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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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I will miss Olsson's. It was the closest place for me to get vinyl.

I still drive all the way back to College Park for the ability to browse and people watch at CDepot. No books, but still has that vibe you can't replicate online.

Posted by: Jerry | October 1, 2008 9:32 AM

Deeply sad to learn that Olsson's has closed. Going to Olsson's to buy one book, I inevitably left with two or three. Not because the staff recommended them, but because staff knew how to arrange books on tables and racks, so that one book "spoke" to the next. You had never heard of the other book or two that you just discovered. But you realized that you had better grab it now. While it was there in front of you. Because next time the same table would introduce you to other books that you had never intended to read. But now just had to own.

So, why did Olsson's die? In part, because with ever more distractions ever fewer people have the time to read, browse, and connect.

Mourning the pleasures of browsing marks my age. I live on the web, but I've never learned to browse on it with the same physical pleasure of browsing in a book store or a record store. I can find exactly what I want. But I almost never trip across something that I had not known I wanted deeply.

My thanks for all those years of pleasure and education to Olsson's and its staff! I'm going to miss you a lot!

Posted by: Tomel | October 1, 2008 9:33 AM

I was a regular customer as a kid. The Old Town location was my first job as a teenager. Moreover, it was a job I kept through college, graduate school, and some time thereafter. I frequented the store in my capacity as an ex-employee. I learned more about music, film and literature as an employee, and speaking with the area's fascinating and knowledgeable customers, than any college could teach. The experience changed my life, instilled great passions, and created obsessive hobbies. I made friends I hope to keep for life. To many, Olsson's was a wonderful local institution. To me, however, it will always be a part of how I developed.

Posted by: Bertram | October 1, 2008 9:46 AM

When I published my first book in 1996, Olsson's gave it an entire table and an endcap, and generally treated me like a star even though I was an unknown with a first book (I'm still unknown... which is fine). Olsson's was also the bookseller of choice for the National Press Club for years. Great place, now in the DC literary archives along with Chapters.

But hey, maybe they'll plop a Wal-Mart next to Metro Center to sell books, or perhaps a lovely Costco (two of our biggest current booksellers, FYI). That would be super-swell, and almost as good as those wonderful, loving store owners who actually cared about authors and readers. I'm no Jonathan Swift, but you get my drift. RIP.

Posted by: Oh-fortuna | October 1, 2008 9:50 AM

What did Olsson's was the crass unintellectual Bush and idiot frevent right wing idiots that this administration brought to town, not the internet or 'the google' (like another crass unintellectual republican running for POTUS would say). How would Olsson's sell any books if the majority of this town want to cling to their bibles and are looking for the lastest issue of 'Guns and ammo'. I hope the Dems win this year and a better class of people come to Washington. Too bad Olsson couldn't make it.

Posted by: playa | October 1, 2008 9:54 AM

I just earned my final frequent-buyer's coupon last week, and had hoped to redeem it before the end of the year. A visit to the Old Town store recently sounded an alarm in my head that I needed to act quickly. Alas, I didn't make it back to the store in time.

Great local chain. I built a jazz collection on CD in part by reading the handwritten recommendations in the music racks.

Posted by: Discman | October 1, 2008 9:56 AM

Used to love "browsing" Olsson's back when I worked in DC and Old Town Alexandria. Certanly was one of my "lunch time" haunts, and I certainly bought many CDs from artists that I had never heard of simply on the bases of handwritten recommendations that member of the store staff had written. Sorry to see Olsson's go, as it was one of my favorite places to get books, magazines and CDs.

Posted by: sibwalker | October 1, 2008 10:09 AM

TOMORROW: Build less parking--and they will come.


Posted by: ???? | October 1, 2008 10:17 AM

Marc, your description of your experiences at Olsson's is lyrical and moving, but it might have helped more if you'd ever actually spent any money there.

Posted by: Tom T. | October 1, 2008 10:47 AM

I've always thought of Olsson's as the direct descendant of the Discount Book stores at Dupont Circle and Georgetown, which were the essential hang-outs in the '60s. Even when Crown Books and later Amazon could beat them on price and convenience, there was nothing like roaming Olsson's aisles for books and music that you'd never find anyplace else. The writing was on the wall when the Bethesda store closed with vague promises of a new location that you knew in your heart wouldn't be kept.

It's a sad day for literate Washington.

Posted by: Bethesda | October 1, 2008 10:49 AM

Wer u making fun uv us thare, playa? Olsens had a grate kerlection ov bibills kuz u nede wun for evry rum in yer house. U prolly dont lyke gunz eether.

Posted by: Stik | October 1, 2008 11:04 AM

Growing up, I dreamed of owning my own neighborhood bookstore - now that I could actually afford to do it, there's no market for it anymore. I will miss the feeling of Olsson's so much, with their respectful and enthusiastic attitude toward books & music. Thank God for Politics & Prose!

Posted by: Stacy | October 1, 2008 12:12 PM

Buying Fugazi CDs at Olsson's in Georgetown. Wow, it really is a different era. :(

Posted by: Izzy | October 1, 2008 12:38 PM

Not a christmas or birthday occured in my childhood home without a trip to Olssons with my father. He'd take the all three of us kids and we'd browse and browse for gifts. For him, it was a slice of heaven - two of his passions in one place, books and classical music. he could literally spend 3 hours in there. I'm sad to see it go, but I'll always have those memories.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 1, 2008 12:54 PM

My father was the Sr. Book Buyer for the Georgetown store from the early 70's until they closed in 2002. My memories are of classical music played in the back and Johnny Cash up front. The rickety stairs to the basement were always one nail from collapsing and the Book Information Desk, with it's light blue neon sign, was a hub of book lovers. People would cop a spot on the steps to the mezzanine to read. My Dad knew where every book was in that store, right down to the shelf and the color of the spine on the title you sought. I had my first job there at 14, paid under the table. Working with my father was an experience I'll never forget. It took two Jolt cola's just to keep up. I thank everyone who made that store so special.

Posted by: pedropolis | October 1, 2008 1:34 PM

Honestly, as much as I'll miss them being gone, I still bought most of my books from Borders and Amazon. They just had the selection and the price that Olssons didn't.

Posted by: Just Me | October 2, 2008 4:49 PM

Amazon will never replace the pleasures to be found at so many shops now shuttered.The thrill of discovery of a long sought writer or musician's work was
only topped by stumbling into the work of artists unknown.Euphoria and a community to share it with...apparently not an adequate profit model.

Posted by: jim | October 2, 2008 6:01 PM

To Pedropolis: If you check back for comments, are you a son of Jim and Sonia Tenney? If so, I know you, because I worked with your mother at the Savile Book Shop in Georgetown while Jim Tenney was at Olsson's down the street.

Olsson's in Georgetown was a great spot. Bought a lot of music there.

Posted by: Jack | October 3, 2008 9:35 AM

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