John Olsson dies: Founder of Olsson's Books and Records was 78

John E. Olsson presided over Olsson's Books and Records, a reader's delight for more than 30 years.
John E. Olsson presided over Olsson's Books and Records, a reader's delight for more than 30 years. (James A. Parcell)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 7:39 PM

John E. Olsson, the founder and proprietor of Olsson's Books and Records, the venerable Washington area institution that dominated the local bookselling market in the 1970s and '80s, died Oct. 28 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring after a heart attack. He was 78.

At its height, Olsson's was the go-to neighborhood bookstore - and music shop - for much of the Washington region. It boasted nine branches in the city and surrounding suburbs, anchored by a Georgetown store where shoppers navigated aisles made tight by overflowing books, records and (eventually) compact discs.

"Any given Saturday you could find [singer-songwriter] Elvis Costello browsing for LPs in the music section and [Defense Secretary] Caspar Weinberger picking up a special order in the back of the store," said David Walker, general manager at Olsson's until 1997. "It really was a cultural institution in Washington."

The advent of big-box chain stores, Internet booksellers and easily downloadable MP3 music files squeezed Olsson's profits, however. Mr. Olsson tried different strategies to improve revenue, such as offering Beanie Babies and other so-called "impulse buys" alongside political science tomes and albums by Yo-Yo Ma - but the store continued to struggle.

Mr. Olsson was forced to close his high-rent Georgetown location in 2002. The number of stores continued to dwindle, and Olsson's was forced into bankruptcy.

The last five stores were closed in the fall of 2008, joining a long list of independent businesses - including bookstores such as Chapters and department stores Woodward & Lothrop and Hecht's - that helped define Washington's retail industry before they were shuttered.

John Edward Olsson was born Jan. 1, 1932, in Washington. He graduated from St. Anthony's High School and served in the Army for two years during the Korean War before returning to Washington.

He graduated from Catholic University with a degree in music and became a manager at Bob Bialek's Discount Book and Record Shop near Dupont Circle.

In 1972, Mr. Olsson struck out on his own, opening Record & Tape Ltd. in a storefront at 19th and L streets NW. He specialized in selling music until 1975, when a vacancy opened a few doors down and he opened the Book Annex.

Washington was crowded then with independent bookstores and record shops, but marketing words and music together proved a winning strategy. Within the next two decades, Mr. Olsson opened a Dupont Circle branch and others in Old Town Alexandria, Bethesda and Penn Quarter in downtown Washington.

On the advice of a consultant, he simplified the name of his operation to Olsson's Books and Records and, by the early 1990s, Olsson's had grown into a small chain that led the local general-interest market.

Promising excellent customer service, Olsson's drew a cross section of D.C. shoppers. The stores were staffed by musicians and poets with a broad knowledge of their inventory.

"You could go into any Olsson's and there'd be somebody at the record counter - if you didn't know what you wanted, they would steer you in the right direction," said Guy Brussat, who worked as the Old Town location's book buyer and was married for several years to Laura Olsson, Mr. Olsson's daughter.

Mr. Olsson kept an office at his Georgetown store, but former employees said he was a hands-off owner who gave each store the independence it needed to cater to its particular neighborhood.

His wife of 26 years, Judith MacNeil Olsson, died in 1987. He married Candace Conway in 1997.

Besides his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Jeanne Olsson Christopher of Arlington County and Laura Olsson and John C. Olsson, both of Silver Spring; two children from his second marriage, Elizabeth and Neil Olsson, both of Silver Spring; two sisters, Margaret Ann Ganey of Hyattsville and Mary Louise Van Dyke of Anchorage; and three grandchildren.

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