Jerry Weber: Heart of Vinyl

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2011 at 3:58 pm

February 22, 2011

It is early in the morning at Jerryʼs Records in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The employees arrived 30 minutes ago, but the place is silent. No music is playing, and it seems the work of pricing and categorizing records might, for once, feel as tedious as it really is.

Suddenly, a staccato voice booms across the entrance and hallway, reverberating off the walls: “BOBBY BENNETT, WHERE ARE THE FFF**KING CUSTOMERS?!?!” The voice belongs to the boss, Jerry Weber — a portly and well-loved 63 year-old man who looks like Santa in a sweat suit. Bennett, who works for Weber, is amused but not amazed.

Jerryʼs Records is easy to miss from the street, but world famous to those who know it. Viewed from the front, it looks like it went out of business years ago – an old sign and dusty window are all passersby will likely notice – but walk inside and climb a flight of stairs, and you will soon encounter a literal warehouse full of vinyl records, stacked from wall to wall in rooms that seem to multiply magically as you walk through them. Itʼs as though the tiny shop expands á la Alice in Wonderland once patrons close the door behind them.

And if you know about music shops, you may indeed think you have entered an enchanted place once you set foot in Jerryʼs. In September of 2010, Rolling Stone ranked Jerryʼs #10 amongst music shops in the United States, and of the 25 ranked, Jerryʼs was the only one in the top 10 that deals exclusively in vinyl. Jerryʼs reputation is so stellar that visits from rock ʻnʼ roll celebrities are not uncommon. Robert Plant, singer of legendary band Led Zeppelin, paid Jerryʼs a visit during his 2010 tour stop in Pittsburgh.

But in an age of downloads and iPods – or, for that matter, compact disks and cassette tapes — how is it that Jerryʼs Records has stuck around for over 33 years? The short answer is, “Just barely.”

“The only reason Iʼm in this business is ʻcause I got nothinʼ else to do. You see any customers here? Realistically, to sell this place Iʼd be really hard pressed to get, like, half a million dollars for everything – and half a million dollars ainʼt s**t. What can you do with it? You can buy a house and a car. Rent, utilities, taxes and salaries – that eats up almost everything.”

“My son works for me. Between me and him we make, like, one good salary, but we split it, so thatʼs it. Iʼve got a whole store full of great records and just think – nobody cares.”“One time a few years ago I was pretty sure I was going to die. I tried to sell the place so my kids wouldnʼt be stuck with it. When I showed people my books and stuff, they laughed at me — so I didnʼt die; I kept on living. Iʼve come to the conclusion that Iʼm going to die with a pricing gun in my hand.”

Weber may be dissatisfied financially, but perhaps he is secretly relieved to hold the pricing gun just a little longer: “The problem is that anybody around whoʼd be good enough to run this place donʼt have the money to buy it. The best kind of music person is an absorber. Thereʼs people who listen to music, and dance to it, and sing to it, and make out to it — and thereʼs people who hear music – like music is wired into their brain. I deal with a lot of those people in my shop.”

Sometimes it is difficult to tell whoʼs who at Jerryʼs, because the employees are all former customers who put in plenty of hours for free long before they were on the payroll.

Chris Kardaz, 55, singer and guitarist of popular local rock band Kardaz, has been shopping at Jerryʼs since the early ʻ80s, and is now in charge of the 45ʼs section. Previously a postal worker, Kardaz has been working for Weber since 2002. “I used to be a mail sorter, but now Iʼm a record curator. This is exactly where I belong. I gravitated here for work because this is where I like to be anyhow. I get a chance to see records in this shop before anyone else gets to see them, and Jerry is pretty good about letting me have whatever I want for my collection.”

Asked to play a recording of his own band, Kardaz takes a CD out of a box and jokes: “Donʼt tell Jerry I have a CD here. He hates CDs. I canʼt even play this for you, because we donʼt have a CD player in the shop.”

Another customer, defense attorney Eric Jackson Lurie, 48, has been coming to Jerryʼs for more than 20 years: “I just finished doing a trial, and Iʼm on my way back to the office, and I had to pick up some records. Jerry is a special guy – a walking encyclopedia — and thatʼs also what makes this store special. To all of us who have known Jerry for years, this is a home away from home. Jerryʼs is the greatest record store in the country, and anyone who collects vinyl whoʼs been here will tell you that.”

“The prices are ridiculous. This album I have here in my hand from 1978 has never been opened and itʼs out of print. If Iʼd found it on the Internet, Iʼd happily pay seventy-five bucks for it, but here Iʼm only paying five bucks.”

The people who work and shop at Jerryʼs are living testaments to the shopʼs long history.

Jerryʼs Records began as the Record Graveyard in 1976, after Weber was suspended from his post office job “for being too much of a bad boy.” He and a partner started using the upstairs storeroom of an Oakland bar to sell records. The rent was $75.00 a month.

“It wasnʼt a challenge at all. Seventy-five bucks a month? Anybody can afford that. We put a lot of our own collections in there to start, knowing that weʼd get ʻem all back. All we had to do was put a sign out that said, ʻWe buy records,ʼ and people started bringing us records. When college kids need a case of beer on a Friday night, they look and see, and if they ainʼt got no money, theyʼll sell records. We wouldnʼt pay much, but weʼd buy everything.”

“In 1980, we started needing more space, and my partner didnʼt want to get more space, so I let him buy me out. I opened my own store a few months later. I started out with maybe 1000 or 1500 records in ʻ76 and now I have over 2 million.”

Categorizing and alphabetizing the endless stream of records that pass through the shop is tedious work, but the employees, who love working here, hardly seem to notice that their work is set out for them literally years in advance. Weber has so many records, in fact, that the shop cannot contain all of them. Weberʼs home in Swissvale is itself a record warehouse, and though the warehouse is not organized, it contains just as many records as the shop.

The extra warehouse is a consolidation of Weberʼs previous accommodations for himself and his records: “I used to own three houses in my neighborhood that were full of records. Every time a house came up for sale Iʼd buy it and put records in it.”

Now that Weber owns a warehouse apart from his shop, his records neednʼt live with him anymore. Instead, he lives with his records.

Weberʼs employees know vinyl is sacred to him, and understand his large record collection as an extension of his personality. According to employee Jeff Donnelly, 25, who is also earning a masterʼs degree in organ performance at Duquesne University, “Youʼve got to be a vinyl enthusiast to work here. Everything Jerry does is big. At one point he even had records in the bathroom of his house! Jerry is larger than life, even his key ring – it has to weigh two pounds. Thereʼs no baby steps with Jerry.”

Donnellyʼs affection for his boss is hard not to notice as he recalls a gift given to Weber at a Christmas party in 2009: “Someone gave him a can of Heinz brand spotted dick [a kind of bread pudding]. He picks it up — and at this point he had gone through a considerable amount of Crown Royal — and he says, ʻSo what am I supposed to do with this thing? Eat it? F**k it? Iʼll take it home and feed it to Willieʼs dogs. If the dogs donʼt die, maybe Iʼll take a bite.ʼ” The can remains in the shop, unopened.

Donnelly also recalls a more serious conversation he once overheard between Weber and a customer – a conversation that hints at a human vulnerability Weber does not usually display: “We had a customer who was sort of lamenting about his father dying, and Jerry said, ʻWell, you know, life does suck sometimes.ʼ The customer just kept going and going. Finally Jerry said, ʻListen. I woke up one morning, and my wife was lying there dead next to me, okay? Life sucks.ʼ”

Tact is not Weberʼs strength, but amongst his employees and customers his authority is unquestionable. He is deeply concerned about the integrity of music, and when he gripes about the modern music industry, he seems to channel Holden Caulfield, the indignant protagonist of J.D. Salingerʼs Catcher in the Rye: “Iʼve never watched MTV in my life, because it makes us all phony. It makes you attracted to music in a phony way. Naked women jumping around and stuff — it taints the quality of the music.”

“When you started being able to make music without playing any instruments or having any talent – and could make sellable music — thatʼs when things started getting a little hairy for guys like me. You have all these non-talented people – and you know how you know that they didnʼt have no talent? ʻCause their records build up in stores like mine. Nobody wants ʻem. They sold millions of records ʻcause of MTV, but nowadays the only time anybody ʻll want ʻem is for a nostalgia party or something. They donʼt have no real value.”

For his purposes, Weber knows what the real value of music consists in, not just sonically, but also in terms of the format it is stored upon. Apparently, his breed is not dying just yet, because most of the audiophiles he serves are surprisingly young: “People in their 60ʼs and 70ʼs donʼt care about buying records anymore. About 50% of my customers are under 30.”

To the allegation that CDs sound better and last longer than vinyl, Weber says, “Thatʼs horsesh*t. The first CDs came out maybe 25 years ago, and a lot of them have deteriorated already. There are 40 year-old records in here, and if nobody scratches them up theyʼll be fine.”

“Even if you listen to a record and never play it again, youʼre still better off for listening to it. I bought a lot of these records when people dumped their whole collections and went to CDs, and then five or ten years later they come back and say, ʻI never should have sold you my records.ʼ”

Trends come and go, but Weber is proud of his staying power, and of his vinyl treasure: “When I sell a Beatles record to a 14 year old, I always tell him, ʻThis record is about 40 years old. Youʼre probably going to live into your 70ʼs, so if you take care of it, youʼll have a hundred year-old record to give to your children.ʼ”


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