116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Czech Cottage keeps roots in Czech Village, Czech Republic
By Steve Gravelle, correspondent
Oct. 17, 2018 10:40 am, Updated: Oct. 17, 2018 4:55 pm
CEDAR RAPIDS — When an economic downturn claimed some of their jobs, the Virgil and Jitka Schaffer household had a Plan B, thanks to Jitka's Czech heritage.
'I thought it was going to be a one-year commitment, then back to whatever job,' said Bob Schaffer, one of the couple's two sons. 'Forty-three years later, here I sit.'
'Here' being the Czech Cottage, by now virtually a landmark in Cedar Rapids' Czech Village. When both Bob and Virgil Schaffer lost their jobs in the 1975-75 recession — Bob's at Midland Forge, Virgil's at what was then Collins Radio — they decided to turn their weekend sideline into full-time jobs.
'He and my mother were selling antiques,' said Bob, now 63 but then just a year out of high school. 'They'd make trips back and were bringing back antiques.'
Jitka was visiting relatives in Cedar Rapids in 1947 when the Communist government came to power in what was then Czechoslovakia. The new government's travel restrictions blocked her return, so she stayed in Cedar Rapids, where she became a naturalized citizen and met and married Virgil. The couple was able to visit her family after the Czech government eased travel restrictions in the mid-1950s.
They often returned with antiques, jewelry, and glass items.
'They later had them shipped back, and they'd do a little larger quantity,' Schaffer said. 'So they'd go around selling antiques on the weekends at some of the higher-end antique shows in the Midwest — glassware, porcelain, figurines, metal pieces.
'It covered a wide gamut — even clocks. grandmother clocks, intricately carved wall clocks.'
As the Schaffers considered building upon Jitka and Virgil's weekend pursuit, an article in The Gazette caught the Schaffers' attention.
''Merchants to revitalize Czech Village. I'll never forget the headline, all about the plans to try to revitalize this area and rebrand it as the Czech Village tourist attraction.'
''Merchants to revitalize Czech Village,'' Schaffer said. 'I'll never forget the headline, all about the plans to try to revitalize this area and rebrand it as the Czech Village tourist attraction.'
The Schaffers found a vacant storefront at 100 16th Ave. SW, a pharmacy since its opening in 1898. Bob's parents asked him to help renovate the building and move in their stock.
Czech Cottage opened the weekend after Labor Day 1975.
'It was slow' at first, Bob recalled. 'The village was just trying to rebrand itself, industry was changing, we were just trying to crawl out of the recession of those years.'
But the Schaffers, Czech Cottage and Czech Village persevered. Jitka and Virgil lived above the store while Bob and his wife, Julia, lived nearby.
Everyone, including Bob's brother and sister-in-law, pitched in. Virgil died in 2012, Julia in 2004.
The Cedar River's June 2008 flood was a blow to the neighborhood.
'It had become a very vibrant tourist destination, but the flood set us back a bit,' Schaffer said.
'We had heard that the word out among the traveling community was that the Czech Village is dead and it's never coming back. So it's taken a little time to un-ring that bell.'
The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library's decision to stay was a key to the area's renewal, Schaffer said.
'That's our anchor,' he said. 'There were a lot of nervous folks while that was being debated, whether to reopen on this side of the river.
'Personally, I think it would've been a huge mistake to separate the museum from the village. In the end, the pieces just fell into place and it's where it should be.'
Czech Cottage reopened Dec. 6, 2008.
'We were the second business to reopen in the neighborhood. The first one was Ernie's Tavern, down the street,' he said.
'It was great. The public support was just phenomenal.'
Bob Schaffer's personal relationships with his longtime Czech suppliers helped Czech Cottage weather the rise of online competition.
'I deal with a number of pretty obscure companies in the Czech Republic whose products are not available on the internet, or they only make it to the U.S. through one other company,' he said.
'I try to keep it that way. I've got a lot of unusual things and a lot of things that are old stock, bought years ago, and they're no longer produced.'
Although it has a website, Czech Cottage doesn't sell online, although Schaffer expects to someday.
'It's something I know I have to develop but I just haven't had the time,' he said. 'Everybody tells me I should hire a teenager to do the website, but the problem is I would spend as much time telling him how the product has to go on there. So I'd rather do it myself.'
Bob's buying trips became more frequent since Jitka moved into a nursing home in the area near Pilsen where she grew up. That came after a fall during an April 2017 business trip that broke her pelvis.
'We actually have more family there than here, so she's well looked after,' he said. 'It's close to the town where she grew up.
'When my brother and I were growing up, she always expressed a desire to move back to Czechoslovakia, so it's kind of poetic that she ended up back there.'
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AT A GLANCE
l Owner: Bob Schaffer
l Business: Czech Cottage Imported Gifts and Jewelry
l Address: 100 16th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
l Phone: (319) 366-4937
l Website: www.czechcottage.com