I would not be the person I am today without Record Alley. Since middle school (and before COVID-19’s arrival), I would take any chance I got to head to the mall and see what I could find in those sacred shelves and stacks.
I owe so much to the place Jim Stephens started; I bought my very first record there (as well as the majority of my next 100 records). I bought CDs by bands I knew, and took chances on CDs by bands I didn’t know, thanks to the wide selection of $2 bargains. I also nudged my way into the music scene by playing and attending many shows there.
After Jan. 18—perhaps sooner, if the inventory sells out before then—Record Alley will be no more. On Dec. 15, Stephens announced the store would be shutting its doors after more than 42 years.
Stephens told me that he began the business because, simply put, he had always wanted to work in a record store.
“I just thought it’d be cool,” Stephens said. “… I had no idea what I was doing. I just thought sitting around listening to music all day was a fun way to make money—but I soon realized keeping track of tens of thousands of items is a lot of work.”
The store originated in Palm Springs, on North Palm Canyon Drive.
“I lived here all my life and always thought the valley could use a good record store,” said Stephens. “Nobody was really serious about it. Right when we opened up, 12-inch singles started becoming really popular. We were the only place to carry them forever, and when the Sugarhill Gang got really popular, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ only came out on a 12-inch, and we were the only place you could get it.”
Of course, running any business comes with a steep learning curve.
“I’m an old rocker, ’60s/’70s music for sure,” he said. “… When I got my original record shipment, we actually rented a van and went down and picked it up and kind of made a weekend out of it. We were just kind of cruising … and went by the Roxy. This was probably late ’78, and Talking Heads was playing there. It was, like, half over, but we still bought tickets and went in to watch the end of it. … They’re kind of really strange. New wave music was just kind of starting off then, too, and we were really confused.
“I did not know what the hell I was doing when I started out; I just lived and learned. … I definitely didn’t know anything about punk, but everybody came in and started asking for it, so we quickly found some distributors and had an actual punk section—and people were just crazy over that. Metal started getting popular, so we added a metal section. People would ask for stuff, and we just started carrying it.
“When I opened, I thought that as long as I had a Beatles and Zeppelin section, I’d be good to go.”
Matt Olson is one of the employees at Record Alley—but he was a customer at the store long before he began working there.
“Record Alley was always my ‘gotta get out of the house and do something’ place to visit,” Olson said. “If I had lived closer to Westfield, I would surely have been one of the many regulars who popped in every day.
“It’s possibly the only store I’ve shopped at in the mall in the 20 years I’ve lived out here. It always has reminded me of the shops I’d drive hours to get to when I grew up on the Minnesota prairie.”
Olson understands the impact on people not only of music stores like Record Alley, but of music in general.
“Music is one subject I can talk about for hours,” said Olson. “It’s that one escape I need, especially during these times. Feeling a little out of place in the small town I was raised in, if I found someone with similar music interests, then that meant I’d probably found a new friend. Hearing a song that gives you goosebumps is still the best feeling ever.
“Lots of younger folks are getting into vinyl these days. Helping them pick out their first LP will be the thing I’ll miss the most. I know what a big step that is for the new vinyl fan.”
As the popularity of various genres changed over the years, so, too, did the formats for music consumption—much to the chagrin of Stephens.
“There were times we had to duplicate our inventory, and had to have the record, the 8-track, the cassette, etc., for all new releases,” said Stephens. “Finally, when CDs ruled back in the ’90s, I couldn’t be happier. Records warp and scratch; 8-tracks are crap. I had to send back 10 percent of what I bought because that’s how many defective 8-tracks I had.”
Pressures from other businesses forced Stephens to make a location change.
“It was a struggle in Palm Springs for sure,” Stephens said. “I was ready to close down in ’85 when Wherehouse Music came down here and opened two locations. Nobody down here was familiar with chain stores, and they just thought that was the biggest thing. (Wherehouse) came in the middle of the summer—the worst time ever—and they had a three-month blowout. They were basically giving stuff away; everything was like $5.99. I worried when they opened up. Things were just looking really bad.
“The mall was about two years old then, and there was this small chain called the Record Shop. They got locked out of their store because they didn’t pay their record bill. They came in with marshals, and they took all the records, CDs and tapes. … They left everything in there—racks, cash registers, you name it. I heard about the mall’s rent. I wasn’t going to go down there, but I said, ‘What have I got to lose?’ The place was all set up; all I had to do was change the sign. I made a deal with the mall and my distributor. I was flat broke, and it was right before Christmas. He extended my billing by 30 days, which freed up a lot of money. After we had a really good Christmas, we were out of the red and into the black from then on.”
Derek Wade Timmons is a member of various bands, including Throw the Goat. Not surprisingly, he’s a big fan of Record Alley.
“I’ve been here for 12 years, and I’ve been going there a lot the whole time,” he said. “Growing up, there were always CD stores at the mall, and since CDs have gotten so cheap, it’s always been awesome to go there and get them for $2. I’ve probably bought hundreds and hundreds of CDs and probably 100 records from that place.
“It was always really cool to go there and talk to Eleni (Austin), Dale (Myers) or anybody that’s worked there. It is just a real fun thing that I’m really going to miss. There’s pretty much no reason for me to go to the mall anymore.”
“One cool thing, too—I definitely have always left all of the (store) stickers on, because it was really nice that they were on the back, out of the way and said ‘Record Alley’ on them. The stickers help me remember where I got it from. I’ve probably bought a third of my collection from there, and it’s been mostly stuff that I bought on a whim—and fell in love with.”
Timmons has long been appreciative of the store’s love for local bands.
“They have Throw the Goat shirts and records, which is pretty great,” said Timmons. “I’ve even come across a couple of independently released local CDs.”
Record Alley thrived in the Westfield Palm Desert as all the chain record stores eventually died off—and it was the consensus top spot for music in the Coachella Valley for decades. There are a several reasons why the reign is coming to end—most importantly the health of Jim’s wife, Shelly.
“My wife is on biologic infusions, which weaken her immune system,” Stephens said. “That makes her susceptible to the coronavirus. We’ve pretty much been shut in, and we can’t take a chance. I just don’t know what would happen if she got COVID right now. We’re so active, and it’s just really slowed her down a lot, but she’s functional. Hopefully she can be functional for quite a while to come. We can’t work in the store for that reason.
“The mall is also a big issue. We’ve been year to year with them for the past five or six years. … They’re awful to deal with. They don’t realize that the mall’s not like Fast Times at Ridgemont High anymore. If you look at our end of the mall, it’s dark. I have no neighbors. We can’t even come to terms on the four months that we were shut down. Other places were offered three months free rent, or two months half rent—and we were not offered anything close to that. There were also clauses in there that said if the mall shuts down again, ‘We’re not offering any relief at all—you’re paying full rent.’”
Stephens said he’s thankful for his 42-plus years in business.
“I absolutely enjoyed it,” he said. “I was definitely a big part of the store, and I oversaw everything—worked in there, did this and that—but I only did what I had to. I never really had to work all that hard. Before the ’90s, I was working there full time, but I eventually got myself to where I could go in there just a couple of days a week and just tell everybody what we were doing and make sure the store was running. Once I felt that everything was running smooth, I didn’t really have to be in there.
“But at the same time, I need to be the extra person. Christmas comes along, and I’m working full time, because the hours of the mall were just crazy. The early 2000s were tough. I started to work a lot then, because the CD market collapsed. I was just struggling to keep those racks full. DVDs definitely helped out—something I never really wanted to get into. I always wanted to keep it a pure music store, and have everything music-related, but I needed to fill those racks, and when we started doing DVDs, we were the only place that sold them, really.”
While the physical location is coming to an end, Record Alley will continue to operate online.
“I’ve always sold stuff online,” Stephens said. “I have a hard time selling records for $100 to $200 in the store, so I started to sell them on Discogs. We have a much wider audience, and I’ve been very successful. I have over 500 listings right now. When I buy stuff, I’ll pick through it, and anything I can sell for more than $5, I’ll put on Discogs. Everything else, I’ll sell in quantities on eBay.”
Even the online endeavor comes with challenges—including the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl.
“People are not selling their vinyl like they used to,” said Stephens. “I used to buy large collections several times a year, and this year, I bought two. Our vinyl section has really shrunk this year, and I couldn’t even imagine what it would look like if we weren’t shut down for four months. … I’ll see listings on Craigslist, call them right away, and it’s gone. I’ll say, ‘I’ll come in at 10,’ and they’ll send me a message at 9 saying somebody already came and got them. Can I even take a shower?”