October 13, 2005
Record Alley remodels
by Michelle Theriault - Desert Sun
Don Chappell fondly recalls being a teenager 22 years ago, having a little money in his pocket and riding a bike over to see owner Jim Stephens at The Record Alley in downtown Palm Springs.
"He'd have the new releases, and he'd have stuff that nobody else would have," said Chappell, a Palm Springs resident and longtime customer who now has a collection of more than 700 vinyl records.
It seems some things never change.
"Now my kids go there, and I still collect vinyl," Chappell said of the family's almost weekly trips to The Record Alley, which is now located on the lower level of Westfield Palm Desert shopping center.
As hundreds of independent record stores nationwide shut their doors, The Record Alley has optimistically signed a 10-year lease and has embarked on a $100,000-plus renovation.
Stephens and his wife, Michelle, believe investing that much to remodel their store will improve merchandising, boost inventory and keep loyal customers coming back at a time when big-box discounters and online competition are squeezing the mom-and-pop record stores.
"It was time," Jim Stephens said of the nearly 30-year-old independent record store's remodeling effort, which includes new carpet, sleek metallic walls and a stylish, revamped entryway.
"We'll be constantly reinventing the store over the next few years," said the Stephenses, both Palm Springs natives who feels fortunate to have turned their love of music into lifelong careers.
Jim Stephens opened his record shop in 1978 in downtown Palm Springs and later moved to the mall, all the time steadily building a loyal customer base.
The store will continue to set itself apart by relying heavily on longtime employees such as Dale Myers, whose wealth of knowledge about music is reason enough for many customers to frequent the store.
"I'm getting ready for my 11th Christmas," Myers said as he answered another customer's phone inquiry.
Heather Pitts is a two-year employee and musician who plays her own mix of rock and folk songs and enjoys meeting so many valley music lovers.
The Record Alley employees' collective knowledge about hip-hop, rock, jazz and other music genres complement one another, Jim Stephens said.
Myers and Pitts are among younger employees helping to usher in a new look and feel for The Record Alley. The store will maintain its vast selection of new and used vinyl records, CDs and DVDs, but employees are helping add other music-related merchandise, from Rolling Stones ashtrays to Pink Floyd visors and Depeche Mode T-shirts.
Jim Stephens will continue focusing his attention on finding a big selection of music from specialized distributors.
"I've always felt that if somebody asks for something, we just get it," he said. "Our biggest attribute is our selection. We carry underground music on CD as well as vinyl."
Oftentimes, that means selling new bands' music before many people have ever heard of them.
"I remember selling Metallica's first record years before they signed to Electra," Jim Stephens said.
By analyzing trends and keeping close tabs on the industry, The Record Alley has stood the test of time as other record stores have fallen by the wayside in the Coachella Valley.
"In the beginning, it was only the small mom-and-pops, but then in 1984, Wherehouse (Records) opened and chain stores became my biggest competition," Jim Stephens said.
Nowadays, the biggest competition comes from big-box stores that sell CDs at low prices and from legal and illegal downloading. In the past three years, some 900 independent stores have gone out of business, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a Studio City-based market research company.
CD sales dipped 25 percent between 1999 and 2005, according to the Washington, D.C.-based trade group Record Industry Association of America. Even big names such as Musicland Holding Corp. and Tower Records have seen hard times.
The Record Alley is aggressively stocking up and looking ahead to the future. It has even begun selling baby clothes, and response has been good, Jim Stephens said.
"Picture your baby in Bob Marley onesies," he said.
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