American

25-year-old Marek owns a candy store!

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As I sit here typing away yet another successful interview with another of Prague’s inspirational characters, I’m munching away on a bag of ‘Flipz’, small chocolate covered pretzels that create a land where both salt and sugar can exist in harmony – an uncontrollable party for your tastebuds. This is not a food blog, but these things definitely need a mention. I ate the whole bag in one sitting so that’s saying something.

Marek is a 25-year-old entrepreneur that has successfully opened ‘The Candy Store’ – a brightly coloured and eccentrically decorated store that reminds me of that Robin Williams film Toys, not to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The store is exactly how it sounds, filled with sweet sweet candy and chocolate from both the US and UK – every dentist’s nightmare and every child’s dream. Marek has also recently combined forces with ‘Robertsons’ to supply people with quality cuts of meat and other imported products that every expat misses, and every Czech wants to try. Halloween is coming up, get in there and support a young guy making his way with an original idea and fresh attitude to life in general. Marek’s interview is one of remarkable modesty and taste. Read below for what makes this candyman tick.

Are you from Prague?

No, I was actually born in Pardubice, about 70-80 km from Prague, and I lived there until I was about 8 and then we moved to the Netherlands because of my father’s job. I stayed there until I was 16 and then came back here and finished high school.

Where abouts in the Netherlands?

The Hague, by the sea.

Nice.

It sounds really nice when you hear by the sea, but it’s all really grey.

I’ve never actually been to the Netherlands.

It’s an awesome country to visit, but I enjoy the Czech Republic a lot more. It’s a different mentality in Western Europe and in Holland. It’s all very restricted, even in terms of business. I’m not saying it’s all better over here, but at least they are a bit more leniant.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

I always really liked sports. My Dad played ice hockey a lot when I was a kid and I actually played tennis professionally until I was about 17, so I always thought I was going to be a tennis player. Around that critical time – 16, 17, 18 you have different interests that start to come up. Those are the most important years. It’s when you need to focus more and I kinda lost my focus. I trained less and it got worse and worse and then there was no point to do it anymore. You need to invest so much money and so much energy into sports. So yeah that’s what I wanted to do, which is really tough on me now because I sit in an office all day (laughs).

And how did you get this idea to open The Candy Store?

When I lived in Holland, I saw a lot of these shops selling British and American stuff. I mean, British stuff was already here because of ‘Robertson’s’, but no American stuff on a bigger scale. There were SOME shops that existed, but not many people knew about them. The shops that tried to do the American thing before, only aimed it at the expats, so we aimed it at the Czech people as well. There is a surprisingly large amount of Czechs that have visited the States or lived there long term. It’s been much easier to get there in the past ten years than it was 20-30 years ago. I started and I thought no one is going to know these products or what this is about, but slowly and surely in the first year we saw that most of our clientele was Czech. I saw it work in Holland, I saw it work in Germany and all these places and I couldn’t see a reason why it wouldn’t work here. Especially with these younger generations who watch American TV and movies and stuff like that. I mean, there is a reference to almost every product in our shop in South Park, like pop-tarts!

I saw them before and something tingled inside me.

Exactly! People see these movies and TV shows and they want to try it out. So we just thought, why not? So we found a little shop and the rent was good so the risk wasn’t that bad… and that’s basically how it all started!

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How old are you?

I’m 25 now.

25? Wow, and what are people’s reactions to being so young and having your own business?

Expats react pretty well. Czechs… it’s a bit tough.

How come?

I don’t know, there’s this perception that you need a certain amount of experience, let’s say 10 years, before you do something like that. I don’t know whether it’s still from communism when no one could start up anything or something like this, I’ve never really thought about it. It’s still much better in the last five years because there are so many more young entrepreneurs that try something new in Prague. But there are still a lot of people that ask you “oh did someone give this to you? Did your father give you this shop?” It’s a bit hard to swallow sometimes, but most of the time people’s reactions are all good. It’s my baby, it’s what I love and I will do anything for it. When people see that you take it seriously, it’s a little better. At the start is was really tough – I was 22 when I started and when someone has a meeting with a 22 year old, they don’t really take it seriously. They just think “oh you want my money to spend on booze”. Overall though, I can’t complain.

Halloween is coming up soon, is that a popular time in the shop?

Halloween is pretty popular, it’s mostly popular with expats. I mean, young people know it but it’s a typical western tradition. Christmas is our main season of the year because people always want that little extra present. Even Easter, any holiday involving chocolate.. Valentines as well. But we don’t just do candy and chocolate anymore, most of the things we sell are little delicacies so we do pretty well all year round.

What typical American candy would you recommend trying?

I think they’re really good with the sweet and salty combinations. You know Reese’s cups, obviously.

YES. I do know them, but I don’t think I could eat more than one…

Yeah, they’re intense! That’s one of our bestsellers. We carry the most known candy, anything you try is going to be different to what you’re used to.

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Do you have a favourite product?

I stay away from most things (laughs). I like Flipz, they’re milk chocolate pretzels, not the big ones but the small ones. I think besides Flipz I love the meat that Robertson’s still supplies us with. The sausages, the steak. I love this stuff. Cheddar as well.

How many places around here sell cheddar? 

Not many places sell the really good stuff, you can get the slices but that’s like gum.

Yeah it looks like plastic.

I live off that stuff now, it’s really good.

The interior is amazing! Was that all you?

Yeah, basically me and my colleague. Once you have really colourful products and walls, it kind of just goes by itself. We never really had any outside help, not even marketing. I like to do this stuff myself.

Have you ever made your own candy?

Not yet, but we’re thinking about it. Hopefully by Christmas we’ll have our own thing.

Have you ever seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Did you think about this when you began?

A lot of people think it’s like that yeah (laughs). I thought the movie with Johnny Depp was a bit freaky, I never really thought of that as a children’s movie. I don’t know, I saw it once or twice but never again, it was quite intense.

How would you describe Prague?

Beautiful, laidback. Full of opportunities, but most of all beautiful.

If you could go back in time, what would you choose to see?

I’d like to go forward in time, not thousands of years but hmmm… I’d be interested to see myself at 80-90, just so I know what to expect. I was talking about this with my friend the other day; things are changing so quickly in the world right now with technology. You never know what’s going to happen in a week or a month or in a year’s time. It’s something that I ponder a lot.

If there was a movie about your life, who would you choose to play you? Obviously not Johnny Depp after what you’ve just told me.

(Laughs) Yes, true. Wow, that’s a good question. I want someone that at least looks a bit skinny (laughs). Oh man.. I’ve always loved Kevin Spacey – that would be an honour if he could play me. If not him then someone who can play a simple role like myself. Nicholas Cage or something like that.

Where do you like to hang out in Prague?

At home, I really like the peace and quiet. I used to go out a couple of years back a lot. But since I’ve made that jump to 25.. I’m nearly 30!

Well I’m 28, so what does that make me??

(Laughs) I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’ve tried to slow down a bit. I love this area around Náměstí Míru, it really has an atmosphere, it’s alive. There are so many new places around here now.

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Check out the Candy Store’s selection here.

Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photography by Ryan Keating-Lambert.

 

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Charisse talks art and the “wayback machine”

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Petr and I were blown away when we set foot in Charisse’s studio apartment. It was as if New Orleans’ legend Marie Laveau herself had decorated and imprinted part of her voodoo queen soul on the walls. We were now in Charisse’s world; one dedicated to the mystic, and the sublime. A candle lit art studio that brought some fascinating tales into the light.

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Where are you from originally, Charisse?

I’m originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went to a regular school and we were some the first kids that went to an all white school. That has really shaped my whole entire life, I think.

Do you miss it back home? What do you miss the most?

No, I don’t miss it (laughs). I do miss my Grandmother and her house though. I don’t miss the city, I never want to move back.

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What do you miss about your grandmother?

I miss her love and her aura – you know that grandmother’s aura.

How did you get to Prague, Charisse?

I flipped a coin. It was a toss-up between here and Seville in Spain.

No way! That’s cool!

It was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done. I was living in Minneapolis and I was thinking, do I actually do this? I went to the window and it was raining, and I thought oh god! There was a double rainbow! The only thing I knew about the Czech Republic at that point was Alfons Mucha…

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What were your first impressions of Prague?

I got into the wayback machine and went back 20 years.

A wayback machine?

The cartoon TV show Rocky and Bullwinkle. Peabody and Sherman had this time travel machine called the wayback machine (laughs).. Lots of parts of Prague remind me of Milwaukee actually, because of the Polish. We have a big Polish community over there too.

Where is your favourite place to hang out in Prague?

It used to be this bar Hush on Lublanska before it closed. Now I like Vzorkovna bar.. I had some of my paintings in a show there too.

If you could describe Prague in adjectives, which would you use?

Random, Grey, lost but found opportunities. It’s very new. Everything is a rebirth. Definitely a renaissance. Freedom.

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Are you religious?

I’m spiritual. I’ve discovered a lot of stuff since I’ve moved to Prague. That’s why I think of it as a rebirth.

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You’re a very talented! You paint and make your own clothes and jewellery too. Anything else?

Anything! I just like to make shit! Whatever I want, I guess. I like to spend my time being creative. Pretty much everything you see in this room has been done.

What inspires you to make these things?

I like different cultures. I like the mystic and I love the sublime. I like the underdogs, the people that nobody seems to like. The person that makes you question yourself, I like that person.

What designs or projects are you most proud of? Anything you can show us?

I’ve done all of these paintings. This is my Mary Magdalene (pictures below on the far left), she is my Mona Lisa and she comes everywhere with me and I WON’T sell her!

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How would you compare Czechs to Americans?

Hmmm. You can pretty much say whatever you want to Czechs, and they will leave you alone and go home and bitch about you there, American’s will do the opposite. The people here are not aggressive at all.

What makes you laugh?

I like dirty humour; stuff that sneaks up on me. Quirky and random things make me laugh, the odd and the mundane.

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If you could go back in time, when would you go?

I’ll be cliché. I would go and stand next to Buddha under the Bohdi tree.

Who has made Prague especially great for you?

My friends definitely. I’ve met the most inspiring people. We’re like honey and flies; we stick to each other. This is what I was looking for in Minneapolis, and it took me years to get it there.

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Do you think you make friends faster when you’re an expat?

That’s when your human instincts kick in. Especially when you travel alone. You’re forced to meet people.

Can you speak Czech?

(Silence) Ambiguity is the best. Wink, wink.

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(Laughs) Very good answer. How multicultural do you think Prague is? The US must be quite different on that level. Do you miss this?

Yes, I do. I miss the diversity. I actually find myself watching a lot of television shows from when I was a kid just so I can see some diversity again (laughs). Otherwise, everybody basically looks the same…

And do you think that Prague will change in the future?

Yeah, dude! Prague is changing a lot already. Look at the fashion for example, 5 years ago it was socks and sandals central, but now everybody has stepped up their game. It is the younger generations that are changing things now.

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Thanks so much for letting us crash your pad, Charisse! We loved every minute of you company.

Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating. Photography by Petr Kurečka.