When Raymond Berger ’70 decided to leave a thriving merchandising career to launch
his own company, all he needed was a great idea.
He found it in the Czech Republic.
By Dick Anderson
Photography by Jim Block
Growing up in Manhattan, Raymond Berger ’70 was drawn to the department store displays
of New York City’s retail giants — so much so that he would go home and reimagine
their windows. “I remember going to Brooks Brothers, which had an eight-story building
in New York, and I used to rearrange the floors for productivity — like why would
they have a whole floor for hats and luggage and only half a floor for university
wear?” says Berger, who exchanged several letters with the retailer. “I’m sure it
was coincidence, but soon they expanded university wear to a full floor and cut down
hats and luggage from a floor to a little boutique.”
A born merchandiser, Berger spent the better part of three decades divining trends
and developing products for some of the nation’s premier retailers. His Berkeley,
Calif., home — built in the aftermath of the 1991 fire that decimated the Oakland
Hills area — is filled with organizational knick-knacks from his Williams–Sonoma days,
cookware collections from his stint at Marshall Field’s, and dozens of prototypes
and production samples from his latest business venture. Now, however, the business
belongs to him.
For the first time, Berger — together with partner Alex Shapiro — is working for himself
as head of Alchymie Praha, a company created to market handmade contemporary glassware
designed by leading Czech artists. Alchymie Praha (Czech for “Prague Academy”) cemented
its arrival as a player in the world of retail glassware by signing a two-year, 10-market
exclusivity pact with Neiman Marcus to carry the entire line. “It’s a great partner
in terms of prestige and volume,” Berger says. Since hitting store shelves in June
with Neiman Marcus and five other retailers, Alchymie Praha has added 30 more retailers
— from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to a tabletop store in Waupaca,
Wis., to Gump’s, the San Francisco institution. The affordably priced, signed-and-numbered
collections are not only finding favor among consumers, but they have also energized
the Czech Republic’s decorative glass industry and provided a new audience for talented
artists whose work was previously unknown in America.
FFor Berger and Shapiro, the task of launching their maiden entrepreneurial venture
in recessionary times clearly entailed risk. While a number of their friends with
retail backgrounds suggested that they delay their start until the economy improved,
the partners persisted, and they’ve learned a lot in the last 12 months: “We originally
thought that, in addition to Neiman Marcus, we needed only 25 other accounts,” Berger
says. “The truth is, we probably need 50. Next year, we need 125 accounts. We now
know the importance of trade shows and direct selling.”
Above, Berger and partner Alex Shapiro review potential design patterns at their Berkeley,
Calif., home and business.
One of the earliest believers in Alchymie Praha was the late Minor Myers jr., with
whom Berger developed a friendship as an alumni volunteer. “He encouraged me to utilize
my experience and passion to develop this business,” Berger says of the Illinois Wesleyan
president, who died in July. “It is rather amazing that even after 30-plus years from
graduation, IWU can still have an impact.”
Berger recalls that he applied to Illinois Wesleyan on the recommendation of his older
brother, a mathematics professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. “Illinois
Wesleyan was a highly recommended school, but something of a secret,” he says. Although
he appreciated the change of scenery, Bloomington’s small-town confines took some
getting used to, Berger admits, and he frequently made weekend trips to Chicago “when
I felt the need to get away, explore the big city, and look at the skyscrapers.”
A history and political science major at IWU, Berger campaigned for Bobby Kennedy
in Indiana in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary. Traveling by bus to Indianapolis
on the weekends, the Illinois Wesleyan volunteers would show up neatly groomed, wearing
blazers, while their counterparts from other schools had long hair and ripped jeans.
Consequently, Kennedy’s campaign team would send Berger and his schoolmates to knock
on doors in the wealthiest neighborhoods “because we were well-dressed,” he says with
Political activism notwithstanding, the sartorially correct Berger had long decided
that he was going into retailing. And when he graduated from IWU, the mecca of merchandise
was Bloomingdale’s, whose chairman, marketing legend Marvin Traub, “really made it
an extraordinary New York institution,” Berger says. He walked into Bloomingdale’s
flagship 59th Street store in Manhattan, met the vice president in the men’s store,
and enlisted in the executive training program as an assistant buyer of men’s shoes.
Concerned about their son’s 14-hour days, his parents urged him to quit the business
after several months, but Berger was hooked.
He spent 10 years at Bloomingdale’s, eventually becoming a merchandise manager for
retail foods. From there, it was on to Marshall Field’s, where Berger helped reestablish
the chain as the premier retailer in the greater Chicago area. Working in high-end
giftware, he grew the lamp business from $2 million to $8 million in sales in eight
years, even though the high return rate on broken or damaged goods dampened his enthusiasm
for the product: “Operationally, that was a nightmare.”
After Marshall Field’s was sold to Dayton Hudson and Berger’s job was eliminated,
he moved to California to work for Williams–Sonoma and spent another five years with
the Concord-based chain Beverages & More. Most recently, Berger was brought in as
a consultant to help the Medford, Ore.-based retailer Harry and David retool its confectionery
line for the mall crowd, stumping the country, calling on buyers, and opening the
doors to 2,200 department stores nationwide. Along the way, “I discovered that I actually
enjoyed selling product and working with retailers,” Berger adds, and the experience
gave him the confidence he needed to start a business. All he needed was the right
Samples of Alchymie Praha’s glassware (above) catch the light — and shoppers’ eyes.
That idea originated with Shapiro, who has spent most of his career in nonprofit management
for the Lighthouse for the Blind, the AIDS Foundation in Chicago, and the Northern
California Cancer Association. About seven years ago, the Columbia University graduate
became fascinated with the art of glassblowing (“Hot glass,” he says, “is an addictive
medium”), and he developed his skills at Public Glass in San Francisco, one of a handful
of public-access facilities in the nation devoted to glassblowing, casting, and glassworking.
Shapiro eventually became president of the board of Public Glass and has sold his
own glass jewelry collection, Alex Shapiro Designed, to the Chicago Botanical Gardens.
The lightbulb came on by way of the Czech Republic, a major glass center for hundreds
of years (dating back to Bohemian crystal) and the center of the contemporary art
glass movement since 1958. Just as Sweden’s Kosta Boda reinvented its centuries-old
business by producing contemporary collections of hand-tooled original glassware in
Swedish factories for distribution worldwide, Berger and Shapiro saw an opportunity
to work with leading and emerging Czech artists.
Through his work with Williams– Sonoma and Beverages & More, Berger already had contacts
in the Czech Republic — agents who understood packing, shipping, and quality control
issues. In September 2002, he and Shapiro made an exploratory trip to the Czech Republic.
They spent a day with Frantisek Vizner, the country’s most prominent living glass
artist. “Mr. Vizner was frustrated that Czech artists had not gotten worldwide recognition
for the extraordinary contemporary work they had done,” Berger says. “He had all these
artists he had turned out academically, but without a market for their product they
would end up working in factories.”
By the end of their visit, not only was the 67-year-old Vizner on board as their lead
artist, he was spreading the word about Berger and Shapiro’s venture in the artistic
community and bringing key talent to the table. “Our vision is that each artist would
select a workshop (or factory) that would reflect their artistry and aesthetic, and
we found that there were a sufficient number of workshops that do handmade work throughout
Things moved quickly from there. By the end of October, they had developed prototypes
of five collections (two by Vizner) with four artists. In November, they had a meeting
with Neiman Marcus, whose vice president of home decorating, Al Oliver, “was incredibly
excited by it,” Berger says. “Their direction to us was we needed to move faster —
that five collections were fine, but they wanted 10 for 2003.” What Neiman wants,
Neiman gets: Nine months after their initial visit to the Czech Republic, Alchymie
Praha delivered its first product to stores in June — and by the end of October, Neiman
Marcus had 10 collections on its shelves.
In turn, Neiman Marcus has been very supportive with its marketing efforts, devoting
a page in a recent catalog and an article in its InCircle magazine to Alchymie Praha. Vladimir Klein, the company’s second-most important designer
after Vizner, will visit Neiman Marcus stores in Atlanta, Dallas, and Bal Harbour,
Fla., in December, while Vizner plans a stateside trip next spring.
Other than direct selling, the bulk of Alchymie Praha’s new business can be traced
to gift shows. Last summer, shows in San Francisco and New York opened up 25 new accounts,
and while Berger will add shows in Atlanta and Dallas to his itinerary, “New York
is still the center of the retail industry,” he explains.
While the Vizner collections have been Alchymie Praha’s biggest success both in dollar
sales and in opening new accounts, the biggest surprise in unit sales is the less-expensive
Hands, a vase created by husband-and-wife artists David Suchoparek and Ingrid Rackova
featuring the creators’ actual handprints imprinted on each piece. The popularity
of Hands has cut across a wide range of retail demographics, from No Place Like, a
contemporary store in Chicago, to the UNICEF Gift Shop in New York. And while Neiman
Marcus wondered if Hands was too contemporary for its typical customer — 42, female,
and wealthy — the first stores to sell out were in the conservative strongholds of
Atlanta, Dallas, and Bell Harbor, Fla. While it’s marketed as a bridal gift in Atlanta
and Dallas, it functions as contemporary art in Boston, where a pair of vases sold
at a silent auction benefit for $2,500.
Berger gives Berkeley gallery owner Secrea Palat (left) a look at a sample from Alchymie
Praha’s new Water Grass collection, which has quickly become one of the company’s
Alchymie Praha may have caught lightning in a bottle yet again with a new collection
called Water Grass, which began generating reorders soon after its rollout in October.
is our first collection that really transcends the aesthetics of the contemporary,”
Berger says, crossing over to clients with traditional tastes such as the San Francisco
Museum of Fine Art. “It appears to have a very wide market, which is terrific for
us.” In addition to expanding the line to include stemware, barware, and serviceware,
Berger has asked Water Grass
creator Eva Svestkova for a second collection with similarly broad appeal. In addition
to including more offerings below $200, “Our goal is to introduce five or six new
collections in 2004 and drop one or two from 2003 that haven’t sold so well,” Berger
In September, as the partners reviewed slides of the new Water Grass collection for the company brochures and Web site (www.alchymiepraha.com), the discussion turned to their travel-heavy schedule. Shapiro was headed to San
Diego and Hawaii to meet with Neiman Marcus managers and salespeople to launch Alchymie
Praha in those markets. “Alex can bring the glass to life to the consumer or the salesperson
at Neiman’s but I’m better at closing the deal with the retailer,” says Berger, who
was busy following up with prospective customers before taking off for the Czech Republic
in early October to fine-tune the spring 2004 collection as well as attend the International
Glass Symposium in Prague. (Consequently, he had to miss IWU’s Homecoming, for which
he served as committee chair this year.)
There’s a lot more to selling glassware, of course, than scoring frequent flyer miles.
While they run the business from their home, Berger and Shapiro lease a small space
at San Francisco’s Pier 23, where they spend hours packing and shipping items each
week. On a typical day, Berger is jockeying for shelf space with retailers, dusting
the merchandise on their shelves, and dealing with the 23 bowls that arrived broken
because of inadequate packing, “which was deadly painful because they all were sold,”
Reflecting on the previous 12 months, from broken bowls to cold calls, Berger calls
2003 “our learning year.” Over the next five years, he hopes to grow Alchymie Praha
to a $5 million wholesale business. That will require additional capital, and he and
Shapiro plan to sell a percentage of the business to investors over the next six months.
By 2005, they expect to hire a warehouse person to do the shipping and an office manager
to handle the paperwork, freeing Shapiro up creatively while giving Berger more time
“Raymond really grasps what’s going to work and what’s not,” Shapiro says of his partner.
“Starting the company has really brought out a lot of his sales talent.” To create
a national brand and a lasting business “would be rewarding in so many different ways,”
Berger admits, “not only financially, but it would be wonderful for the artists in
the Czech Republic.”
As he makes the first of several trips up a steep flight of stairs to a gallery in
Tiburon, Calif., arms heavy with Czechoslovakian glassware, Berger dreams of the day
that Alchymie Praha will have its own retail store in New York. “I only have two regrets,”
he adds. “I wish I had started this 10 years ago, and I wish I had lifted weights.”
Dick Anderson is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.