Apparently, one of the things that kept Pittsburghers going through the pandemic was record players (and records).
“As people were staying at home, we sold a ton of record players. At one point, you couldn’t keep them in stock,” says Josh Cozby, owner of the North Side record shop The Government Center. “There was definitely more demand for things that could make home a little bit more cozy and comfortable.”
The Government Center (named for a song by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers) quickly became a fixture on Pittsburgh’s music scene when it opened in early 2019. Pittsburgh is blessed with a number of terrific record stores, but this one stood out as a place that sold both new and used records in a dizzying array of genres — and wasn’t afraid to stock things that were offbeat or obscure.
Now, it’s expanding in a new space on East Street in Deutschtown, several blocks away from its original location on East Ohio Street. Cozby bought the building in 2019, which had been abandoned for a number of years. It was once a bar called Key West, and a flower shop, among other things.
It’s a big space — about 5,000 square feet — with two apartments above that are still being finished. The old space on East Ohio Street was about 1,800 square feet. The extra space will not only have room for more records, but it also will have a permanent stage for performances, a bar with food and an espresso shop. The record store and stage are open now. The espresso shop is coming in late fall, and the bar will open sometime after that.
The pandemic was obviously bad for business, but not enough to kill the shop.
“The support we got through the pandemic from the community was pretty robust,” says Cozby “In March through May 2020 it was hard to guess what was going on. We did a little bit of online sales, and we put [records] in the mail or dropped them on porches. Those were pretty lean months in terms of sales.
“Once we opened back up we were pretty busy. People made a conscious decision to support local businesses.”
The shop now has more room for what it does best — giving music fiends a place where they can find not just the big records of the moment (like the latest album by Phoebe Bridgers, which sold like crazy), but stuff that’s more off the beaten path. It’s a philosophy that puts the serendipitous discovery of hearing a new album in the store, or a purchase sparked by a conversation with a customer, ahead of simply “playing the hits.”
“Maybe there’ll be titles that if we wanted to focus on them, we would be able to sell 20 copies,” says Cozby. “But instead, we’re going to order three copies of that big seller and try to spread what we’re buying across a wider variety of different stuff — and things that, maybe, take a little bit longer to find the right person who wants to buy them.”
That kind of “organic music discovery” from human interaction, notes Cozby, beats having your music chosen for you by an algorithm.
“That’s, for me, what it’s all about,” he says.
The shop has a strong and growing selection of experimental music, avant-garde jazz and music from around the world. Though The Government Center buys all kinds of used records, Cozby especially seeks to have “affordable copies of the classics” as well as “indie stuff from the ‘90s, older New Wave, reggae stuff.”
Leaving East Ohio Street wasn’t an easy decision. Foot traffic there is growing. And with restaurants like Fig & Ash, Siempre Algo and The Coop Chicken & Waffles moving in, the number of vacancies is shrinking.
However, East Street nearby has a few advantages.
“There aren’t a lot of people walking up and down East Street but there are a lot of people driving past,” explains Cozby. “There’s a lot of cars that are waiting at the light there, to go up to 1-79, or waiting to get on (Route) 28. “So, I’m hopeful that those are some eyeballs that see the shop and go, ‘Oh, hey, there’s a record store there,’ and soon they’ll be saying, ‘Oh, there’s a place to get coffee there,’ and that will bring some folks in.”
The grand reopening is Aug. 20 with live in-store performances by Rave Ami, Brenda and The Gotobeds.