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The longest-serving seller among the 25,000 infected with the Czech virus

PELHRIMOV, Czech Republic (AP) – A year after the Czech Republic registered its first death from the coronavirus, the people of Central Europe stopped to remember all the citizens who lost their lives in the epidemic. By the end of the day, that number had exceeded 25,000.

Last Monday afternoon, bells rang across the country to mark the first Czech victim of the epidemic at a hospital in Prague, a 95-year-old man. On March 22, 2020, a few days later, the Czech Republic reported a single-digit death on COVID-19. Few at the time imagined that the nation of 10.7 million people would eventually have one of the highest casualties in the world per capita.

But it is not only the gloomy statistics that have torn the fabric of Czech life. There is always a personal story behind every lost life. And the deaths of some people affected entire communities.

Jaromir Vytopil’s was one of them. Without him, the city of Pelhrimov would not be the same.

As the country’s longest-selling bookseller, Vytopil has been serving the city’s readers for almost six decades. They came to the shop of the same name to buy books, maps, music or just to chat with him. Books and customers were literally his life. He entered the trade at the age of 15, attended a special school of booksellers, and worked in six different cities before settling in Pelhrimov in 1963.

She died on November 9, at the age of 83, another gloomy day of the month that was the deadliest in the Czech Republic until Saturday. Marie Vitopilova says both were probably caught in the bookstore.

“We did not expect that to happen,” she said of her husband’s death. “He was still full of life.”

The Czech Republic avoided the worst of the epidemic in the spring only to see its healthcare system collapse in the autumn, again in January-March, after the coalition government led by Prime Minister Andrei Babis repeatedly left epidemic watchdogs despite expert warnings.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the Czech Republic has the second highest mortality rate in the world after the San Marino microdistrict.

Activists this week painted thousands of white crosses on the slabs of Prague’s Old Town Square for all the dead. They blamed the government for the inadequate response to the epidemic. One of the crosses honored Vytopil.

When word of Vytopil’s death broke in November, people laid flowers, lit a candle in front of a bookstore, and turned it into an impromptu memorial. About 600 mourners expressed their grief on the store’s Facebook page.

“A legend is gone, the only citizen everyone knew in Pelhrimov,” commented resident Petr Kostka.

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

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

“What shone from him was an appetite for life, he tried to give people what he knew well, it was the books,” recalled Marie Vitopilova. “He read a lot, really a lot. Over the years, you accumulate knowledge.”

American poet Lawrence Ferlingetti, who died last month at the age of 101, was one of the favorite authors of the book, along with Czech writers Josef Skvorekki and Bohumil Hrabal. But he praised the people who visited his shop for their choice and offered suggestions if needed.

“I laughed many times and called him a walking encyclopedia,” said his wife.

Vytopil’s mission as a bibliographer spread beyond his store. He advised the Pelhrimov Public Library on what titles could be obtained, helped organize readings, book signatures with the authors, and once a year, dressed as a king, welcomed the children as class readers when they received library cards, said director Iva Rajdlova.

“He was young at heart,” Rajdlova said. “He was interested in everything, it was so nice to talk to anyone, not just books. He was interested in people, in everything that was happening. He was just a very good person. “

Promoting book literacy, however, can be a dangerous pursuit in the communist region of Vytopil. Private ownership of bookstores was prohibited. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which crushed the liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring, the harsh regime banned many authors and ordered bookstores to clear their shelves.

“My father hid all the forbidden books, so when we went to high school, we read his beloved Skvorekki, as he (Milan) Kundera, and other forbidden writers,” said Vitopil’s son Jan Ann.

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

“She was a very different person. We did not go to a bookstore, but instead went to Vitopil, ”said Vana. “During his years in business, his name became synonymous with a bookseller.”

After the 1989 Velvet Anti-Communist Revolution, Vytopil finally managed to open its family bookstore, which he and his wife did on July 1, 1991.

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

Despite his age, he, according to his son, was not going to retire.

“The bookstore was his whole life,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. In a sense, that wish came true. “

The family announced in January that they were selling the bookstore because they realized they no longer wanted to run it “without our father, our husband, his soul.”

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