17112 Lorain Avenue
If you lived in West Park in the post–World War II economic boom years, where did you go to buy the latest Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Perry Como, or Dinah Shore record? There was no internet, no Walmart, and most of our local shopping centers had not yet been built. There was, however, a busy shopping district at Kamm’s Corners which included the Gilchrist Record Shop. At Gilchrist’s, you could peruse the racks of new recordings in their paper sleeves, choosing the latest release from the Capitol, Columbia, Decca, or RCA Victor record company. You could even sample the music in one of the listening booths before buying. If you needed a new phonograph, or “record player,” Gilchrist’s had those, too. For a generation of West Parkers, Gilchrist Record Shop was a combination music and social center.
Store owner James P. Gilchrist was born in Cleveland in 1916. His father, a Scottish immigrant and meat-cutter by trade, supported his family by operating a butcher shop. James grew up working in his father’s shop. By the 1930s, the Gilchrist family was living in Berea where James attended Berea High School. When he was in the 10th grade he met Ruth Ehrbar of Middleburg Heights. The couple was married in 1938. Both bride and groom were 21 years old. In the 1940s James and Ruth Gilchrist were living on Bradgate Avenue in Cleveland’s West Park Neighborhood. James was managing the deli department in a nearby Kroger’s grocery store when a chance occurrence changed the direction of his life.
“My husband always liked music,” says Ruth Gilchrist, now 97 years old. “Someone left a record in his store. No one knew who left it and there was no way to return it. He brought the record home but didn’t have anything to play it on. He went into a record shop at Kamm’s Corners to buy a little record player. And that’s how he decided to go into the record business. He bought the store!”
The establishment James Gilchrist visited on that fateful day was Kamm’s Record Shop owned by a local entrepreneur named Truman Stewart. Exactly what financial arrangements the two men made is not known but, by 1947, the business had reopened as the Gilchrist Record Shop at 17112 Lorain Avenue.*
“There were booths along the back of the store where customers could close the doors and privately listen to records,” recalls James P. Gilchrist, Jr., of Broadview Heights. “I remember Dad going in and making shelves and display cases. He usually made a trip downtown to pick up new records for the shop. Sometimes he’d have them delivered to the store by Yellow Cab. We were open 9 to 6 but closed at noon on Wednesday. Of course, back then no one worked on Sunday. After school, especially on Friday, the shop was full of high school kids. And everyone smoked! Even the students. At that time no one thought there was anything wrong with it. You’d get 4 or 5 kids smoking in there, listening to records, and you could hardly see the people.”
“Dad also sold televisions, radios, record players, and accessories,” James continues. “When TVs came out – maybe it was the first color TV – he had one turned on in the front window. People were standing around on the street watching it. My sister Gail worked at the shop more often but I helped out and occasionally I ran the counter. We had a glass display case with harmonicas, phonograph needles, and radios. I remember when transistor radios came out. They were still pretty big by today’s standards. Behind the counter we had a rack where we displayed the 45 rpm records, usually arranged by the top selling 10 or 25. Customers were welcome to take them into the booths and listen to them.”
“If I was invited to a party in those days they were hoping I’d bring records along,” laughs James. “Sometimes I’m not sure I was invited just for me. Once there was a Duncan Yo-yo demonstration at the Riverside Theater across the street. They announced the music was supplied by Gilchrist Record Shop and I felt like a hero!”
“My father enjoyed running the record store,” says James, “but he gave a lot of stuff away to close acquaintances and friends. Part of the reason it wasn’t a huge success was because of his generosity but the business definitely supported and fed us. Dad gave my sister a 1958 Chevy for graduation! But friendship was more important than profits.”
A few of our readers share their own memories of Gilchrist Record Shop. “I went there in the 1950s and 60s when I was going to John Marshall,” Barb Fischer of Toledo tells us. “I listened to the top songs from Elvis and Perry Como in the record booths. I didn’t always buy but I sure listened.”
“I started going to Gilchrist’s in 1957 or 58,” says Bill Shipman of Euclid. “I was probably in about fourth grade at OLA (Our Lady of Angels). You'd tell the guy what you wanted to hear and he’d pull a copy out of a labeled bin and hand it to you. My tastes then leaned toward Fats Domino and Little Richard. I always marveled that we could listen to records so often and never get tossed out. I also saw Father Ignatius from OLA there several times. He must have been a music fan.”
“A major influence on my music was Gilchrist Records at Kamm’s Corners,” relates West Parker Doug McCutcheon. “They had a listening booth where I would listen to records by the hour . . . Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith, and most of the other jazz and soul keyboardists of the era . . . I would even buy something once in a while but mostly I would listen to the records, try to figure out what they were playing, then hurry home – a two-mile walk – and try it on the piano before I forgot it.”
Doug McCutcheon went on to play with one of Cleveland’s greatest local bands, The Baskerville Hounds, performing at concerts with The Rolling Stones, Sonny & Cher, The Beach Boys and other top groups of the era. Doug still performs throughout Northeast Ohio with the immensely popular Swamp Boogie Band.
By the late 1950s, the Gilchrist Record Shop was feeling the effects of increasing competition. The opening of Westgate Mall at Fairview Park in 1954 pulled a lot of business away from Kamm’s Corners. Discount stores and drug stores also began to carry records, further cutting into the market. The outlook for family-owned record shops began to look increasingly bleak to James Gilchrist, Sr.
“My husband liked running the store,” says James’ wife Ruth, “but I think he just got to the point where he felt he could do better working for someone else. He went to work for Columbia Records as a salesman. He did some traveling but not far.”
“My father sold the store in 1959,” Jim Gilchrist, Jr., tells us. “He then did very well as a record distributor for Columbia Records. He sold three-hundred percent above his quota and won a Ford Mustang in 1965. He also won a trip to England. He later worked for Cleveland One Stop, another record distributor.”
The Gilchrist Record Shop continued in business under its new owner for several years. It closed for good in about 1963. In 1967 the store became the home of Dad’s Smoke Shop, which it remains to this day. If you happen to enjoy smoking a pipe or good cigar, Dad’s is said to be one of the friendliest, most atmospheric smoke shops in Cleveland.
James P. Gilchrist enjoyed many happy years of retirement with his wife and family. He passed away at 91 years of age on February 6th, 2008, a few months short of his 70th wedding anniversary. Today kids carry entire libraries of popular music on their hand-held gadgets. Record shops, with racks of albums and private listening booths, are now seen only in the movies.
*James Gilchrist purchased the Kamm’s Record business but not the business name. Kamm’s Record Shop apparently moved to downtown Elyria, Ohio, where it remained in business from the 1940s to about 1989, one of the last independent record stores in Northeast Ohio.
Click here to see Dad's Smoke Shop at Google Maps