By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
I still remember my first purchases at 4526 Liberty Avenue. On my second two-Port Authority bus trip to Jim’s Records (the first trip was undertaken to make sure I could get there), I found the two-fer of Syd Barrett’s solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett in the used bin, and a new copy of Sanctuary by the synth band New Musik. I had heard the latter in another store and bought it on the strength of one song, whose title I didn’t even know at the time. (For the record, it was “Straight Lines.”) As a Floyd fanatic, I was succumbing to the urge to buy everything connected to the band.
That transaction happened in the summer of 1981, a day after I finished eighth grade. To my overactive mind, I needed both of those records right then and there, and Jim’s satiated that need. That desire and fulfillment has continued over the years, to lesser and greater degrees, as the storefront became Paul’s CDs, Sound Cat and Juke Records. Now it appears that it will come to an end.
On Sunday, Feb. 10, Juke Records, which has operated in 4526 since 2016, posted the following message on their Facebook page: “Fortunately, Pittsburgh has a lot of record stores. Unfortunately, our time is up.” The post was accompanied by a picture of a sign in the store window stating that it would close permanently before their lease is up, during the summer.
Two points should be clarified. First, despite the plethora of “I”s in this piece so far, this story isn’t about me. It’s about an institution, which has operated in one space, sometimes against the odds, since the 1970s. Secondly, upon hearing that I might take a bit of a first-person track on this piece, Juke owner Jeff Gallagher asked that it not come across as too maudlin. Then he rephrased the sentiment from the Facebook post, about other record stores in the city. “Here’s a quote for you,” he added. “If there were as many customers as teardrop emojis [posted online], we’d be doing fine.” Then he went back to ringing up customers, who were there for the store’s liquidation sale, 30 percent off new vinyl and 50 percent off used vinyl.
Point well taken.
The vinyl enthusiasts have proven that records aren’t going away, though everything seems just a little more expensive these days, not always due naturally to inflation. (Not to disparage record store owners, who have utilities to consider.) Instead of mourning an impending loss —no closing date has been announced at press time — better to tip the hat to both the building and those who darkened the doorway.
Sometimes a visit to the store felt akin to our forefathers entering the corner market, where the person behind the counter knew you by name and greeted you with, “Hey, I’ve got something here that I think you’ll like.” And if the walls could talk. On their Zen Arcade tour, Hüsker Dü dropped by Jim’s, signing my copy of that double album – in ballpoint pen. Eric Tolchin, a Jim’s employee who DJ’d on WYEP-FM under the name Concrete Window, admonished me for considering an album by Alien Sex Fiend, forcing me to buy a compilation of jump saxophonist Louie Jordan’s hits instead. (I still owe him for that.)
Paul Olszewski used to talk about the “tactile experience” of listening to music. That term has become a personal mantra phrase over the years because it gets to the heart of record and CD purchases. Sure it’s easy to click a button and listen to music, but being able to hold something — be it a jewel case or an album cover — and scan titles and credits always helps the music make more of an impression.
When Karl Hendricks turned Paul’s CDs into Sound Cat Records, it felt good to know that things would continue in the hands of someone who loved all manner of music. After he sold the business and eventually succumbed to a battle with cancer, it was hard. But it helped when Gallagher stepped in to keep the doors open. Running any small business in this day and age in a herculean task, and he should be applauded for it, as should all the previous owners.
Oops, I think I’m veering towards maudlin.
A few week before Juke made the announcement, a newly released five-record set of a Charles Mingus live set was hanging behind the counter. Without even bothering to scrutinize it, or even ask the price, I asked Gallagher to take it off the rack for me. I can’t remember if I came in craving that set but it was exactly what I needed, much like that day back in 1981. Thanks, guys.