After 41 successful years in business, the truth about Doug Allen can now be told: He’s a pack rat.
“He’s a hoarder,” laughs Michelle Middleton Allen, his wife and partner in Bananas Music. “He’s worse than a pack rat.”
With an inventory of more than three million pre-owned vinyl records, Bananas is one of the largest aftermarket record stores in the world. The Allens operate a retail outlet, which also includes new product, plus a 6,500 square foot warehouse that’s wall-to-wall records, all carefully categorized, alphabetized and neatly stored on shelves.
In 2010, Rolling Stone listed Bananas on its list of The Best Record Stores in the USA. “There’s another warehouse across town that has collections in it we haven’t looked at in 20 years,” Doug says.
At one point in the 90s, the Allens – who keep careful ledgers – were spending $12,000 per month, buying records over the counter. “That,” Michelle says, “doesn’t include him going out and buying collections and stuff like that.”
The Allens survived the death of vinyl, 8-tracks and cassettes, as well as the 1980s’ ascendance of CDs. They sold used VHS tapes until nobody was buying any more. They bought and sold DVDs. At the height of the CD craze, they were grossing $1 million a year.
They adapted when CDs fell out of favor, and when vinyl became cool again, they were ready.
“When CDs came out, we made the decision to buy records heavily, because everybody was getting rid of them,” Doug says. “It’s like when baseball cards were a big thing – we thought ‘These are collectible, and they’re much better than baseball cards. You get to play them instead of just look at them.’ We traded people new CDs for their record collections.”
They’ve succeeded where so many others have failed, Michelle says, “because Doug and I work 10 hours a day, and we have for 41 years. And that’s what it takes. We don’t take a lot of money out of our business, never did. I really think that being here day to day is what makes it work.
“Somehow, we’ve always been able to keep a step ahead of where we needed to be, and we’ve also been good at re-inventing ourselves. So when the industry changed, we found a way to change in the right direction.”
They got married in the mid ‘70s, when Doug Allen was setting up air and water quality monitoring programs for the county, and Michelle Middleton was working for AllState Insurance.
They were both book nerds, and bought so many titles at garage sales, they took a chance and opened a tiny used-book storefront on Central Avenue. At first, it was only open on weekends, until they could afford to leave their day jobs.
After their son John was born, they avoided paying for daycare by setting up his playpen in the store (John, 39, now works behind the counter in the vinyl warehouse).
In those days, they didn’t give a lot of thought to records. At a yard sale one day, looking for books, there was a Joan Baez album in a stack of old albums. Michelle wanted it, but the lady would only sell the entire pile. So the Allens bought them all.
They put the other records in a corner of the book store, for a quarter apiece, and sold every one. “And before you knew it, we had more records than we had books,” Michelle remembers.
And so the book outlet became Allen’s Record Exchange. They sold every book they had to another dealer. At the old Bayfront Center, they played host to record conventions – buying, selling and networking with consumers, collectors and other retailers. They learned. And they came up with a long-term business plan.
Not everything has been a slam-dunk; there was that time she opened the door to a closet and found it filled, wall to wall, with camouflage jackets. “I thought we might open an Army/Navy store,” he said sheepishly. Michelle nipped that idea in the bud.
“We sold them all anyway,” Doug says with a smile.
Incorporated as Bananas in 1983 (the name was a homage to the “fruity-sounding” record stores of the age, Peaches, Strawberries and Coconuts), the store changed locations several times.
“Condition was always a factor for us,” Doug explains. “You can’t sell scratchy records. We had a good selection, and as much as we love rock ‘n’ roll, we tried to carry a lot of things outside of it, including classical and country and any number of things that made us a bit different from some of the other stores.”
Steadily, the inventory grew.
“We did buy heavily, but you’d get multiple copies of something that was good, and you couldn’t put 100 copies in a bin and run a store,” he says. “So we started packing them and marking what the boxes were. So that when we ran out, we could put more out. Problem is, we never really ran out of some of those titles.”
In 1986, they spent $3,500 on a primitive Epson computer from Sears. It soon became their best investment.
Doug explains: “You had to mark things down, because you’d buy fresh stuff all the time. We had one room of albums where the first couple of bins were $1, the next were 50 cents, and the next bins were a quarter. And that was by the door to the dumpster.
“I’m looking at the material and saying ‘There’s good stuff here – this is great music, great records. They don’t deserve this.’ So we started pulling titles and putting them in the computer, then putting them on shelves in the back, out of the way. The computer would alphabetize them for us.”
Before long, when somebody came looking for something obscure, they could find it on the computer. “The archives had 80,000 pieces when the Internet came along,” Doug says. “Three weeks later, we were selling stuff in Estonia. Serendipity got us through each step.”
Before the current resurgence of interest in vinyl, their mail order business kept Bananas afloat. These days, of course, millennials come to Bananas – and, of course, the other, newer record stores in town – for inexpensive used vinyl, as well as the new stuff.
They come in for the collectors’ market titles, too. “You’d be surprised how much they’ll pay for collectibles,” Michelle says. “It’s amazing. They’ll come in and want, say, a Rolling Stones album. It’ll be $44, and they’ll go ‘ummm …. OK. Put it on the card.’
“But the new vinyl – and I think the other stores will say this too – there’s no margin in that. There’s no returns on unsold product, at least not for us. I’m sure there is for the majors that sell new vinyl, like Barnes and Noble. But you can’t be a record store nowadays without carrying new vinyl.”
As always, the Allens are looking into the future. Another retail store is in the planning stages, this one specializing in singles (both 7- and 12-inch) and international albums. And they’re monitoring their used DVD sales, which have begun to wane. At some point, they say, they might stop selling them entirely.
“Is there really going to be a time where people never have to leave their houses?” Michelle asks. “The groceries are delivered, you buy your music online, you stream movies. It’s an awful thing to think about.”
Her husband is holding out hope. “But the browsing experience!” he says. “Whether it’s a book store or a record store, there’s still a lot of people who like to look and discover things.
“It’s harder to peruse a list on the computer than it is to flip through records.”