Pittsburgh record collectors ready to make a deal with Brazilian businessman

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Jerry Weber says that if Zero Freitas wants to check another Pittsburgh record collection, the door is open at Jerry’s Records on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

Mr. Freitas, featured in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, is a 62-year-old Brazilian magnate whose mission is to collect as much of the world’s precious vinyl as he can get his hands on. As the story noted, the businessman, whose family made its fortune with a private bus line, has been buying huge collections from “aging record executives and retired music critics.”

Late last year, he purchased the famed Record Rama archive of 3 million LPs and 45s that former store owner Paul Mawhinney housed in a Penn Hills warehouse. Mr. Mawhinney had been trying to sell his collection since the late ’90s and came close a number of times, nearly striking a deal with the Library of Congress and then again with an eBay auction.

The records, sold at an undisclosed price, were shipped to Brazil where they are being cataloged by interns with the plan for a future library with listening stations.

“I couldn’t find anyone in the States to take them,” Mr. Mawhinney says. “I tried for more than 10 years.”

He put a premium on selling the collection as one meticulously cataloged piece rather than breaking it into parts. “I wanted to make sure that it was preserved for future generations.”

Mr. Mawhinney says the deal was arranged through Mr. Freitas’ New York buyer Allan Bastos and he never met Mr. Freitas, despite trying to reach out to the Sao Paulo-based music lover.

“I heard whispers about [Mr. Freitas] for years,” Mr. Weber says. “He was a little sneaky about it. He didn’t want people to know what he was doing.”

Mr. Weber doesn’t see the exit of all that vinyl — 1 million LPs and 2 million singles — as a great loss to Pittsburgh.

“I’m sorry to see the records leave, it’s kind of sad that they’re leaving our country to go to Brazil, but those records have been out of circulation. We weren’t allowed to look at them, they were too expensive to buy.”

Mr. Weber, who owns 2.5 million albums between his store and warehouse and has been featured on “best record store lists” as well as on the A&E show “Hoarders,” admits that he’s a bit jealous of the Brazilian operation, which he estimates at around 8 million pieces.

Not surprisingly, he’s conflicted about his collection, built over three decades, saying, “I don’t want to sell them to Brazil. I’m patriotic. I think people in Pittsburgh should be able to hear them. But I’d have to be a fool not to do it.”

He has five grandchildren, he said, and “my kids would never forgive me” if he passed on a deal like that.

Nonetheless, Pittsburghers shouldn’t worry too much about the disappearance of Jerry’s, because collecting is in his blood.

“I just turned 66, so I’ve got four, five years,” he laughs. “I would start all over again. The way I buy records, I could build it back up in no time.”

Fred Bohn, owner of the 34-year-old Attic Records, said he has no interest in selling his Millvale store, which will become his son Fred Jr.’s, but would consider moving his private collection.

“I have a personal collection that is way, way out there. Probably worth 10 times as much as Paul’s inventory — records that are valued at $10,000 just for one 45. He didn’t have any of that kind of stuff.”

Many of them are rarities that collectors covet like one-of-a-kind singles by the Pelicans, the Rhythm Casters and the Magic Tones. Like Mr. Weber, he has millions of pieces of vinyl between his store and warehouse.

“I’ve been collecting these records since I was a kid,” he says. “Every penny that I ever got just goes into my records.”

Mr. Mawhinney, who launched his archive in 1968 and published the “MusicMaster: The 45 RPM Record Directory” in 1983, was the same way. And now the huge collection is gone in exchange for plenty of cash to pay for his bills and for his retirement.

But his work is not done.

“I’m going to be 75 and I’m still truckin’,” he says. “I work on the computer every day, eight hours a day.”

His mission is maintaining and expanding the Record Rama database, cataloging the history of recorded music.

“I’m updating the computer and researching the artists and label histories,” he says. “I’ve been doing it most of my life and I still haven’t scratched the surface.”

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2576 or on Twitter @scottmervis_pg.

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