SOUL SURVIVOR: Charlemagne Records still around after 40 years
By David Lazenby
About 40 years ago, not long after Marian McKay and her brother Mike deciding they were going to open a record store, but had not yet decided on the right name, the siblings were riding around in a 1970 Chevy Nova driven by her boyfriend, Gary Bourgeois, when they had an epiphany.
The trio was listening to an 8-track of Steely Dan’s latest album when the song “Kid Charlemagne” inspired their store’s moniker.
Today, many have no idea what an 8-track is and the independent used record store has become a relic from a bygone era.
However, the store started with five peach crates full of used albums and $500 is still around on 11th Avenue South in Birmingham.
To celebrate the store’s continued survival despite the revolution in the music industry that has made record stores rare, Charlemagne Records is holding a party from 6-10 p.m. on Thursday at Trim Tab Brewing Co. located at 2721 5th Ave. South in Birmingham’s Lakeview District.
McKay will not only be celebrating at the gala. She will also play music with her group, Marian McKay & Her Mood Swings.
Birmingham Nouveau Reinhardt will also play at the shindig.
McKay said these days her store represents more than just a place to purchase albums and other recordings.
“I think people think of Charlemagne Records as this historic place that has become integral in what makes Birmingham an interesting city,” she said.
The second-floor shop is decorated with band posters, show flyers and other art that was at one time typical ornamentation one might find in an independent record store.
McKay said she prides herself on her store’s customer service, which she said incorporates a pressure-free environment in which visitors can browse at their leisure, chat with others about music or just hang out.
McKay said she is also proud of her store’s section of music devoted to Alabama artists like Jason Isbell.
The little upstairs store has hosted several musicians during the last 40 years.
Among those who have performed music at Charlemagne Records include Dom Flemons, a former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The store also also has had many famous musicians who made guest appearances, including Shelby Lynne.
Before opening her shop, McKay was already working in the record business. While employed in the record section of the Sears store in Vestavia Hills, a customer asked for directions to the closest used record store.
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” she said.
McKay said in addition to the inspiration she received from Steely Dan, she was influenced to open her own shop during a trip to Paris where she encountered a woman who was ironing clothes at her own store where she had a small dog below her that was resting in a basket.
“I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” said McKay who added there have always been “store dogs” at her shop.
McKay said even though vinyl records became unpopular when everyone began buying their music on CDs, she said she is not surprised that the medium has made a comeback in recent years.
“It’s the ultimate art form,” McKay says about the album, citing its better sound quality and more expansive canvas for album cover art.
McKay said the invention of “Record Store Day,” an annual event held each April since 2007, helped keep stores like hers spinning.
In addition to celebrating independent record stores, McKay said Record Store Day gives businesses like hers an opportunity to sell a small number of albums that are pressed specifically to be sold during the annual event.
With the exception of a a three-month period when McKay’s store was located in a space that now serves as the home for Garage Café, an eatery on 10th Terrace South in Birmingham, Charlemagne Records has been in the same location during its 40-year run.