There was no shortage of record stores in the Magic City, 1977 being still years away from the advent of the compact disc, but there was no record exchange where a music lover weary of his current trove could swap his albums for others. Gary Bourgeois had seen such a thing when he visited the legendary Rasputin Records in Berkeley, then while traveling in Europe with Marian McKay, the two, inspired by the laid-back operation of a funky Paris dress shop, decided on an alternative to business as usual.
Marian’s brother Mike completed the corporate underpinnings of what would be a decidedly uncorporate enterprise, and not long after starting out at the Garages, Charlemagne moved to its present location, upstairs at 1924 ½ 11th Avenue South, where it has outlasted the mightiest megastores to become practically the last record store standing in these parts.
To celebrate 32 years of proud anachronism, the folks at Charlemagne are inviting you to a party Sunday night, seven till 10, at their original stomping grounds, where the Garage Café now shelters the culturally sensible. Instead of scratchy records, the air will be filled with the music of Marian McKay and Her Mood Swings, a charming name for a record store mogul’s musical side project.
One of the reasons Charlemagne has lasted is the expertise of Jimmy Griffin, who, as long as Ben Windham stays in Tuscaloosa, is the most formidable music savant in this area code. It’s not just that Mr. Griffin knows his stuff — Gary used to say, “We have this big book in the back that we can look up songs in, but it’s faster to ask Jimmy” — but he loves his stuff, offering musical opinions shaped by decades of discerning listening.
Asked about the enterprise Monday afternoon, Jimmy offered that, “Record sales are up. Albums are actually outselling CDs in some instances.” As an economic indicator, he noted that the ratio of trades to sales these days is about one to 10, then, as a cultural indicator, he mentioned that Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore had dropped by recently (browsing for electronic music and obscurities) as had Pavement’s Mark Ibold (copping a copy of Brenton Wood’s immortal “Oogum Boogum Song”).
Charlemagne doesn’t have a website per se, though it does have a MySpace page on which the store is characterized as a 32 year-old woman, and with that ambivalent attitude toward all things cyber, Jimmy said that he’s happy to execute online searches for customers lacking Internet access. Service seems to be a key to success: “I think stores like this one, or Renaissance Records — it’s like having a good waiter.”
Renaissance? Well, we did say Charlemagne’s practically the last record store standing.
In fact, Renaissance is right down the block from Charlemagne at 2020 11th Avenue South, where the latter’s co-founder Gary Bourgeois opened it in 2003. Gary had departed retail to become an English instructor at Miles College in 2001, but apparently he couldn’t get the Southside or polyvinyl chloride out of his bloodstream altogether. Now he’s infected his wife, Shirley, with his enthusiasm for selling great old music.
Renaissance Records, like Charlemagne, offers an extraordinarily eclectic array of albums, discs and cultural gee-gaws, and it, like its predecessor, is also having a party for you to attend this weekend.
“Ours is sort of a mid-summer celebration,” Gary grins. “The guy who used to run the 22nd Street Jazz Café where Charlemagne had some parties has a place called Level 2, which is the old Herzing Institute space on Highland Avenue. We’re gonna get all the old-timers together there, ‘cause the only time we get to see each other seems to be at the Western Supermarket. Shoot, it’ll be fun.”
The Renaissance celebration will be Friday night from eight till midnight, with the Dan Turner Band bluesing things up around 10. Gary welcomes everyone, but cautions, “There might be a few people pushing wood.” Yes, chess players, that notoriously unpredictable social caste, are likely to be on hand, because, as aficionado Gary observes, “You can play chess in the middle of a Pink Floyd concert if you want to.”
One might think two such similar concerns as Charlemagne and Renaissance to be locked in commercial struggle for the finite pool of local record-buying bucks, but these stores seem complementary as well as complimentary. “We talk daily,” says Gary, while Jimmy actually tipped us off to the Renaissance event to make sure Gary’s shop would get a plug.
Perhaps it’s because they’re in no danger of being swallowed up by a multinational corporation, but I suspect that being part of a larger music community minimizes the need for cutthroat capitalism between these former partners. The solitary act of listening tends to blossom into a communal experience of sharing where the classic music of the 20th century is involved, which might explain why its stylings still hold such strong sway over a new century.
Another intangible could explain the anomaly, says Jimmy Griffin: “Buddy Holly infused pop music with fun. Then the Beatles came along, and if you listen to their first records, they’re literally having fun, not leaving anybody out of the experience. And so we’re trying to make retail fun again.”
In case you came in late: Renaissance Records Mid-Summer Celebration, Friday 8-10 p.m. at Level 2 on Highland Avenue next to Twist and Shout. Charlemagne Records 32nd anniversary, Sunday night 7-10 at The Garage Café, 2304 10th Terrace South. No cover for either gala, but food and beverages will be on sale at each venue.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.