: He got into the trade at age 15, studied at a special school for booksellers and worked in six different towns before settling in Pelhrimov in 1963.
He died at the age of 83 on Nov. 9, another grim day during the month that until Saturday was the Czech Republic’s deadliest of the pandemic, Marie Vytopilova, says both of them likely caught the virus in the bookstore.
“We didn’t expect that to happen,” she said of her husband’s death. “He was still full of life.”
The Czech Republic was spared the worst of the pandemic in the spring only to see its health care system near collapse in the fall and again in January and March after the coalition government led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis repeatedly let down pandemic guards despite warnings by experts.
According to Johns Hopkins University, the Czech Republic has the world’s second-highest mortality rate after the microstate of San Marino.
Activists painted thousands of white crosses on the cobblestones of Prague’s Old Town Square this week for all of the people who died. They blamed the government for an inadequate response to the pandemic. One of the crosses honored Vytopil.
As the news of Vytopil’s death spread in November, people placed flowers and lit candles in front of the bookstore, turning it into an impromptu memorial. About 600 mourners expressed their sorrow on the store’s Facebook page.
“A legend has gone, the only citizen everybody knew in Pelhrimov,” resident Petr Kostka commented.
“People like him form the heart of the town,” Milan Pavlicek added.
Vytopil used to leave his family’s home in a nearby village on his scooter at 7 a.m. On the way, he stopped to have a coffee and to read newspapers. Then, he was ready to greet his customers.
“What was shining from him was an appetite for life and an effort to give people what he knew well, and that was the books,” Marie Vytopilova recalled. “He used to read a lot, really a lot, and over the course of the years, you accumulate knowledge.”
U.S. poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died last month at age 101, was among the bookseller’s favorite authors along with Czech writers Josef Skvorecky and Bohumil Hrabal. But he praised the people who visited his store for their choices and if needed, offered recommendations.
“Many times, I laughed and called him a walking encyclopedia,” his wife said.
Vytopil’s mission as a bibliophile extended beyond his shop. He advised Pelhrimov’s public library on what titles to acquire, helped organize readings and book signings with authors, and once a year dressed up as a king to welcome children into the order of readers during a ceremony in which they received library cards, director Iva Rajdlova said.
“He was young at heart,” Rajdlova said. “He was interested in everything, and it was so nice to talk to him about anything, not just about books. He was interested in people and anything that was going on. Simply, he was a very good man.”
Promoting books and literacy, however, could be a dangerous pursuit during the communist era of Vytopil’s country. Private ownership of bookstores was prohibited. After the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring, the hardline regime banned numerous authors and ordered bookstores to purge their works from store shelves.
“My dad hid all the banned books he could, so when we attended high school, we were reading his favorite, Skvorecky, and also (Milan) Kundera and other banned writers,” Vytopil’s son Jan said.
Martin Vana, who visited Vytopil’s bookstore for the first time in 1978, said he wasn’t surprised by local reaction to his death. Vana, who works for the regional public radio station, approached Vytopil about 13 years ago to ask him to present new books on the air. For about 10 years, he had a popular show mixing the books and stories from his life.
“He was such a distinctive personality. We didn’t go to a bookstore, but instead we went to Vytopil’s,” Vana said. “In the course of his years in business, his name became synonymous with bookseller.”
After the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution, Vytopil finally could open his own family bookstore, which he and his wife did on July 1, 1991.
“He did exactly what he liked and did it right, no matter what it was,” his wife said. “When we started, I remember his enthusiasm for the business. It was him who was carrying the weight of it.”
Despite his age, he didn’t plan to retire, according to son.
“The bookstore was all his life,” he said. “He used to say he only wanted to be carried out of it. That wish turned true, in a way.”
The family announced in January they were putting the bookstore up for sale because they realized they didn’t want to run it “without our dad, husband and its soul” any more.
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