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
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