Another One Bites the Dust

Washington's literary community was recently dealt another blow with the shuttering of Olsson's Books & Records, the independent bookseller that for more than three decades catered to throngs of readers looking for a good book (and someone who could recommend one), the chance to meet an author or two, and a stellar music collection. Olsson's weathered the rise of the chain discounters and the surge of the superstores that followed, which claimed many of the city's most beloved book nooks. And that includes various Olsson's outposts, such as Georgetown and Bethesda that vanished years ago only to be followed by the opening of new locations as the company strived to serve its loyal customers.

The months ahead will surely be filled with a lot of chattering about Olsson's amongst readers and booksellers alike. But we thought it would be meaningful to let an Olsson's alum, Ramsay Teviotdale, share an anecdote or two about her experiences there and the impact it's had in her life. An insider's perspective. So here goes:

My first job after graduating college was as a clerk at the Georgetown Book Annex. The Book Annex had a small store front, but the store went way back. The aisles of books were past the aisles of records.

I spent my days and evenings shelving and alphabetizing books. Eight hour shifts of learning the covers and contents of books. My training wheels came off in time for the Christmas season.

October and November were spent bringing merchandise in the back door, through the receiving department and then cramming it into every available nook and cranny in the store. December was spent propelling those books out the front door.

It was incredible. I worked as many hours as humanly possible, racking up major overtime. Cases and cases of Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" and John Irving's "The World According to Garp" were sold along with a backlist that made the Book Annex a one-stop shopping destination. I would go home, fall into bed and dream I was still at the store looking for books, unpacking books, shelving books and then ringing them up and sending the customers on their way.

Inventory was maintained on file cards and we kept a handwritten "short list" for items that were running low. When customers asked for a book I had to find it by remembering which section it was shelved in, or else interrogate the requester about the content. Imagine no computer, just the multi-volume "Books in Print" and human recollection.

The camaraderie and collective knowledge made me feel like I was working in the best bookstore in Washington, DC. And it was a great feeling.

I would work many more Christmases at The Book Annex. The name changed to Olsson's Books & Records. Staff came and went. Computerized inventory was introduced (the customized system was named Byron and oh how I hated it!). I received some promotions, did some buying, took care of accounts receivable and had a short stint managing. The threat of Crown books was a mere blip in Olsson's retail domination, but other competition would follow.

I met so many friends and unique individuals. I experienced joys and sorrows, drama and adventures. It was not just a job, it was a life. I will always remember that first Christmas season when I learned how to be a bookseller.

What're your memories of Olsson's?

-- Christopher Schoppa

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  October 20, 2008; 7:03 AM ET Christopher Schoppa
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I loved reading Ramsay Teviotdale's reminiscences of being behind the scenes at Olsson's. Thank you so much for publishing them.

Don't have any specific memories, mainly the acute delight I experienced the first time I walked in and looked around. I believe I was drawn in by books for sale on the sidewalk in front of the store.

I went to a couple booksignings at the Georgetown store. I think one was for Herblock. It was like the coolest place to be in DC that night.

I was always impressed that whenever I had a question, whoever helped me did so with knowledge and passion.

Olsson's always felt like a very special place with so much to enjoy and discover looking around. I'm sad for the end of their great era. Olsson's will always be a magical place in my heart's memory.

Posted by: laurel, maryland | October 20, 2008 1:13 PM

In recent years when I was living in DC I would stop at Ollsons and browse the cds and make a list of what i wanted and then ordered them online or at box stores. Although their inventory was great their prices were very high and lead me to buy elsewhere. If they offered any discount they might have more people buying there. Today, list price is a turn off. Amazon has the catalog and usually offers reasonable discounts.

Posted by: steve jacobson | October 20, 2008 1:17 PM

I spent 20 years working for Waxie Maxie's. For the 2nd decade with WM one of my main responsibilities was to open new locations around Md., Va. all the way up to Baltimore and out to Waldorf...30+ stores. Our primary rival was Kemp Mill Records. John Olsson was in business in a few locations but we never considered him direct competetion...his customer base was different. One by one the large chain operations folded or sold out but John perservered and outlasted all of us. Quality and determination will out! Congrats, John. You will be missed.

Posted by: David | October 20, 2008 3:56 PM

though i have moved out of the area, i remember olssons fondly as being able to find unique items that weren't sold at the mainstream bookstores. first common concerns and now olsson's. is chapters still around?

Posted by: deseree stukes | October 20, 2008 5:02 PM

I live overseas and cannot find books in my local booksellers, so I must go online to find them.

Thanks to digital libraries and sites like http://www.freebooksearch.net, where I can find free books online, I do not need to go without reading anymore.

Too bad about that old bookstore, but at the same time, new ones are always opening. Creative Destruction as Joseph Schumpeter (Economist) would have said.

Posted by: Book Scrounger | October 21, 2008 5:30 AM

Thank you so much for asking Ramsay for her thoughts on Olsson's - the perfect story teller in this instance.

When I first met Ramsay she had just returned from New Orleans. I had lived, gone to school and worked in Georgetown for years, and Olsson's was a part of the fabric of all of our daily lives. I worked for Barbara West, another family business that ultimately succumbed to the intense competition brought to the market place by The Limited. Junior fashion's version of the box book store.

Ramsay and I have spent the ensuing years finding ourselves, our relationships and our friends through books and over books, sharing one another's libraries and insights. I remember how thrilled we were when Olsson's came to our neighborhood.

I forwarded the article about Olsson's closing to my brother in Albany. When he worked and lived in DC he considered Olsson'a a little piece of heaven, and I think secretly would have imagined working there the ultimate employment - who needs another lawyer? He still drinks from an Olsson's mug all these years later.

Thank you for making books a destination for so many years John Olsson and crew - you will be missed.

Posted by: Dawn | October 21, 2008 11:32 AM

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