Have you ever felt the irresistible urge to go out and buy a can of sliced pineapples in the middle of the night? A pack of smokes, maybe? A new pair of socks? A pencil? Well if so, Prague has got you covered! All you need to do is find the nearest ‘večerka,’ an evening store.
The etymology of the word is quite simple – ‘večer’ means ‘evening’ in Czech, and in decades past, those little stores were often the only places you could buy anything come sunset. In the Communist era, these večerkas were sparse and served more like a last-minute rescue station when everything else was closed. Nowadays, however, they’ve transformed into a phenomenon that is tightly bound with life in the capital. If you asked an average person from Prague what večerka is, they’d probably answer something like ‘a self-service convenience store that almost never closes and is run by some Vietnamese guy.’ Let us break that down a little bit further.
The idea of a grocery store that would close late in the evening is nothing unique to modern Czech culture. Numerous other countries have them, but the history of today’s večerka is still quite interesting. When the free market opened in the early 90’s, people started to discover that there are options they’ve been denied over the decades. This of course applied primarily to things such as traveling abroad or being able to study whatever you wish without the fear of consequences if your political profile wasn’t good enough. But those are big issues that usually do not affect everyday life like, say, buying groceries. Suddenly, people could go buy oranges any given day, not just before Christmas. This of course lead to the rise of two types of stores: a večerka, and a common supermarket.
A supermarket has many advantages – it is, by design, pretty big, which means it can accommodate lots and lots of goods. And because supermarkets aren’t private businesses and thus have no need to keep prices high to sustain the profitability, everyone is happy at the end – low prices will attract customers, which in turn means more goods sold, which leads to the company not being bankrupt, which leads to further spreading and building more supermarkets, and so on. Supermarkets are simple as that, there’s no mystery to them. So what’s up with all those večerkas then?
Well, the basic problem is that a supermarket (let alone a hypermarket or shopping center) requires space. Lots and lots of it. And while some newer areas of Prague are quite spacious, the old city center isn’t. Secondly, supermarkets are extremely impractical when all you need to buy is one Milky Way and a bottle of wine. There are plenty of shopping centers in Prague – Palladium, Nový Smíchov, Bílá labuť or Kotva, to name some in the most frequented areas – but you just don’t go to a gargantuan glass complex the size of a small monastery to get a banana. Also, shopping centers usually close at 10 or 11 pm, which brings us to the biggest point – a večerka can run non-stop. It’s not a rule, lots of them also close at 10 or 11 or so, but there are lots that don’t.
So what we have are basically small convenience stores that sell food, beverages, cigarettes, alcohol, magazines, often also fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, toilet paper, plush toys, gift cards, condoms, underwear… the list goes on. They’re practically grocery stores that also sell the same stuff gas station do, and then a few more. To search through a večerka’s shelves (they’re always self-service) can be a true quest – often you’ll find some delicious Asian meals or spices that are otherwise borderline impossible to get. Oh yes, the Asian thing…
The Vietnamese first arrived into Czechoslovakia as part of a workers’ migration program that ran between fellow socialist countries, and although many returned back home after borders opened, plenty of them did not. Today, the young generation is almost fully integrated into Czech culture – they go to Czech schools, learn Czech language (often excelling in it, as numerous school competitions will witness), and acquire Czech habits. But back then, when there were suddenly no socialist working programs left, the first generations had to make a living somehow, and it turned out that they were pretty great in running small businesses. First, they practically overran the cheap textile industry, then they started focusing on groceries, and the final phase of this evolution is the večerka, a place where you can buy practically anything.
Because those businesses are run by entire families, it is super common to find a bored teenager at the counter, playing games on his smartphone when there are no customers to be taken care of. This is why there are so many večerkas – they usually don’t have non-family employees, which would add to the expenses. Have a walk through the city center and count – there are so many of them that people who live nearby will frequently go grocery shopping there, because although supermarkets can be way cheaper, why bother walking somewhere and shopping for an hour when there’s a večerka right across the street where you can simply walk in and out in a minute? This is literally one of the greatest of Prague’s life hacks. Come shop for yourself!