Some people take vacation days to shake off the wreckage from their workplace: I spent mine signing 100 copies of my book, UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE LIFE & TIMES OF DANNY GATTON.
Simon & Schuster sales representative Charlie D. Young suggested the trip, since Olsson's supported Danny long before his hair-raising guitar abilities spread beyond his Maryland-Virginia-D.C. stomping grounds.
No problem: my webmaster (Don Hargraves) and I were up to the trip. We left at 5:30 p.m. Thursday (11/6) and spent the night in Mars, PA (which has the same anonymous burger joints and strip malls you see everywhere else).
Our 3:30 p.m. arrival helped avoid the notorious Beltway gridlock, find the store and sign 40 of the 100 (!) copies Olsson's intended for its holiday gift guide. I spend 20 minutes scribbling variations on my signature and creative messages (like "Yours Truly, From Gatton Central").
We kill another hour at Orpheus Records, where Charlie arrives; he's going to introduce me. On our way to the signing, we stop at the Hard Times Cafe - which we're sure Danny would have loved, for the burgers and chili.
About 15 people show up for the signing, including Dave Elliott, Danny's drummer of 18 years. I read 'em four or five passages: the fruitless warnings to Danny against modifying his guitars so drastically get the biggest laugh: "He took that guitar home, hacked it out, made a swimming pool in it, and put three white-coil Patent Applied For humbucking pickups in it." (For further reference, see Chapter 4: "The '53 Tele & The Pickup Man.")
But everyone's armed themselves with intelligent questions: Did he enjoy international success? Why did the Elektra deal sour? Who were Danny's biggest influences? What he was doing from his child prodigy years to the Redneck Jazz Explosion era?
My favorite moment comes during the signing, when a guy says: "I used to deliver the Washington Post during the '70s, and Danny's house was on my route: lots of barking, [antique] cars everywhere: it was one scary looking house!" We share a good laugh about that one.
My signing duties over, I spend another hour taping a radio interview with Michael Buckley (WRNR-FM) that should provide fodder for a thoughtful review of Danny's legacy.
Don and I round off our night at Charlie's house taping live Gatton CDs, including Take It Away - a bluesy, smokin' '89 gig with Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen (billed as "Jack & The Degenerates") - and P.G. County Funk. Both are 150-minute double CDs, too...ah, hell, sleep can wait.
We return to Michigan by 11 p.m. Saturday. Our 54 hours in D.C. are over, but those hot-wired leads on "Harlem Nocturne" and "Sleepwalk" from P.G. County Funk still resonate in my head. The night's been good.
Little did Don and I know that, barely five years later, one of D.C.'s premiere independent outposts would close its doors, sucked down into a perfect storm of booming e-commerce, declining sales and an economic slowdown that was just beginning to intertwine its tentacles around every nook and cranny of our nation. Here's how the company's original press release:
"Olsson Enterprises, Inc., trading as Olsson’s Books & Records closes stores and petitions court for Chapter 7 conversion.
"Olsson Enterprises, Inc., trading as Olsson’s Books & Records, Record & Tape Ltd., and Olsson’s Books announced today that it has closed all of its locations and petitioned the U.S. Bankruptcy Court District of Maryland for conversion of its current Chapter 11 protection to Chapter 7.
"The reasons given for the petitioning were stagnant sales, low cash reserves, and an inability to renegotiate current leases, along with a continuing weak retail economy and plummeting music sales.
"Olsson’s was granted Chapter 11 protection on July 11 this year in order to work on an aggressive reorganization plan involving selected store closings and large cuts in overhead costs. At the same time the Lansburgh/ Penn Quarter location on 7th Street, N.W. was shuttered to make way for a new London-based restaurant.
"Olsson’s was established in 1972 and grew to as many as nine retail stores in the Washington, D.C. metro area with sales over $16 million a year and as many as 200 employees. Currently there are five retail stores: Reagan National Airport, Old Town Alexandria, Arlington Courthouse, Crystal City, and one in Northwest Washington at Dupont Circle. Olsson’s earned its reputation as a locally-owned community-oriented retailer with a knowledgeable staff selling a wide selection of books, music, video and gifts.
"Stephen Wallace-Haines, Olsson’s general manager stated: 'In the end, all the roads towards reorganization led to this dead end: we did not have the money required to pay for product in advance, to collect reserves to buy for Christmas, and satisfy the demands of rent and operational costs. We were losing money just by staying open.'
"John Olsson, principal owner, Washington native and graduate of Catholic University had this to say, 'Although it is certainly a sad day for us, I can rejoice in all the great memories of my life in retail in Washington. I began at Discount Record Shop on Connecticut Avenue in the fall of 1958, and worked there until 1972 when I left to open my own record store at 1900 L Street. Along the way books were added, more locations, a couple thousand employees, and many thousands of customers. It was exhilarating. Through it all, our best and brightest served Washington’s best and brightest with love and distinction. I’m very proud of what we accomplished. My love and gratitude to all my employees, and special thanks to all those thousands of loyal customers.'"
After the announcement, Olsson's allowed people to weigh in on its blog -- and people wasted little time taking that opportunity. For those who care to take a peek, I'm response #344. To read everybody's thoughts, go here: http://www.olssons.com/blog/archives/1.
These are no small points in a nation where more than 1,000 bookstores closed between 2000 and 2007, leaving about 10,600 standing, according to the latest federal stats that I was able to unearth. Obviously, the growing popularity of e-books and the vicarious thrill of being able to buy an old favorite online has something to do with that figure.
I, for one, am not saying that trend's necessarily bad; e-books have given a lot of authors a new lease on life, one that I fully intend to explore, as well. And I've never been one to rhapsodize about "the good old days," and how wonderful they were, to the exclusion of everything going down today.
The reality is, those who don't want to give up and "go along with the program" will always have to fight for their fair share of real estate -- whether that struggle happens to occur on the air, onstage or at live events like the one that I just chronicled above. But if you feel that an idea's worth fighting for, you won't mind doing the legwork...as the late Rob Tyner once told me: "The only thing that goes with the flow is a dead fish."
John Olsson is gone, too. He died at 78 in October 2010, after a long battle with cancer. However, he left an imprint that won't ever be forgotten, one befitting the man who championed maverick talents like Eva Cassidy, and Danny Gatton. I saw that philosophy in action back in November 2003, and -- though we never met, nor spoke -- all I can say is, "John, thanks for making me feel at home."
Danny Gatton Corner
A WORD FROM THE MANAGEMENT: Now posted, from the previous incarnation of this website: "54 Hours In D.C." (below). To view older entries, just hit the "Archive" button, followed by the relevant headline link on each entry.