Longest-Serving Bookseller Amongst 25,000 Czech Virus Victims | Enterprise Information

From KAREL JANICEK, Associated Press

PELHRIMOV, Czech Republic (AP) – A year after the Czech Republic recorded its first death from the coronavirus, the Central European nation paused to remember all of the citizens who lost their lives in the pandemic. By the end of the day, the number had passed 25,000.

At 12 noon last Monday, bells rang across the country to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the first Czech victim of the pandemic, a 95-year-old man, in a Prague hospital. On March 22, 2020 and for a few days, the Czech Republic reported single-digit daily COVID-19 deaths. Few then imagined that the 10.7 million nation would ultimately have one of the world’s highest per capita deaths.

But it’s not just gloomy statistics that have torn the fabric of Czech life. Behind every lost life there is always a personal story. And the death of some people affected entire churches.

Jaromir Vytopil was one of them. Without him, the town of Pelhrimov will not be the same.

As the longest-serving bookseller in the country, Vytopil had served the city’s readers for nearly six decades. They came to his shop of the same name to buy books, maps, and music, or just to chat with him when they passed. Books and customers were literally his life: he got into trading at the age of 15, studied at a special school for booksellers and worked in six different cities before settling in Pelhrimov in 1963.

Marie Vytopilova died at the age of 83 on November 9, another gloomy day of the month that was the deadliest pandemic in the Czech Republic as of Saturday. Both of them likely caught the virus in the bookstore.

“We didn’t expect it,” she said of her husband’s death. “He was still full of life.”

The Czech Republic was spared its worst spring pandemic, only to see its health system on the verge of collapse in the fall and again in January and March after the coalition government led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis repeatedly dismissed pandemic watches despite warnings from experts .

According to Johns Hopkins University, the Czech Republic has the second highest death rate in the world 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 have died. They blamed the government for an inadequate response to the pandemic. One of the crosses honored Vytopil.

When 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. Around 600 mourners expressed their grief on the store’s Facebook page.

“A legend has disappeared, the only citizen that everyone in Pelhrimov knew,” commented resident Petr Kostka.

“People like him are the heart of the city,” added Milan Pavlicek.

Vytopil left his family home in a nearby village on his scooter at 7 a.m. On the way he stopped to have a coffee and read the papers. Then he was ready to greet his customers.

“What emanated from him was an appetite for life and the effort to give people what he knew well, and those were the books,” recalled Marie Vytopilova. Over the years you gain knowledge. “

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died last month at the age of 101, was one of the bookseller’s favorite authors alongside the Czech writers Josef Skvorecky and Bohumil Hrabal. But he praised the people who visited his store for their choice and made recommendations when necessary.

“I have often laughed and called it a walking encyclopedia,” said his wife.

Vytopil’s mission as a bibliophile went beyond his shop. He advised Pelhrimov’s public library on which titles to acquire, helped organize readings and signatures with authors, and once a year dressed as king to put children in the order of readers during a ceremony where they were given library cards, Director Iva Rajdlova said.

“He was young at heart,” said Rajdlova. “He was interested in everything and it was so nice to talk to him about everything, not just books. He was interested in people and everything that was going on. He was just a very good man. “

However, promoting books and literacy could be a dangerous proposition during the communist era of Vytopils Land. Private ownership of bookstores was forbidden. After the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which crushed liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring, the hardline regime banned numerous authors and ordered bookstores to remove their works from their shelves.

“My father hid all the banned books he could. When we went to high school, we read his favorite Skvorecky as well as (Milan) Kundera and other banned writers,” said Vytopil’s son Jan.

Martin Vana, who first visited the Vytopil bookstore in 1978, said he was not surprised by the local reaction to his death. Vana, who works for the regional public radio station, reached out to Vytopil about 13 years ago to ask him to showcase new books in the air. For about 10 years he had a popular show mixing books and stories from his life.

“He was such a distinctive personality. We didn’t go to a bookstore, we went to Vytopil, “said Vana.” Over the course of his business years, his name became synonymous with booksellers. “

After the anti-communist Velvet Revolution of 1989, Vytopil was finally able to open his own family bookstore, which he and his wife did on July 1, 1991.

“He did exactly what he liked and got it right, no matter what it was,” said his wife. “When we first started, I remember his enthusiasm for the business. It was he who carried the weight of it. “

Despite his age, according to his son, he had no plans to retire.

“The bookstore has been all his life,” he said. “He used to say that he just wanted to be carried away. In a way, this wish came true. “

The family announced in January that they were going to put the bookstore up for sale because they realized they no longer wanted to run it “without our father, husband and soul.”

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