In the age of iTunes and peer-to-peer, "record-store owner" is a career you wouldn't be surprised to find on the endangered list. But with chain record stores collapsing all around him, Paul Olszewski isn't as worried as you might expect. The soft-spoken proprietor of Paul's CD's, in Bloomfield credits the store's specialized nature with its resilience: "We stock mostly indie-label stuff," he explains. "We've never really focused on Top 40 radio hits, so it didn't hit us as hard."
Well, a wide selection of music and friendly, knowledgeable service might factor in as well. But Olszewski isn't one to toot his own horn. He'll leave that to others, like local musician Phil Boyd, who's been going to Paul's since he moved to the city for college 10 years ago.
"Growing up in a sort of rural, suburban area near Harrisburg, I hadn't been around that kind of a store before," Boyd recalls. "They're always willing to give you input, and the guys have such an extensive knowledge -- no matter what kind of music you're looking for, there's somebody there who specializes in it."
Vinnie Ferguson, whose "Edge of the X" radio show, on 105.9 The X, features a respectable infusion of local and less-widely-known artists, agrees. "They've developed a really supportive clientele, have an insanely knowledgeable staff, and are willing to do what they can to keep people coming back through special orders, stocking certain titles, and so forth," he says.
Olszewski took the reins at the store in 1993; formerly known as Jim's, it had been there since 1976. Even before Bloomfield became the hip locale it is these days, the Liberty Avenue location was ideal, Olszewski maintains: "It's close to Oakland, close to Shadyside, Lawrenceville is just over the hill -- it's really at the crossroads of the eastern neighborhoods.
"We get real-estate offers all the time from people in, say, Cranberry or whatever," he adds. "I don't really want to be in a strip mall." (He's quick to note that his favorite record store in Cleveland was in a strip mall -- then again, it's no longer in business.)
The store's focus tends to be on indie rock, with a good selection of jazz and experimental records, in addition to folk and Americana. There's also a rack of magazines -- mostly music-related, like The Wire, or products of local zine culture -- and a selection of music DVDs.
Another unique aspect of Paul's -- one that likely contributes to its continued success -- is the collective process by which the store is run. While Paul's name is on the sign, no one employee is singled out as more important or knowledgeable than others. Ordering, for example, is done by all of the employees.
"We all look at the catalogs and have discussions about what we want to get. Of course, we still sometimes miss things," Olszewski says.
Record nerds can be hard to please, but according to Ferguson, the system must work. "There has been more than one instance where I've said to one of the guys working behind the counter, 'I can't believe you have a copy of this,'" he says.
Boyd's perspective on the Paul's experience is unusual: His tastes have perhaps been affected by his years of shopping at Paul's, and his own albums -- with Modey Lemon and his solo project, The Hidden Twin -- are stocked on Paul's shelves. "I bought there for a long time, and we established a relationship," Boyd says. "These guys knew what I was buying and maybe suggested things to me. Then I started making my own records and you could see those influences in them."
"We try to carry as many local releases as [the artists themselves] see fit to bring by," Olszewski explains. That's part of what makes Paul's a fixture both in Bloomfield and in the Pittsburgh music landscape. And as long as the store provides that sort of experience, beyond just finding the CD you want, it's not likely to disappear any time soon.