by Charlotte Burnod
The light brown awning beckons you in… Walls full of posters and concert flyers. Faded red velvet stairs.
Upstairs, inside, it’s warm, friendly, and unpretentious. A string of flags hangs from the ceiling in the center of the store. Shelves of records and music memorabilia hug the walls. Near the entrance, an old-timey Coke machine spits out glass bottles. A couch and the blanket thrown over it give Charlemagne Record Exchange a homey feel.
Organized by genre, customers dig through the boxes of records, look up, stoop down. Crates of dollar records abound on the floor. 45’s can be found in old fruit crates. A permanent garage sale, rummaging through CRE is essential to the full experience.
CRE opened in 1977 with Marian McKay, her brother Mike McKay, and Gary Bourgeois, who now owns Renaissance Records nearby. Medium length blond hair, with piercing light blue eyes, McKay has been interested in music since a young age.
“Dad was into Big Band and dance music, and then, you know, just growing up with the Beatles,” she said. “Then I moved to Mississippi and I heard ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ and I was just like, ‘I have to have a guitar’, got a guitar, and so started playing music. I was about 10.”
McKay is a jazz vocalist and can be seen and heard around town when she performs with her band.
While CRE has a small, carefully curated selection of new releases – the latest from Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend, for example – customers come for the records.
“The sound quality, the format, the art form, it seems that albums are more collectable whereas the CD doesn’t really bring you anything aesthetically pleasing.” Among McKay’s most treasured records are autographed Sam Cooke and Bo Diddley records.
The records come from customers selling or trading them. The limited retail space forces McKay to only take in rarer records, which makes for an eclectic and diverse inventory. She periodically donates items that have been in the store for a while.
While CRE has been in Five Points South for more than 35 years, the neighborhood has changed. A fire damaged the Studio Arts Building in 1986. The Waffle House used to be a motorcycle/biker bar.
“I used to think, ‘I’m going to cross the street and walk on the other side’ when I approached the bar… It was a little scary.” Charlemagne also underwent renovations in the 1980’s and people thought the store was closed.
Now, the music industry has picked up, despite the rise of MP3 downloads. Sales of vinyl records have gone up, and there has been a growing interest in this medium, especially among younger consumers.
Releases, often in limited edition, are exclusively made for Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent record stores in April.
“Every year, it’s been growing, we doubled what we did last year,” said McKay. According to employee Jubal Dalzell, the Bob Dylan 7” box set and the reissue of the White Stripes’ Elephant were both popular items that day. Dalzell has been a loyal customer at CRE for more than a decade before coming in one day, when CRE needed help. “I’ve been trapped here ever since,” joked Dalzell.
Alabama has a rich musical history and has produced artists such as Percy Sledge, Nat King Cole, Sun Ra and more recently Alabama Shakes. McKay has noticed that tourists come in asking for music from Alabama to bring back home. Closer to home, the Grenadines and singer-songwriter Gabriel Tajeu are just a few players in Birmingham’s musical scene.
“I was playing [Tajeu] and I sold three records in a day,” said McKay. “He brought us ten [copies] two weeks ago, and we sold five of them already,” chimed in Dalzell.
“You meet a lot of interesting people. People who are different,” said Sunny Oden, another employee. “It’s comforting to know that everyone is a little weird, even those who try hard not to show it.”
McKay is thankful for the support from the community.
“We couldn’t do it without our customers.”
Charlemagne Record Exchange is located at 1924 1/2 11th Ave S in Birmingham, Alabama.
To listen to a curated selection of songs from Alabamian artists mentioned in this article, click here.