Author’s note: this post first appeared on my original soundadviceblog website, which I no longer update. It is one of my favorite posts from there and vinyl has been enjoying a real renaissance, so I have reposted it here for everyone to enjoy. The original post date was April 7, 2007 so it is almost 10 years old. It is something how fast time flies, and how quickly things can change. The future of vinyl was a little bit uncertain then. Now, it seems assured as both consumers and the industry have embraced the format again.
Jerry’s Records is an amazing place, and vinyl lovers from around the world will plan trips to Pittsburgh just to visit. It is worth the trip, and if you are in driving distance it is worth the trip!
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I have long been a lover of vinyl records and all they offer… sweet, rich, natural sound quality that CDs can’t match, an incredible variety of music available spanning decades (make that hundreds of years) of American and world culture, and low cost that allows one to build an amazing collection for much less than it would cost on CD. As a vinyl lover, Jerry’s Records has long been a favorite place of mine dating back to when it was called “Garbage Records” and located in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh, home of many universities such as Carnegie Mellon and The University of Pittsburgh, where I attended college myself. Now located in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh, Jerry’s Records is home to over a million records of all types from children’s records, classical, rock, bluegrass, and even more, as I discovered in the course of creating this feature for the Sound Advice Blog.
Located on Murray Avenue, one of the main streets running through Squirrel Hill, Jerry’s Records is located on the second floor of a commercial building with an interesting history, as will see later.
The storefront definitely shows that you are at a place owned by and frequented by music lovers.
Through the door into a foyer plastered with music posters, then up the stairway… to (vinyl) Heaven!
This isn’t even the whole store, folks…
Jerry Weber, founder and proprietor
Jerry Weber is the face and personality behind Jerry’s Records, and he is as friendly, mellow, and goodnatured of a man as you are going to find anywhere. After being introduced to him once he always remembered my name and greeted me by it whenever I visited the store, and once when I offered a credit card he said, “oh, we don’t take those, just bring me the eleven bucks the next time you come to the store”. I am sure this is a priviledge only reserved for regular, known customers, but that kind of faith and trust isn’t found all that often anymore.
Jerry’s personality infuses the store and can be found in the fun charactitures, pictures and artwork found throughout.
So, how did this store grow to have a million records, and what drives the man behind it? I stopped by early in the morning before the store got busy and spent some time spent with Jerry to find out. It proved enjoyable and enlightening as he told his story.
The Beginning- 1976 and $75 per month
“The business started in 1976 as the Record Graveyard, in Oakland,” Jerry said. “A buddy had an empty storeroom above his bar and he said I could rent it for only $75 per month. I had a partner then, a friend named Jim Petruzzi… we were both working for the Post Office as letter carriers, and we both loved music. So we put a sign out front that said “We buy records”, and I threw my own personal collection of 500 records on the shelves because we needed stock. I figured I would get them back eventually, and as you can see, I was right.” I asked how many records he has in his collection now, and he replied, “my personal collection, in my home, is 30,000 records”. More on that later.
1980: Garbage Records, then Jerry’s
“In 1980 my partner and I split, and he took the Record Graveyard name and opened a store in another part of Oakland- it is no longer there. I renamed my store ‘Garbage Records’ and I had some artwork made with my head peeking out of a garbage can in an alley, with a little rat there. I answered the phone ‘Garbage’. It wasn’t a good name- people thought I only had junk, when in fact I was selling very good records. Sometimes I can be a bit too clever for my own good! After that I named it Jerry’s, I figured it would be the only way I would ever see my name up in lights.”
1993: from Garbage to a Garage
“At Garbage Records we were using two floors, 6,000 square feet and we needed more. We were also concerned about the weight of all the records… there was a Kinko’s underneath us and we didn’t want to go crashing down onto them if the floor gave way. This building was once a car dealership, I don’t know what brand… and then a repair shop. People used to drive their cars into this very room, there are big doors in the back from when it was a garage.” When asked if he ever thought he would have this many records, Jerry said, “No. This place is 14,000 square feet and I never thought we would fill it.”
And that’s not all…
Jerry did more than fill up this old car dealership… he filled up another one! “I bought another old dealership down in Swissvale,” he said. That place is 16,000 square feet. I have 750,000 more records stored there as back stock for this store, and part of it I converted into a living area- that is where I live. I am truly a crazy, eccentric person! Here is a picture of me at home, a photographer doing a story about me took it… we spent about half an hour setting it up.”
Jerry at Home
30,000 is an awful lot of records for a personal collection, which begs the question… does he ever get to listen to all of them? He did not answer directly, but replied, “No one should have as many records as me…but I have listened to music for 10-12 hours a day, every day of my life. I am kind of a workaholic person, and when I am here I always have a record playing. I like all types of music and I know what is good, what the good stuff is, and I listen at home, too. With all the records and his anti-CD mantra, it begged another question… did Jerry own a CD player? “I have one in my car, and I have a boombox that has one, but I don’t listen to many CDs.” Jerry has a series of T-shirts out promoting vinyl and sometimes dissing CD, as shown below in chronological order from his first shirt to the most recent.
The fifth shirt…
Jerry pointed out the shirt he was wearing, which he called his “retirement shirt”. Pointing to the large letters, he said, “WTD stands for Waiting To Die!”
The Record Business
Having gotten to know a bit about the proprietor, it was time to get to know the store and its business a bit better. I asked, “What are your best-selling genres?” “Rock and roll, soul, and jazz,” he quickly replied, “though we have a lot of different stuff here.” (That was an understatement, as I discovered later.) Continuing, he added “I don’t have a lot of blues, reggae, and punk rock, because I can’t keep it in stock. That stuff sells as quickly as I get it… it comes right in and goes right out again.” My next question…”Can you describe a typical customer?” He replied, “That would be someone who comes in every week or two and buys $20-$25 worth of records. This business was built by people, everyday people who love music.”
Next, I asked what the most expensive records he had for sale were and how much they cost. “Those would be the records on the wall over there, most of them are $75 or $100 at most. What determines the value of a record is supply and demand- how rare something is. Extremely rare records usually have a story behind them, why they went off the market such as the artist didn’t like something after it came out, etc. They are usually around 50 years old, and they have to be clean, in good condition. A beat-up rare record is just a record.”
“Records for people to listen to”
Knowing my audiophile nature, Jerry chimed in, “Whenever you post this on your blog or whatever you call it, I don’t want to paint the picture that we are selling some extremely rare stuff, because that is not what this store is about. We don’t have a lot of stuff like that here… most of our records and $3, $4, $5. We’re not elitist. What we have is lots of good music at low prices, records that have been screened and cleaned… records for people to listen to. That’s why people come here.”
Young People, Records, and the industry in the digital age
Next question… are young people embracing records, as has been reported in some places? “More and more of them are starting to,” Jerry replied, continuing, “I am seeing more and more of the under 25 crowd, and I am seeing more young girls come in. Part of the reason is there is a lot of stuff on records you can’t get on CD or download. These days music companies don’t issue a CD unless they think they can make a couple of million bucks off of it. Back in the day, the industry had integrity, people who loved music and wanted to preserve it. I have old jazz records back there that were issued even when the company realized they weren’t going to make money from it, but the executives kept it in print to keep it alive. Some of the best jazz has been re-released, but it is usually in a CD box set that is very expensive. Young people like records because they are so inexpensive.” He then added, “That is another thing I never cared for about CD, the size of them… too small.”
“Another thing- young people think records are cool. Anyone can have an iPod, a turntable… that is different. Other people are realizing they can get a burner and transfer their records to CD, and it costs way less. I have people who come in and swear their CDs made from records sound better than the CD of the same material that they bought, they just love the analog sound.”
The Store Tour
Finally, it was time to see the store. “There are a million records here, about half LPs and half 45s, very close to a 50/50 mix,” he said.
“The best sellers I keep right up here in front, stuff like the Beatles, the ‘Stones, Hendrix, Joplin, the Doors, the Kinks… the Kinks always sell, the only ones I have here aren’t their best albums. A lot of people already have the album on CD, but want a copy on vinyl. British invasion stuff is always big, too. And dead people always sell.” I asked if the recent death of Brad Delp, lead singer for Boston, had spiked the sale of Boston records. “Nah, everyone already has their Boston albums. I have 500 copies each of all of Boston’s albums in my off-site warehouse in Swissvale.”
Next were the country bestsellers. “I have around 20,000 country albums, but only certain artists really sell… Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones. I keep them up here next to the other bestsellers.”
Next was reggae and salsa music. “I don’t have as much of this because it is such a hot seller. Bob Marley is especially hot.”
Up the aisle on the opposite side of the salsa section was a well-stocked selection of 50s music…
…and down a little further was folk music. “We don’t sell a lot of it, but we keep it here anyway.” Trying to think of an old folk singer I knew of, I asked, “Do you have anything from Burl Ives, the folk singer who voiced the musical snowman in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer?”
“Oh yeah, we have about 50-60 titles from Burl Ives here,” Jerry replied, motioning towards the browsers well-stocked with Burl Ives albums. LOL… why was I not surprised?
Rock and roll
Rock and roll records take up most of the center floor area in the middle of the main part of the store. The aisle next to the wall behind the folk section is lined with vertical shelving stocked top-to-bottom with back stock of rock and roll records.
Rock back stock
“There are about 50,000 back stock of rock and pop records back there.” Jerry said. A closer look showed anything and everything, including some names I hadn’t heard in a while… like the Captain and Tenille. Check them out below, along with the other names!
Buffet… Byrds… Captain and Tennille… Clapton….
At the end of the ailes with rock back stock and folk music was an L-shaped division with the country records. “We don’t sell many of these, but I keep them around… the hot country stuff is up with the other best sellers.”
Jerry in the country records section of the store
Another view of the country section
I heard something that I had heard more than once… and would hear a few times again before the tour was over. “We don’t sell many of these, but I keep them around.” Clearly this was a man dedicated to music in all its forms, to those exploring all kinds of music, and to the vinyl LP format.
Thoughtfully provided throughout the store were listening stations, modest turntable setups with headphones for shoppers to preview their purchases.
There was one exception to the “modest” comment above… one of the listening stations was equipped with a highly desirable Technics SL-25 turntable mounted on a wooden plinth. Those suckers fetch a pretty penny on ebay! Jerry’s such a down-to-earth guy, it is probably lost on him what he has there. When we were discussing playback equipment one day he said, “Me, I’m just a Technics SL-1200 guy, nothing fancy for me…”
Rare and Valuable Technics SP-25 Direct Drive Audiophile Turntable
Speaking of equipment, there are used turntables available at low prices for those wanting to get started with vinyl. “VInce is my repairman, he fixes turntables and other equipment, and he is willing to look at stuff and give an estimate without an upfront charge,” Jerry said.
Turntable sales and service
“Vince is too nice of a guy. Sometimes he will look at something and bring it back and say, ‘All it needed was cleaned and oiled, no charge. ‘ I tell him, ‘”C’mon, Vince, you can at least charge them ten bucks!” He is like me, he does it because he loves to do it… he works a regular job then stays up late fixing turntables and other stuff.”
Religious, ethic and international music
Next came the religious and ethnic/international section. “Not a lot of sales in these, but it is here for people looking for it,” Jerry said.
Looking down in a browser bin, Jerry added, “Where else can you get a record by Camilo Sesto?”
Below the Ethnic section was a bin well-stocked with Polka records. “Polkas, we do pretty well with,” Jerry said. Given the large, proud Polish-American community that has been an integral part of Pittsburgh for generations, it is hardly surprising!
Polkas for Pittsburghers
Jerry motioned to an area across from the Polkas, boxes neatly stacked on shelves reaching all the way to the ceiling. Over there are our 45s… about half a million of them, all neatly kept in alphabetical order. I am fanatical about keeping them in order… we get upset when people mess that up!”
“We have the library-style rolling ladders so people can get to all of them.” I saw someone with a ladder at the end of the aisle as Jerry told me this. A very nice arrangement!
Not far from the 45s was the vocalists section. I’ve picked up some great Sinatra stuff here…
20,000 Classical and Opera Records
Next was an aisle filled with classical records. “I have around 20,000 classical and opera records,” Jerry said. “No room for these in the browser bins so they are all stored vertically. Most of these are sold to regular customers, there is a small group of them that comes in and buys $20 or so worth of them every week or two. Then every once in a while we have someone from out of town who stops in and has a heart attack when they see all this great classical stuff on vinyl, and they spend $100-$200.”
He continued, “One thing about all the classical stuff, it is all in tremendous shape… very rarely do I see one that isn’t in like new condition. Back in the 1970s when a lot of this was sold, labels like Deutsche Grammophon, London, Mercury Golden Imports, back in the 1970s they sold for $11.99 each when regular albums were $6-$7. The people who bought them had means, and they took very good care of them… and the quality of the recordings is excellent, they sound really good.”
Jazz and classical room
Adjacent to the classical aisle was a room filled with jazz records and additional classical stock, including some intriguing-looking box sets. “we have one of the biggest jazz music collections you will ever find… we love jazz,” Jerry said.
Some jazz records at Jerry’s
“Dixieland, traditional, be-bop, modern, big band, we’ve got it.”
Classical box sets, among other great music
Wow, so many records… so many types- more than I expected. It was all kind of mind boggling. Yet there were still a few surprises in store.
The Spoken Word
Jerry led me to a small section as we worked our way back towards the front of the store. “This stuff is all the spoken word… speeches by John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, biographies, stories, things like that.” Who would have thought you would find JFK and Sir Winston Churchill records sitting next to each other, anywhere?
Perpendicular to the spoken word was a long aisle that ran all the way to the front of the store,loaded with soul records. “We sell a lot of soul, it does really well for us,” Jerry said.
Thousands of soul records
Around the corner from the spoken word was another long aisle, filled with records, of course! A man was working in the aisle. “Don, this is Fran,” Jerry said, introducing me. “Fran worked at National Record Mart for 38 years and now he helps me. He helps manage the classical, jazz, vocalists, spoken word, children’s, movie soundtrack, and broadway show records.”
Fran- another music expert
Taking over while Jerry went back into the main part of the store to wait on customers, Fran started with the children’s records. “We have an amazing variety of children’s records,” he said, showing me some examples.
A quick look through the bins revealed several interesting and obscure titles… Romper Room, Disney’s “Small World”, and Mr. Rogers… is there ANYTHING this guy doesn’t have on vinyl?
A little bit of trivia for you- Fred “Mr.” Rogers produced his television show in Pittsburgh and was a Squirrel Hill resident for most of his life- right in the same neigborhood as Jerry’s. I later asked Jerry if Mr. Rogers was ever a customer. “Fred Rogers? Nah, I never saw him in here.”
The aisle leading from the children’s aisle was filled with soundtracks and broadway shows. “We have a nice collection of them that have never been opened… still sealed from the factory!” Fran said. I noticed some quadraphonic records off to my right, too. Wonder who still has gear to play them? I have picked up more than a few soundtracks myself here, including such cool ones as the soundtrack to the movie “Patton” starring George C. Scott, Dr. Zhivago, and Fiddler on the Roof.
My tour completed, I thanked Jerry and headed home, blown away by the depth and breadth of his store, as well as his knowledge or music. I wrote this piece and edited all the photographs while listening to records I bought from Jerry’s… the soundtrack from The Spy Who Loved Me, Memories Aux Bruxelles, the official music from the Brussels World’s Fair, Boz Scagg’s Hits! and Rush’s Exit Stage Left. Neat music, some of it hard to find, and only $14 for all four! As a vinyl lover I felt lucky to live in Pittsburgh, and lucky to have someone like Jerry watching over this amazing treasure trove of music and history. If you are a vinyl lover as I am, it is worth a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh to see this place… just bring a lot of money and a U-Haul!
2136 Murray Ave, 2nd Floor
Pittsburgh, PA 15217