R.I.P. Olsson's, Purveyor of Books, Records & People-Gazing
In 1985, Tower Records barged into town, and the question was whether Olsson's--John Olsson's locally-owned chain of book and music shops--could survive the big box store on the GWU campus.
From Richard Harrington's story in The Post chronicling Tower's arrival: John Olsson was ready for the big boys. "I told my people it would hurt us for the first six months," he said then, "but that gradually people would be coming back to us because we make such an effort to keep the good stock around all the time."
In 1990, Borders came to town, and Olsson's again was assumed to be toast. "I don't think biggest is necessarily best," Olsson said that time. Anyway, he'd heard that Borders was "arrogant."
In 1995, Barnes and Noble opened its megastore in Georgetown, a couple of blocks from Olsson's store on Wisconsin Avenue. Olsson's reacted by shifting to a more literary and scholarly focus.
Somehow, as independent bookstores shriveled and died all around the nation, Olsson's managed to hold on, through Tower, Borders, Amazon, the whole revolution in retailing.
Yesterday, the chain finally died, victim of--well, the whole shebang, the iPod and the web generally, the megastores and the decline in book reading, the collapse of the CD and the troubles of independent retailers. It was the kind of death that won't shock anyone. The Penn Quarter store had closed in June, and the Georgetown one in 2002, and truth be told, anyone who went to any of the remaining stores in recent months found a shrinking stock, fairly empty aisles, and little of what had made Olsson's so special through the decades.
John Olsson was a student at Catholic University in 1958 when he started working as a clerk at a Dupont Circle shop called Discount Records. He would spend 14 years there, ending up as the manager. In 1972, he opened his first store of his own, and what was initially called Records and Tapes Ltd. would eventually morph into OIsson's. As recently as 2001, he was adding stores, in Rosslyn and at National Airport, to bring his total to nine.
For a time, it looked like he--like stellar independents such as Politics and Prose in upper Northwest and Kramerbooks in Dupont--had figured out ways to beat the big guys and the web. P&P turned itself into a salon, a gathering spot for folks who love to read, with a sparking series of author talks. Kramerbooks focused on food and drink and live music, as well as providing excellent people-watching.
Olsson's made it by letting each of its stores adopt the personality and interests of its neighborhood, and by hiring clerks who knew their stuff cold and had an evangelical interest in spreading the word about the coolest new books and music.
At the Dupont location, the people-gazing was primo. The place always seemed busiest late in the evening, when college kids and new arrivals in town would hang out toward the back, around the music and over near the travel books. There was something of a middle-aged pickup scene, centered around the new non-fiction and the literary section. Kids would sprawl on the floor and music clerks would excitedly play the latest classical and jazz releases, often more interested in educating than in selling.
The Georgetown outlet had unusually good biography and history sections, and I often saw visiting professors from around the country in conversation there.
Olsson's had more than 40,000 members on its rolls--handwritten cards, as I recall--and for those who saw the arrival of chains such as Crown Books as an intrusion that would surely dumb down the book business, frequenting Olsson's was an act of intellectual pride.
But hanging out there didn't necessarily help the stores' bottom line. And as Amazon and its online cousins went to war against the megastores, it became ever more difficult for small independent shops to win enough of the business. They couldn't begin to compete on price, and although the service was infinitely better at Olsson's for many years, once the decline set in, it became impossible to maintain that service.
Still, my sense was that what finally did in Olsson's was the fact that it was simply no longer a place where you could go and soak in the feel of the city. The quality of people-watching naturally slipped as the crowds thinned and as younger customers did their book browsing and buying online.
Astonishingly, in the Internet era, no one in retailing has found a formula that recreates the unique allure of shops that combined music, reading, people-gazing and mating. Of course the Starbucks/indy coffee house category has taken over some of that role, but it's not the same thing. The magic of the books and records combination is that you spent the bulk of your time standing and moving about. That made for infinitely better people-watching, eavesdropping, browsing and imagining than plunking yourself down in a comfy chair.
Somewhere in there is a chance for someone to concoct the next kind of public hangout. What would that place look like? And what did Olsson's mean to you?
By Marc Fisher |
October 1, 2008; 7:40 AM ET
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