Jerry Weber is retiring, but Jerry's Records will go on
It's a typical Wednesday at Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill.
A customer clutches a few Elvis Presley albums for purchase, while another has a small stack of records to sell. After navigating the impossibly constricted entryway lined with boxes of records, other customers wander the narrow aisles, stepping over small piles of albums on the floors.
It also is an atypical day, the last Wednesday Jerry Weber will sit at his elevated perch near the entrance, the king of all he sees: 450,000 vinyl records ranging from rock to folk, from ethnic to jazz, from classical to new wave and punk and bluegrass.
"It gave me a living and it fed my kids and feeds my grandkids right now," says Weber, 69, who will retire on Aug. 1. "But I didn't get rich because I have too many records. Kids will come and ask how many records are here and say 'You must be rich.' No. If I had 50,000 albums and $400,000 I still wouldn't be rich, but I'd be better off than I am."
Weber leaves behind a reputation as one of the country's premier collectors of vinyl; in addition to the store stock, he has another 450,000 albums in a warehouse and 20,000 in his personal collection. His customers have included Robert Plant ("he was friendly and nice and signed autographs for people"); Ben Folds, who always seemed to be trailed by female fans; jazz musician Paul Winter, who bought one of his own albums; and DJ Jazzy Jeff, who spent an entire day in the store with six colleagues looking for albums to sample from collections that didn't require royalties paid.
Steve Sciulli, a local musician whose resume includes the bands Carsickness and Life in Balance, calls Weber "as much of a Pittsburgh icon as a Primanti's sandwich."
"I can bet that for a lot of national touring musicians a stop at Jerry's was higher on their visiting list than the Warhol," Sciulli says. "Whenever I had company in from out of town, a visit to Jerry's was always a priority. It was worth it just to watch their jaw drop as they walked into the big room."
One of Weber's favorite customers is Jules Shear, the Squirrel Hill native, musician and songwriter who wrote the hit songs "If She Knew What She Wants" for the Bangles, and "All Through the Night" for Cyndi Lauper.
"He's really a nice guy and knows his music," Weber says of Shear. "He'd come in here and buy stuff that was sitting there for a long time. No hits. I'd talk to him and he was real accessible. People would say to him, 'Aren't you somebody?' and he'd say, 'I'm Jules Shear, if that's somebody.' "
Shear, who now lives in Asheville, N.C., has fond memories of Jerry's Records, noting that he'd visit the store every time he came back to Pittsburgh to see his family.
"It was definitely a big part of any visit," Shear says. "But I'm glad that Jerry's retiring, if it's cool for him."
While celebrities cause a stir when visiting the store — Weber admits he doesn't recognize many of the newer bands who visit the store — it's his hardcore customers who have sustained him through the years. Some of them — almost all men — have been buying records from Weber for 35 to 40 years. This loyal faction never buys the same record twice, and Weber has seen their tastes evolve.
"How many times can you listen to Led Zeppelin?" Weber says. "You can listen to them, they're great, but as you get older in your forties, you start to think 'that Chick Corea sounds pretty good, I'm going to try that guy out.' "
Weber has mixed feelings about selling the store. Selling used records has been his fulltime job since he quit U.S. Postal Service (he was a mailman) after 14 years in 1985 to run Record Graveyard in Oakland. He had opened Record Graveyard in 1978 with a friend and balanced his love of all things vinyl with the security of a government job, but the lure of not having to answer to anyone but his customers finally won out.
"If you can work for yourself, I would suggest you try it," says Weber, who moved Jerry's Records from Oakland to its current site in 1993. "If you're young and don't try it, you'll regret it forever."
Weber, who lives in Swissvale, will undergo knee surgery three days after he turns the store over to Chris Grauzer, one of his employees. He will not miss disappointing the sellers who are crestfallen when they learn their parents' collections of Andy Williams or Mantovani records are worthless. But he will miss the customers who, like him, live and breathe music via vinyl records.
"I like people who like music," Weber says. "If people come in here and buy 20 records, I give them at least two for free, just because I can. What am I going to do? I got all these records. I called ahead to hell and the devil won't let me take 'em. I called purgatory too, and they won't let me take 'em. And I don't even want to check heaven because I don't think I'm going to get there."
Thousands of customers over four decades will disagree with that last statement. For them, Jerry Weber will forever be their vinyl saint.
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.