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John Olsson dies: Founder of Washington's legendary books and records store was 78

Emma Brown

John E. Olsson, who was the founder and proprietor of Olsson's Books and Records, the venerable Washington-area institution that once dominated the local bookselling market, died Oct. 28 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring of a heart attack. He was 78.

At its height, Olsson's was the go-to neighborhood bookstore - and music shop - for much of the Washington region. It boasted nine branches in the city and surrounding suburbs, anchored by a location in Georgetown where shoppers navigated aisles made tight by overflowing books, records and (eventually) compact disks.

Mr. Olsson is pictured at right in 2000 at his Georgetown store, where he kept an office. James A. Parcell // TWP


The advent of big-box chain stores, Internet booksellers and easily downloadable MP3 music files squeezed Olsson's profits, however. Mr. Olsson tried different strategies to improve revenue, such as offering Beanie Babies and other impulse buys alongside
political science tomes and albums by Yo-Yo Ma - but the store continued to struggle.

Mr. Olsson was forced to close his high-rent Georgetown location in 2002. The number of stores continued to dwindle, and Olsson's was forced into bankruptcy.

The last five stores were closed in the fall of 2008.

"Although it is certainly a sad day for us, I can rejoice in all the great memories of my life in retail in Washington," said Mr. Olsson, who by that time had been selling books in the District for half a century.

Olsson's was a Washington-area institution that drew crowds of faithful customers. A full obituary will follow; meantime, we'd love to hear from you -- please leave your memories of the store and of John Olsson below.

By Emma Brown  | November 2, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown, Washington DC-area people  
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Sad to hear. Olsson's ruled.

Washington has lost two heroes of the book scene in the last month.

Posted by: gmart68b | November 2, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I still remember hearing an opera on WGMS while crossing Key Bridge into Georgetown in the late 70's, asking the car's driver to circle the block at lower Wisconsin a couple of times, leaping out of the car and finding the recording on Olsson's shelves. it was the place I learned to use the Schwann catalog and the place where I bought Jung's collected works, saving for them volume by volume: the staff learned to know me.

It was a sensual delight to be surrounded by so many books -- and by store staff who loved books and music and could talk at length about what you were buying and your choices. What a loss.

Posted by: Hyperlocal | November 2, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

As a newcomer to Washington, I sought refuge at both Olsson's and Politics & Prose. Somewhere to go as a stranger in a strange land. After a few visits, I claimed Olssons as my hang - also seeing other loners. No one really knew my name, but always my face - acknowledged with the wink or nod. Always interesting . . . . a late night visit along others of the slightly drunken pedestrian crowd working the way home, uptown, from downtown offices. Thanks for all the good books, music and wonderful memories.

Posted by: eaklondon | November 2, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I worked at Olsson's. It was the absolute finest place to work with the most interesting co-workers you could find. JO ran a great business while the market rewarded such businesses and the camaraderie among the employees was so valuable to me. Also, Byron (Olsson's computer system) lasted well beyond the time such an application would be expected.

Posted by: jmccas | November 3, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Spent a lot of time at the Old Town store back in the day. Not only was the classical section awesome, but it was the only place around to consistently stock non-mainstream rock. The whole store was a feast for the gray matter.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | November 3, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

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