The Music Shops That John Olsson Built

Olsson's Books and Records; credit: i_am_subverted / flickr.com i i

The since-closed Olsson's on 7th St in Northwest Washington, D.C. i_am_subverted/flickr.com hide caption

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Olsson's Books and Records; credit: i_am_subverted / flickr.com

The since-closed Olsson's on 7th St in Northwest Washington, D.C.

i_am_subverted/flickr.com

One of the people who helped shape my musical sensibility has died. He was not a teacher or a librarian or a musician — though he did have a degree in music. I did not sit rapt in front of him, soaking up tonal wisdom. In fact, I didn't really even know him. But the people he hired and the environment he created provided a welcoming landscape to wander through as this young man traveled in search of musical knowledge.

His name was John Olsson, and he was a shop owner. That's kind of an old-fashioned way to put it, but his approach to business seemed to come from another era. The first shop he opened — in 1972 — was called Record & Tape Ltd. Back then, "Ltd." was a common appendage — in provincial Washington, it lent a store a sophisticated air — something vaguely English in a region that's never entirely come to terms with severing ties with its former masters.

Like so many over-educated young people, Olsson took his music degree and went to work at a record store — Discount Record & Book Shop, where my musical imagination first took off. Its owner, the late Bob Bialek, provided Olsson a model in at least one way: hire great people. Back then, at a time when the cultural highlight of the year for the D.C. establishment was a visit by the Lipizzaner Stallions, Washington was littered with record stores staffed, for the most part, by smart people eager to share what they knew with a young fan eager to learn. The Turntable near my house; the Soul Shack downtown, Discount, Record & Tape — were all peopled by flesh and blood human beings who, through their voices and body language — the reverently caressed album and the heartfelt "You have to check this out" — conveyed a love of music that was infectious. It made me want to part with my newspaper-boy/gas-pump-jockey/house-painter money.

Now Record & Tape Ltd. was U-G-L-Y. Located at a downtown corner, its two outside glass walls did not exactly invite you in. But for a lot of people, it was a destination. The same was true when Olsson opened a shop in Georgetown. In the Washington Post obituary, former general manager David Walker said, "Any given Saturday you could find Elvis Costello browsing for LPs in the music section and Caspar Weinberger (a former Secretary of Defense) picking up a special order in the back of the store." Olsson changed the name to Olsson's Books and Records and some of the staff migrated from Discount and the downtown store. It was a family-owned business that became a family.

And in those days, Washington was kind of a small town. Younger kids I knew from high school started working there. One of them was Guy Brussat, the younger brother of David, who I've known since kindergarten.  Here's the kind of business Olsson's was: Guy was first hired to clean the place. Then he started working in "returns" - inventorying the books that didn't sell and shipping them back. Guy was reading a lot of science fiction back then and the Georgetown store didn't have much of a science fiction section in its book department. So the manager let him build it up. He went on to manage the Old Town Alexandria store; open the Bethesda, Maryland, store; and marry John Olsson's daughter. In fact Guy says, "Olsson's produced maybe a dozen marriages at its different stores."

Olsson was smart enough to give his staff the leeway to stock each store based on what each neighborhood wanted but also based on the personal tastes of that staff. Guy Brussat says the stores had a broad selection that was, at the same time, selective. The reasoning was that if a buyer had read a book — and liked it — he or she could sell it. If they didn't like it, Guy says they probably wouldn't sell it.

The stock might have been based on personal taste but that taste was built on experience and a lot of reading and listening. There were musicians on staff — blues and jazz guitarist Rusty Bogart and guitarist and singer Elizabeth "Bitsy" Ziff, of Betty, both worked at the Georgetown store.

That personal, trust-your-staff, hands-off approach worked for nearly three decades. But changes in the music and book businesses forced Olsson to start closing stores and lay off many long-time employees. The last stores shut their doors for good in 2008.

Today there are a handful of local, independently-owned record shops in D.C., most of them niche stores specializing in a particular kind of music or format — vinyl for example. There's only one general interest record store left in the city, to my knowledge: Melody Records, just a few blocks north of where Olsson got his start. He died at the age of 78 on October 28th after battling cancer for many years.

His love of music and books — and his philosophy about how to share them — left a lasting impression on a lot of people, including me.

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