40 years of vinyl dreams at Birmingham's Charlemagne Record Exchange

Saturday, 26 August 2017, 11:57:26 PM. Marian McKay started the business in 1977 with $500 and albums in five peach crates.

Take a walk up the stairs to Birmingham's Charlemagne Record Exchange on 11th Avenue South, and it's also a walk back - in time.

Marian McKay started the business in 1977 with $500 and albums in five peach crates. She's been selling and collecting music long enough to see vinyl eclipsed by the compact disc, and then reborn.

The decor ranges from vintage rock posters to funky reminders of the last four decades of pop culture. The music playing over the speakers may be McKay's favorites - Billie Holliday, Sam Cooke or Frank Sinatra. The Beatles share floor space with the latest in rap.

Now it's time to celebrate. Charlemagne's 40th anniversary celebration will happen Sept. 7 at Trim Tab Brewing Co. from 6 to 10 p.m. A pop up record store will be there, and prizes will be available by drawing.

McKay will perform with Her Mood Swings, along with Birmingham Nouveau Reinhardt.

McKay started in what is now the Garage Café. She had previously worked in the record department at Sears in Vestavia Hills, she said. Then she took a trip to Europe, and a stroll near Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris gave her the inspiration for her shop.

"There was a little boutique across from it," she remembered. "Inside, there was a woman ironing clothes and she had a little dog in a basket. I thought, this is what I want to do."

McKay took the name from Steely Dan's song "Kid Charlemagne," though she was later surprised to learn there is a statue of the Frankish king Charlemagne in front of Notre-Dame.

Three months after opening, she moved on Thanksgiving weekend to her present location. The neighborhood around has changed, as have the artists. Gone are McKay's two Cockapoos, Preté and Sonny. But the store's character is the same.

Charlemagne is still a family owned business, and those who come to thumb through the LPs can still find vintage copies of familiar favorites. There are also CDs, some books, T-shirts, cards, posters and other items.

Over the years, the store has been visited by Gene Simmons, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ani DeFranco, Robert Cray, Gary Busey, Brittany Howard and the members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, among others.

McKay said vinyl was on life support in the mid-80s, with the coming of the CD. But Record Store Day, an event conceived by independent shops about 10 years ago, has sparked a resurgence. There's also the Internet, which has led to a much larger clientele.

But McKay said she enjoys the in-store experience.

"I'm the one who likes to shop," she said. "Sometimes online, you don't know what you're getting. I like holding an album. It's a piece of art. It's tangible."

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