In many ways, the folks who own and work in record stores are some of the most important keepers of recorded music history.
Digital music helped wipe out the big chains. Thankfully we still have mom and pop indie shops. They’ve kept the torches burning for genres that predate streaming, for artists that never had mainstream success — or ones whose work was never reissued — for sourcing rarities from unexpected places, and for rolling with the times, while still holding reverence for what came before.
About 90 minutes east of Pittsburgh is George’s Song Shop, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is believed to be the oldest record store in America. First opened nearly nine decades ago in 1932 by brothers Eugene and Bernie George, the store’s current owner John George (no relation) has been behind the counter for six of them.
“We’re the oldest record store in the United States,” says George, who was sifting through stacks of newly-acquired 1980’s metal, when SPIN reached him by phone.
And the secret behind that 90-year longevity — 60 of which have been under George’s care?
“Basically, I’ve always had a motto. It used to be on my bags when I had printed bags. It always said, ‘If we don’t have it, nobody does.’ And I try to live by that,” George says. “I’ve got millions of records, and people looking for records know to come here because there’s a better chance of finding it here then probably most places.”
George does recognize where he stands, however, in the record books.
“There’s one over in Ireland. [It’s Spiller Records, and it’s actually in Wales. But to be fair, it’s still the United Kingdom.] It’s supposedly older than us, but has changed ownership about 10 times. So, I really don’t know the complete details about that store, but they’ve been around longer than us. I think they’ve been open and closed a few times, but we’re the oldest in the United States, no doubt about that.
“A second oldest one is somewhere in New Jersey. They’re like two years behind.”
That somewhere in New Jersey is Cliffside Park.
Joan Demarest literally grew up in the record store she owns and now works in — Music Country. Her father Anthony Taliaferro, opened it in 1934, in the very same spot it resides now, under the name Taliaferro Radio & Electric. Elvis Presley came in once, while Demarest was the only one working, and bought a record player. That’s all she had to say about that.
“This is the store my father opened up in 193. And we say, we have never found any other store, exactly the same age. So that’s why I call it the oldest record store. For years and years we’ve been researching. And this is the original store; it hasn’t moved. It’s small. It’s not a big giant store. [We’re] just in a neighborhood and we don’t even own the building, but we’ve only had two different landlords in 87 years.
“We’ve been here — the store’s been here, just my father passed naturally — since 1934. And this store is still the same. I mean, selling records all those years.”
Although the store’s name changed with the times, it’s still a family business. Demarest credits Music Country’s survival to understanding what works for her customers.
“We try not to overdo anything. We never enlarged,” Demarest says. “And you have to know what to order for a small store. You can’t just go by what you like. You have to go by what people want. [You have to] know how people feel about things, and what’s important, and then know about music, all different types of music, not just one type.”
It’s that attitude that has made Music Country more than a store. It’s a destination, a place to casually peruse the orderly stock, ask for a recommendation, or have a chat about music (all varieties of folk are Demarest’s favorite).
“It’s a great place to be around. Being around the music, basically, and people come in, and we talk, and we have fun. We have a good time,” she says. “How much better could it be — to be surrounded by music all day?”
At George’s Records, doo-wop is owner George’s personal favorite, but he’s basically a docent of most music genres, and his shop like a vast — and buyable — archive.
“We try to have a little bit of everything here,” he says. “I mean, we’re jam packed. We have probably two million 45s, just to give you an [idea]. I don’t know how many albums we’ve got because I never counted, but it’s probably in the neighborhood of 200,000 albums.”
Among the rarities that have passed through George’s Song Shop’s doors are a handful of 45s that went for $5,000 a piece, though he notes he doesn’t remember the names. “They’re so odd that I can’t recall the title anymore.
“I look for the unusual, like heavy metal albums as an example,” he says of some of his current acquisitions. “We’re just going through a batch of heavy metal albums I just picked up yesterday. Most of the stuff is from the mid ‘80s, late ‘80s And it’s mostly artists that a lot of people don’t know.”
There are rarities, too, at Music Country, including one Demarest plans to never part with.
“I remember finding something on the wall years ago. There was an original promo of Bill Haley and His Comets from maybe 1955 my father had Scotch taped on the wall somewhere,” she shares. “And so, I took that off and I kept that.”