You are here

Vinyl Stacks of Steel City: The historic record stores that make Pittsburgh a music worthy city

By Amanda Myers

A row of records at Jerry’s. Photo by Amanda Myers.

Chris Grauzer planned on opening his own record store when the opportunity to buy the legendary Jerry’s Records, where he had been working for around ten years, came up.

Back in the 1990s when Fred Bohn Jr. went to work at The Attic, his father’s record store, he had no ambitions to keep with family tradition.

Growing up listening to rock and jazz favorites, Mark Mawhinney bridged his knowledge of vinyl and crisp sound to create an audiophile’s sweet escape with old school records.

These stories intertwine through not only a shared love of records, but also by many aspects of Pittsburgh tradition, like family, hard work and determination.  The stores are relics like the old steel mills, so it only seems fitting that, in many cases, family members would step in to preserve that hard-built legacy.

With around a dozen record stores scattered around the city, there is no shortage of wax for a vinyl lover to scour for.  Along with Jerry’s and The Attic, there’s Music To My Ear in the North Hills, Juke Records in Bloomfield, Rather Ripped Records in Brookline and Cruel Noise Records in Polish Hill, among others.

“The neatest thing about the vinyl market is the multi-generational aspect of it — they can’t drive yet but they can buy vinyl,” Mawhinney of Music To My Ear says about 16-year-olds that come into the shop with their parents.

The vinyl enthusiast has shifted from the stereotypical middle-aged man in cargo shorts to a young audience adept at Facebook.  They seek comfort in the ritualistic process of putting a record on the turntable versus shuffling through songs on Spotify.

When you enter Jerry’s Records on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, you are welcomed by the crackly sound of vinyl on the in-house turntable.  It could be a string on Ramones cuts or a run through of a Neil Young record, depending on the day.

Besides sound, there’s a lot for the eye to take in: rows of rock records ranging from an endless Chicago discography to a favorites section in the front of the shop, endless mazes of odd delights like obscure German music or a slew of classical pieces and another large room full of soul and jazz offerings ranging from popular artists like Miles Davis to the occasional jackpot of a Blue Note label record.

Grauzer guesses there’s around half-a-million records in the store and tries to rotate records out by “purging inventory.”  The store does this through dollar sales or by giving away a box of records for free on occasion. Grauzer says he is hesitant when doing the latter.  

“People get the box and go through it and pick out the ones they like.”  

He pauses, thinking of records being thrown away.

“I don’t want that on my conscious,” he said.

Grauzer was working as an employee at the store when owner Jerry Weber announced his retirement in 2017.  The Minnesota native was in the process of opening up a store for used cassettes and VHS tapes in Highland Park when he decided to derail those plans to purchase Jerry’s Records.  He says the move was more of a sure thing because the store had a legacy, rather than risking it by starting a brand new business.

Since Jerry’s departure, Grauzer has found himself with the tough task of keeping a steady flow of inventory, particularly for 45s that seem to fly off the shelves when collectors get them in their hands.  

A row of records at Jerry’s. Photo by Amanda Myers.

He says that a few years ago when Jerry still owned the store that he had around 750,000 45s before he sold nearly all of them to a guy in Berlin.  Grauzer estimates that the store now has between 15,000 to 20,000 45s in stock that are typically within the $5 to $8 range.

While Jerry’s Records has made a few overseas orders, there are devotees who make the trip to the mecca of records annually.  Grauzer said a couple guys from Japan come twice a year as well as a few European vinyl hunters. They hope to find records in the rock, soul, jazz and foreign vein that they can’t find anywhere else.

“When you’re coming from that far I’m sure they hit up other stores, but I think obviously we are one of the draws,” he said.

Those coming from out of town will have a hard time looking through the entire store in a day — it’s practically impossible.  An older version of the store’s website made note of this.

As far as interests go, Jerry’s Record’s has a wide array of classic rock (Rolling Stones), jazz, soul (Aretha Franklin), alternative, punk (Billy Idol), foreign titles from Hawaii to Russia and beyond.  You never know what you’re going to find, Grauzer says, highlighting that rarity all depends upon the person’s point of view.

Grauzer still plans on opening up a section for cassettes and VHS tapes per his original plan, but finding the time, let alone the space, is not an easy task.

“I hope to start that section whenever I have the time, that’s easier said than done though,” he said.

Millvale’s Attic Record Store Inc, isn’t called “The Attic” for nothing.

The record store takes up four store fronts, two basements and a warehouse.  The number goes up on the daily with new people coming in to sell their old records, according to employee Fred Bohn Jr., who says he could never begin to count all the records in the store.

The Attic started in the 80s when Fred Bohn Sr. opened the store.  Bohn Sr. still owns the store, but Bohn Jr. handles the day-to-day operation within the space.                                                              

Bohn Jr. says he was interested in records before he could talk, thanks to his dad’s extensive collection of blues and doo-wop. It wasn’t until his teenage years that he began to develop his own interests in music like Run DMC and The Beastie Boys that reflected in his collection.  He doesn’t know what his life would be without record collecting.

A stack of records at The Attic. Photo by Amanda Myers.

“It’s always been a part of my life, the enjoyment of finding new things and discovering things you didn’t know before,” he said.

Finding old Beastie Boys records is a score for him, he says, but the doo wop records that remind him of his childhood with his father are some of the most treasured in his personal collection that hovers in the thousands range.

The store’s own inventory is known worldwide, according to  Bohn Jr. He says people come in from all over the world, like Germany, Italy and Japan,perhaps some of the same people that visit Jerry’s Records.

Bohn Jr. credits this to the store’s bridge of old records as well as new, something he says a number of competitors don’t have in the capacity that The Attic does. And like Jerry’s Records, they don’t specify in a certain niche of music, which gives them a wider range of records as well as clientele.

Customers should be weary of getting lost thanks to twists and turns that make the store feel never ending.  Not to mention the biggest room of 45s you’ll ever come across.

Regardless of the amount of records the store has, Bohn Jr. thrives off the excitement that comes with working at a record store.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen from one second to the next, nothing’s ever the same,” he said.

One minute Bohn. Jr can be helping a customer in the store, the next he could be getting a call for an order out in Sweden.

Mark Mawhinney is no stranger to the record business.  He has 40 years of experience working at stores like Northern Audio in the city.  Plus, his family owned Record-Rama in Pittsburgh — a store that once claimed to have the world’s biggest collection of vinyl.

When he opened up Music To My Ear in the North Hills a few years ago, he knew he had to do something different.  The store has an impressive, modern layout that many customers applaud when entering the store by simply saying, “wow.”

As soon as you walk into the store, you are hit by the electric red paint on the walls.  Beyond that, the cleanliness and attention to detail is another notable difference from stores in the area.  Clean wood flooring ensures customers won’t have to worry about tripping over a stack of records or bumping into an out of place shelf.

The turntables have their own little nook, while a sound system sits proudly against one wall as two leather armchairs face in its direction.  Luxury is definitely the vibe, but the store also has an open atmosphere with little to no dust in sight.

Mawhinney says Music To My Ear is “way nicer, way bolder, way cleaner, way more organized and way less smelly” than the categorically dumpy places record stores have been made out to be.

Mawhinney says that he opened the store in 2012, originally to sell headphones specifically, per the name.  When vinyl started to take off and a new generation began buying records, they saw the value in carrying mainly vinyl.  Mawhinney says the store is set up where it is about 80 percent records and CDs of everyone’s favorite rock, punk, metal and so on, and 20 percent audio, like turntables, speakers, headphones and preamps that’s ideal for first-time owners of turntables, or those getting back into the hobby after years away.

Their range of turntables starts at an all-in-one unit for $45, the next at a price of $200 and the rest go up into the thousands.  Mawhinney recommends a cheaper option for those just starting out, but brands the trendy Crosley players as “a joke.”

“A lot of people make the mistake that turntables should just be $99,” he said.

Music To My Ear is represented in the name itself.  Everything is built around the concept of crisp, clear sound.  Mawhinney points out that all their new records aren’t the flimsy kind transferred from digital files and are instead on 45 rpm remastered pressings.

“We have audiophile presses and heavier grade new vinyl,” he said.

Mawhinney also says that they are the only record store in the U.S. that has the entire Mobile Fidelity catalog, an established producer of re-pressed, audiophile recordings.

Employee Chris Kardasz who used to work at Jerry’s Records has a vast knowledge of music, something that each employee has.  Mawhinney says this sets them apart from other stores in the area.

“We want to be different from everyone else,” he said.

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

Related posts

Leave a Comment