The glory days of Tupelo’s remaining record store were the ‘70s and ‘80s, when customers piled into Album Alley to snag the latest releases.
Those days are over, and they’re not coming back.
“I probably foresee … I mean, we are a dying breed,” said Barbara Bullard, 54, co-founder and manager of Album Alley. “If it keeps going in this direction, it’ll be the end. Unless something drastic happens, unless the Internet explodes.”
Bullard was 13 when she started working for a music store at Tupelo’s Downtown Mall, where the BancorpSouth Arena is today.
The opportunity to spend her days listening to and selling music must have felt like bliss for the young music fan. She’s partial to Bruce Springsteen, but willing to give other artists the chance to impress.
“I can open up an album and not feel anything right off the bat,” Bullard said. “Two weeks down the road, it’ll have a meaning to it. It hits you.”
Bullard found her calling at that record store, and it got her entrepreneurial juices flowing. She and a co-worker decided to start Album Alley at the Tupelo Mall on South Gloster Street in 1978. Five years later, the business moved across Varsity Street, where it stands today.
“We used to have five or six employees back in the day,” Bullard said. “We’re it now. It’s just us.”
She was referring to herself and Johnny Holland, 52, of Tupelo, who’s been at the store for 25 years.
“I’ve done my time,” he said.
“We have both done our time,” Bullard added.
Despite insecurities about the future, they’d like to do more time. They’re making a go of it, anyway.
Bullard and her partner sold out to a larger company years ago, then that company ran into trouble.
“Toward the end with them, we weren’t getting any inventory, they weren’t paying the bills, we weren’t getting paid,” Bullard said. “Little hints like that.”
She contacted a buddy in Texas who agreed to buy the business and keep the store afloat. She descibed him as “a silent partner.”
“No, it’s not Willie Nelson,” she said of the iconic country singer from the Lone Star State.
The arrangement with the backer, whoever he might be, seems to be working.
“I guess he’s making money,” Bullard said. “He pays the bills and pays us. I know it’s not a big money-maker for him.”
The Internet probably won’t explode. It’ll keep changing life for people in subtle and profound ways. It’s caused seismic shifts for the old-fashioned record store.
“With the Internet, one kid buys it and burns copies for 12 other people,” Bullard said. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s not worth it for the artists to put music out anymore. They don’t make money on it.”
But not everyone has adapted to the new ways, and they’re the people who keep Album Alley in business.
“We’ve had customers that have been with us since we started,” Bullard said. “They’d rather come to a record store that is a record store. They want people who know about music. If we don’t have it, we’ll get it.”
Album Alley primarily deals in CDs, but there are throwback customers who prefer actual albums.
“I don’t stock them but I do order them for customers,” Bullard said. “They call it vinyl these days. They don’t call them ‘albums.’”
A vinyl copy of “Beatles for Sale” sat on a rack recently. A customer ordered it and didn’t pick it up. It was next to Sigmund Freud and Ludwig van Beethoven action figures, which were next to Tupac Shakur pint glasses and a Notorious B.I.G. coffee mug. The store also carries mood rings, fragrance oils and incense.
A relatively big seller is the flying monkey that Bullard demonstrated by pulling back its rubber arms and shooting it across the store. It screamed throughout the flight before landing in a heap of CDs.
“People love the flying monkey,” she said. “I’m sold out. I need to order more.”
From the back of the store, she pulled out several dust-covered 8-track tapes. They’re not for sale. At least, they’re not for sale for the $1.99 price tags that were put on them years ago.
“That won’t do it,” Bullard said. “If they want to put down some money, we’ll talk.”
As far as CDs are concerned, rap music is the biggest seller, though there’s also a sense that anything goes.
“You’ll have someone purchase a country CD and then that same person will purchase a rap CD. You can’t pinpoint what people will want coming through the door. People listen to all different kinds,” Bullard said. “Used to, someone could come in and say, ‘I need a present for a 14-year-old.’ Now, you don’t know. They could be listening to Buddy Holly or Mindless Behavior.”
About half of the store’s profits come from selling CDs, and the other half come from serving as a Ticketmaster outlet. The store sells tickets to concerts, NFL football games and other events that take place around the Southeast. Customers usually stop by the store to buy tickets, but not always.
“We have people who buy tickets online and pick them up here,” Holland said. “They’re more comfortable having the tickets in their hands than having them mailed to them or waiting at the venue.”
The pair at Album Alley adapt where they can, but they understand that many of their customers are as old-school as they are.
“There will always be a group of people who want to have a CD, or whatever the next form is, in their hands,” Holland said.
Then again, purchasing music over the Internet might someday become an act of nostalgia.
“They say they’re going to put computer chips in us someday,” Holland said. “Maybe they’ll put music chips in us. We’ll download what we want to hear right into our brains.”
The future awaits, while the glory days of the past are long gone. For now, Holland and Bullard stand on shaky ground and try to enjoy the ride.
“What else are you going to do?” Holland said. “Just go with it.”
“Just live with it,” Bullard said, “and do the best we can every day.”
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M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal