I never know what I'm going to find at Jerry's Records, but I know I'll always find Jerry Weber at the front counter, sorting through stacks of records. Surrounding him is a vast vinyl catacomb, a collector's paradise glutted with crates upon crates of good records for cheap. To fortify the store against the digital age and the threat it poses to small media outlets, Jerry has invited some new neighbors to share his space on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. Heads Together Video is moving from across the street into what was once the country-music room, while Dave's Music Mine is opening a satellite branch in the old jazz room.
Last week, I visited Jerry's to check out the rearrangements. It was the first time I'd ever left without a record in hand. I did, however, leave with a new understanding of laser-guided turntables, estate sales vs. eBay, holiday surf medleys on the Ventures Christmas album, and the ultimate truth about records: "It's a language that you speak."
How's the move been going?
We're changing everything around and we wanna get the people in here by the first of the year. This is a big move for me. I'm doing it, basically, to survive. The rent and the utilities don't justify the space. There's so many places in here where people never ever look. I'm just moving out records and going vertical and taking a bunch of 'em to the warehouses, but I'm keeping a lot of racks and other stuff.
Why do you refer to the rearrangement as "Plan B"?
Because I was trying to get out of business, y'know. I was trying to sell the place. This is Plan B. I told you how I've got a million records over at my house, right? Well, I would have went and sold 'em at the flea markets and semi-retired. But I'm used to the idea now that this is what I'm going to do forever.
How are your new neighbors going to affect business?
This is going to be called an "entertainment co-op." On paper, it looks real good. I get calls for CDs all the time. I get calls for things they're looking for that aren't on CD. So, if someone walks in here looking for something for mom or a reunion, we should be able to get it to them in one form or another once Dave['s Music Mine] is here.
How many records have you found new homes for over the past 30 years?
What I call it is "handling" records. I can't imagine anybody handling more records in their life than I have. I mean, looking through them to buy them, looking through them to price and clean them and put them out. I just handle records all the time. You ever see me reading the newspaper when you come in here?
But you started out as a postman?
For 15 years, I carried mail up in the projects over in Oakland. Yeah, I worked there and I had the store too, so I had to make a choice. I couldn't do both because the record business kept getting bigger and bigger and, you know, this is what I love. "Mailman" is a good job. Lot of money. Lot of benefits. ... I used to be an usher at Three Rivers Stadium. Everything has always been about people, so I guess that's what my gift is, if I have one. And I've got a photographic memory for album covers.
Why do most people get rid of vinyl?
People are convinced that records aren't worth anything. I get calls all the time and they say, "This is what I got," and when I tell them their records aren't really what I'm looking for, they say they'll just put them in a Dumpster. That's when I say, "Records in Dumpsters? Not on my watch."
A guy got married once and his wife told him, "Either the records go or I'm not staying married." To this day, he regrets selling me those records. He comes back here trying to get 'em back. But, I think he got rid of her. I think she's not there no more. I said, "See. You should have kept your records. They're loyal."
You're like a throughway between records and homes.
I don't buy anything from anybody. No distributors. No nothing. I'm just like the clearinghouse or, like you say, the way-station. I call it a "big river of music" flowing through here. It flows in the door, it helps me, and it flows out. But, lately, it's been getting backed up. That's why I got all these damned records I'm hauling out of here.
So, Pittsburgh actually has four rivers?
You see, Western Pennsylvania is the home of the pack-rats. Our whole lives, we were always taught, "Don't throw nothing out, ever. You might need it someday." So, you'll get these people around here that'll fill up their cellar, then they'll fill up their extra room, then they'll fill up their attic, then they'll fill up their garage, then they'll put little buildings around their house and fill them up with stuff.
What kind of records do you take home from the store?
I don't take that much stuff home anymore because I really want to keep the good stuff out there. I don't really need that many records. I have two kids and, if I kick the bucket, what are they going to do with 'em all?
That explains the "Don't Bury Jerry" t-shirts.
In other words, buy vinyl. I get barraged. Like I said, "Do I really need a half-million records where I live?"
You mentioned that more women have been digging through the crates lately.
A lot more girls are buying vinyl, but I don't know why. I can't explain it. I was thinking, actually, of having a "ladies' night" up here. Like on a Wednesday or some quiet night. If I could afford to do that, I think it'd be great. But there would still probably be a lot of guys up here, even on ladies' night.
What perks do your employees get?
These guys, they hate me for it, but they know that they don't get to take home everything they want. Most of the people that work for me are my friends or relatives. That's why I almost never hire nobody. The way you work here is you start buying records here and bullshitting with me for about five years and, then, I'll ask if you'll work for records. Maybe, if there's any money around, you might get paid.
Why buy, or work for, records?
You pick up a record in here that's 30 years old and it's in good shape. You take it home and you like it, so you might keep it for another 30 years. It's something you have to take care of. It's like you form a covenant with it. "I'll take care of this record and it'll play for me."
Does the same magic happen with new records?
This is all about taking advantage of the music that's already out there and not worrying about the different stuff that's coming out. That'll take care of itself. It's just like, "Why neglect 50 good years of all this music?"
How has your clientele changed over the years?
Now, in the last five or six years, I'm fully convinced about one-third of the people that buy records off of me don't even listen to records. They're buying them to re-sell them on eBay. They just buy the same records over and over.
Are the casual collectors turning into connoisseurs?
Yeah, they're getting too finicky. They're forgetting that the purpose of the record is for you to put it on a turntable and listen to it. Not to put it in a vault. Not to exclude it from the "river of music."