Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

At 40, Bananas Music is still selling vinyl like it's 1980

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ST. PETERSBURG — Michelle Allen tugs a stool to a shelf of Joan Baez. Up she stretches to a box at the top, her shop dogs Lexie and Evie nipping at each other down below.

"Let's see," she said. "This is alphabetical, so ... oh, here it is. One Day at a Time."

This is it, the record that started it all. She was shopping for books at a yard sale when she thumbed across it in a stack. It had that song she liked, Sweet Sir Galahad. But the woman would only sell her collection as a whole. Allen took a chance, lugged them to the bookstore she ran with her husband and priced them cheap. Every record sold.

They still sell One Day at a Time at St. Petersburg's Bananas Music, the vinyl music empire founded by Michelle and Doug Allen that celebrates its 40th anniversary on Saturday. If you want to know how Bananas has not only survived but thrived as the music industry has imploded and regenerated around it, this album is a good place to start.

"There's no real big hits on here," Michelle says, scanning the back. "Joan Baez does not sell."

"Oh, that depends," Doug chimes in, the dogs racing behind him. "The Taiwanese loved it.

Michelle explains: A distributor from Taiwan was in town a few years ago and bought $40,000 of records to sell overseas, including a lot of Joan Baez.

"One hundred and two 100-count boxes," Doug says.

CDs deteriorate. Digital music is worthless on the resale market. But old vinyl records aren't going anywhere. Properly stored, they will outlive us all.

• • •

To the organized and orderly, Bananas might feel like a waking nightmare.

Throughout its two retail stores and two warehouses — one semi-open to the public, the other the Allens haven't rifled through in 20 years — are mountains of boxes unopened, entire collections unsorted, crates and bins and stacks of dollar albums unalphabetized and unfindable. If Doug could snap his fingers and magically sort and catalog the more than 3 million items in his possession, he thinks he could quadruple his business. That will never happen, although it doesn't stop the Allens from working 10-hour days to try.

"A few years ago we were 15 years behind," Doug says. "We're probably 10 years behind now."

If, however, you don't mind slipping down rabbit holes and picking through crates of curiosities, there is no place like Bananas. Especially when you've got Doug or Michelle by your side. Doug can tell you about buying from Nat King Cole's old manager in Sun City Center, or the time he scraped through piles of "raw, petrified cat poop" to find rare jazz and blues from a hermit in Mount Dora.

Ironically, part of the reason Bananas has lasted 40 years selling a format once thought to be dead is that it has, in its own way, embraced the tides of change. Thirty years ago, the Allens got a $3,500, monochrome Epson computer from Sears, and logged in their most valuable inventory. The investment paid off almost immediately; within weeks, they were shipping LPs to Estonia. The Internet and mail-order component of their business has thrived ever since, enabling them to sell items that would never move in their high-traffic retail store at 22nd Avenue N.

There have been downturns, periods when it looked like Best Buy and Walmart would drive them out. In the late '80s, Bananas was grossing a million a year in sales. By the mid-2000s, with vinyl flatlining and digital music the coin of the realm, it was $300,000.


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But Bananas never stopped stockpiling. And when vinyl got hot again a decade ago, all this inventory paid off. Millennials started buying old records, in some cases the same ones their parents sold to Bananas: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Nina Simone. The day after Prince died, Bananas sold $2,000 worth of Prince.

As their competitors have died off, Bananas' sales are again nearing seven figures.

"I know we carry stuff that, if you were a true businessman, you probably wouldn't be doing that," Doug said. "But I always felt we were a full-service store."

Bananas just sold 30,000 picked-through 12-inch singles for $10,000 to a buyer in Mexico. For the longest time they couldn't sell classical albums at any price; offers to give them away were rebuffed. Now there are people — millennials, even — buying classical.

"We had a kid in last year, 14 years old, and he collected Perry Como records," Doug said. "I hadn't sold a Perry Como record in a long time."

• • •

Celebrities come to Bananas all the time. Jimmy Buffett, Burt Reynolds. Aziz Ansari. Sonic Youth. There was the day a big green limo pulled up, and out popped Def Leppard.

Instagram

Comic Aziz Ansari in Bananas Music in 2014. "Amazing spot," he wrote on Instagram.

 

The renowned musicologist Alan Lomax lived in Pinellas County toward the end of his life; for a minute it looked like Bananas might get a chance to buy his collection. But his estate didn't follow through.

"I think they decided to go to the Smithsonian," Doug said.

But there's a museum-like quality to Bananas, too. Doug collects vintage formats and audio oddities, "things that I thought nobody would ever see again if I sold it." In their retail warehouse on 16th Avenue N, there's a locked room he calls the Library. Here, he stashes his weirdest, most obscure records — rows of funeral dirges, frog and insect noises, medical lectures, bullfighting anthems and Satanic waltzes. He pulls out Ali and his Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, a recording in which Muhammad Ali advocates good dental hygiene alongside Frank Sinatra and Richie Havens.

"I guess there will not be enough time in my life to separate all of this stuff and get it done," he says. "I have some great, great stuff hidden away. Hopefully I'll get it out before..."

He trails off. Doug turns 70 on Saturday, Michelle will be 60 in August. She would like to scale back, travel more.

"Doug wants to do this every day until he dies," she says.

"I just don't want to work every day," he says. "If I sold the store, I'd probably open up a smaller store somewhere."

He's thought about taking all the stuff no one wants here and moving it a little farther north. Country albums, for example, don't sell in St. Petersburg. But perhaps in Tennessee...

"I'm not going anywhere," Michelle says. "I'm putting that on the record right now. Doug's going with his next wife. Not me."

For now, there is too much to sort, too much to stock. Somewhere there's another yard sale with one desirable record buried in a box. The Allens have to be there with an offer.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.


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