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The day the music dies: NRM workers bemoan loss of a company they loved and couldn't leave

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Once a week or so, Frank Fischer stops by the flagship National Record Mart store on Forbes Avenue, Downtown. It's a stop that, starting next week, he won't have to make anymore.

"I was there for the birth," said the former president of Pittsburgh's hometown record chain. "I might as well be there for the funeral."

Tomorrow will end the store's going-out-of-business sale. And over at the bankrupt retailer's headquarters and distribution center in Carnegie, strangers showed up this week to carry out fixtures and furniture. When Janice Wyrostek came back from lunch Wednesday, "There was a sold sign on my chair."

It's depressing for Wyrostek, a former box office manager now serving as the receptionist, and other longtime employees, some of whom stuck with the company for decades, even after its founding family sold to outside investors. Many dreamed of a white knight who would buy NRM's assets and save some of what was built over 60-plus years. But, pushed into bankruptcy by creditors and by slumping sales in a competitive market, National Record Mart couldn't pull off a comeback.

"There's no salvation at this point," said Fischer, a Highland Park resident who started washing windows at one of the stores in 1951 and left management in 1994.

It sure was a lot of fun while it lasted.

From a tiny used-record store founded in 1937, the business grew to become the fourth-largest specialty retailer of prerecorded music in the country by the late 1990s, employing 1,200. Its buyers brought the latest music to the masses -- from Frank Sinatra and Perry Como to the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Bruce Springsteen and N'Sync.

The ticket offices witnessed bleary-eyed fans who camped out all night to get the best seats.

The staff collected stories of irate fans -- the one that reached through the tiny hole in the window and hit a staff member with an umbrella or the frustrated guy who sprayed everyone with the fire extinguisher.

Sometimes employees got to meet the stars, either at post-concert parties or in-store promotions that might crush a few records in their wake.

Kids took sales jobs so they could earn money listening to the latest music. Some never left. The common refrain: "I grew up there."

Jitterbug roots

Jason Shapiro, a former co-owner, grew up there, too. He was only in high school when his two older brothers, Sam and Howard, began buying up used records that weren't popular enough anymore to convince diner patrons to put a nickel in the jukebox.

"A lot of people wanted to get rid of them," he remembered. The Shapiro brothers paid very little or even picked records up for free, then sold them three for 35 cents.

They set up shop at 424 Wood St., a tiny space at the corner of what were then Diamond and Wood streets. Diamond has since become Forbes. Business was so brisk, a distributor suggested they add new records.

Not long after, they cut back on used discs and created a foreign and classical record department on the second floor. Ethnically rich Pittsburgh wanted music from the homeland, everything from Croatian, Polish and Russian to German and Italian.

The original name -- Jitterbug Record Mart -- didn't mean much anymore, so they changed it to National Record Mart.

They opened a second location in chichi East Liberty. "People used to pull up with chauffeur-driven cars," said Shapiro.

Then all three brothers went off to World War II, while their father, Hyman, and the other brothers' wives tended the stores.

After the war, Pittsburgh bustled. On a Saturday night, crowds on Downtown Diamond Street echoed those on 42nd Street in New York City. A store could stay open until midnight and make money.

The Shapiros kept adding locations Downtown. At one point, they had six. "Some people on Liberty Avenue never got to Wood Street," recalled Jason Shapiro, whose brothers both died four years ago.

Coats and ties were the dress code, an important distinction where vice presidents of Gulf Oil or Mellon Bank might rub elbows in the aisles at lunch time.

Classical fans might ask for recommendations on which recording of the same Handel piece was better. Shapiro concedes he'd favor the one he had in the store.

For popular music, the stores hosted regular broadcasts by on-air radio announcer Art Pallan.

As shopping centers grew in the suburbs, National Record Mart followed. Locations opened in South Hills Village and Northway Mall. They also began running record departments inside department stores.

British Invasion

In 1964, concert promoter Tim Tormey asked the Shapiros to help bring a big concert to town. As Jason Shapiro remembers the conversation, Tormey said, "Look, I have this group that's going to be the greatest thing that ever happened."

But they had to agree to wire $5,000 to some guy in New York. They didn't usually do that, but they decided to go for it.

Ticket sales for the concert were handled by mail order. The show sold out in one day. For years, a picture of Sam's daughter, Barbara Shapiro, standing with John, Paul, Ringo and George hung at National Record Mart headquarters.

The Beatles changed what customers wanted to see in the stores. Music began to have more of a message. The groups became as important as the actual songs.

The Fab Four also helped established The Record Mart -- as longtime employees refer to their company -- as a ticket location. The traffic that the fans created was so valuable, they went years before adding a service charge.

In the 1960s, many communities didn't have what is now considered a traditional music store. Especially in smaller places, people might shop for records at the local five-and-dime.

Frank Fischer, who had come back after getting an education degree, started to establish new stores. "This was exciting for me because it was like carrying the gospel."

When they opened a store in Beckley, W.Va., an album called "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" played over the sound system. Sales went so crazy, even the manufacturer called to see what was up.

The Shapiros' policy was to grow within a tight geographic area. When Fischer called headquarters from a site-scoping visit to Charleston, W.Va., Jason Shapiro asked what he was doing all the way down there.

Even in 1975, the company's 38 stores were within a four-hour drive of Pittsburgh. Sales had reached about $11 million, and the Downtown headquarters was feeling the strain.

The Forbes Avenue building served as both retail site and warehouse facility. Trucks delivered cartons of albums that were then sent by conveyor belt into the basement. Orders had to be packed at night and then shipped through the store to the delivery trucks.

In 1978, they bought a new headquarters out on Baum Boulevard.

Kids today

The music business was all about having the right records.

Jim Grimes, who would later become a vice president with the company, was one of the many young staff members over the years who cued management into a hot trend. He'd urged them to get into the oldies right around when that wave hit.

Jason Shapiro reached a point where he didn't like the best sellers. He made an exception for the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack from the movie featuring John Travolta. "We sold thousands of that album. You couldn't get enough of them." He liked the movie, too.

If the Record Mart depended on its people to know what would sell, it depended on advertising to build relationships with the big radio stations who helped bring customers in.

"They were the ones who, quote, 'made the records,' " said Grimes, who now owns dry-cleaning stores in Butler County. "If kids didn't hear them, they didn't exist."

Even then music-only stores had to have more choices than anyone else. Merchants such as Kmart or G.C. Murphy's would carry the top 30 or 150 sellers at loss-leader prices.

By the mid-1980s, National Record Mart had more than 70 stores and a decision to make. Officials could see if the next generation wanted to take over or they could try to sell the business.

Competition for mall spaces had become so intense, landlords were basically auctioning sites off to the highest bidder. Teens who used to listen to music for hours could now play video games or watch movies on video or even get into the computer for awhile.

The family had issues, too. With eight cousins of varying interests and personalities, the Shapiro brothers decided to see if any offers came in.

One day, a man named William A. Teitelbaum showed up at the Baum Boulevard headquarters. An investment banker with Bear Stearns & Co., he'd been looking for the right buying opportunity. National Record Mart was sold to his investment group in 1986.

The party's over

The atmosphere changed. The family business became something different, more formal. Teitelbaum lived out of state, giving an absentee feel to his leadership.

Expansion became critical as part of the preparations to take the company public. Eventually, National Record Mart stores could be found in Hawaii and Guam. By 1998, NRM had more than 160 stores and $112.5 million in sales. Growth meant new sales but it also meant taking on debt.

That made NRM vulnerable when the industry changed. Discounters such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy offered low, low prices. Young music fans learned how to download off the Internet.

Some argue the chain could have survived if it hadn't grown so large, if it hadn't taken on so much debt, if it had found a specialty instead of trying to serve the mass market. But other traditional music stores have fallen, too, under the weight of the changes.

Lisa Jo Castagnola, a 20-year employee still famous for trying to start a Prince fan club in the 1980s, left last year when she decided the end was near. Now she's in the music department at the Barnes & Noble store at the Waterfront.

"I still can't believe it's not going to exist with the other people that sell music."

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