Conquering Europe by Internet

SUN JOURNAL

Globopolis: American expatriate Scott Rogers made his bookstore and caf one of Prague's favorite hangouts. Now he's taking his entrepreneurial skills to the Web.

May 01, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- With his degree in ancient Greek and little else, Scott Rogers arrived to teach English here in 1992, just three years after the Velvet Revolution had doused communism.

Everything was cheap, everyone seemed young and optimistic, and the air was noisy with a dozen languages braided into the voice of a new Czech Republic.

"The energy was so thick you could cut it with a knife," says Rogers, 35, a former Virginian who has become one of Prague's more successful expatriate entrepreneurs.

Rogers owns this riverfront city's well-known Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse, which introduced Czechs to latte, late nights, poetry slams and the Internet. It began in 1993 as a smoke-and-drink-coffee spot for YAPs (young Americans in Prague), but it has grown into an institution, a cross-cultural meeting place for artists and eggheads and tourists.

In February, the Globe moved to a larger, more central location. And last month, the store helped play host to the Prague Writers Festival, with such authors as William Styron and Margaret Atwood reading from their work. The Prague Post recently praised the Globe as a place on "anyone's short list of landmark post-revolution, expatriate Prague businesses."

For his next trick, Rogers is trying to carve out a slice of Central and Eastern European cyberspace. To do so, he and his 6-month-old Web site, Globopolis.com, may have to butt heads with some U.S. powerhouses.

Globopolis calls itself an online city guide, but Rogers likes to think of it as an online bookstore and cafe. Globopolis users can click one of the seven cites -- Prague, Berlin, Budapest, Krakow, Vienna, Warsaw and Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia, the other half of the former Czechoslovakia) -- and can click their preferred language: English, Czech, German, Polish, Hungarian or Slovak. Then Globopolis offers a feast of information about the arts, nightlife, food and tourist sites of each city.

Beyond the typical travel-guide information, Globopolis supplies arts and cultural fodder. There are profiles of writers and movie directors, reviews of books, music and art. And for expatriates, each city site provides vital information about living and working there, such as where to find language schools, cheap beer and a job.

Users can make hotel and restaurant reservations or order music and movie tickets online (Globopolis takes a 5 percent commission). In a few weeks, users will be able to connect to Globopolis via mobile phone to check stock quotes or buy movie tickets.

Globopolis plans to add four more cities by summer and hopes for 17 by year's end. Venture capitalists have been throwing money at the private company, allowing Rogers to hire more technicians and to open offices in most of the cities Globopolis serves.

Other online travel guides, such as CitySearch, Travelocity and CNN's City Guides, have plans to expand their services into more corners of Europe. But Rogers is hoping to reach as many European cities as he can before the larger U.S. firms get there.

"We see it as a race," says Rogers, who as CEO still shares a small office with seven other employees working among second-hand office furniture.

Ten years after the Berlin Wall came down, and 10 years after Soviet troops rolled out of Prague and took communism with them, Rogers' attempt to expand Internet use in Central and Eastern Europe is part of an evolution: the continued Westernization and economic awakening of the beautiful city of Prague and its melange of Czechs and internationals.

For Rogers, the learning curve has been tremendous. Before he came to Prague, Rogers had had no experience in capitalism. A degree in ancient Greek was of little use in the business world.

He was raised in Roanoke, Va., one of five siblings born to a circuit court judge (who died at age 47 of cancer) and a painter and novelist. He attended Vanderbilt University, the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia, and was headed toward a doctorate in ancient Greek when he burned out, dropped out and went to Europe to wait on tables at a Bavarian castle outside Munich.

In late 1992, near the end of his first year in Prague, he helped friends open one of the city's first vegetarian restaurants and then launched a slick, English-language literary magazine, Trafika, which published the likes of Don DeLillo, John Barth and Joyce Carol Oates.

In 1993 he opened the Globe in a small space off the beaten path. It sold English-language books and served Starbucks-quality coffee. Americans flocked there. Then, little by little, Czechs flocked there, too. And Germans and Britons and others.

Under communism, the state had owned the cafes. The state did not sponsor poetry readings.

"It was literally a success from day one," says Rogers, who invited writers such as Gunter Grass, Amy Tan and Allen Ginsberg to do readings.

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