A pilgrimage to its doors requires perseverance, even if you have the address, because the place remains hidden within a maze of dead-end streets, in a faded industrial park tucked between some railroad tracks and a quiet residential neighborhood where no one would dream of looking for one of the planet's biggest record stores.
"If you found us," says Doug Allen, grinning behind the front counter of Bananas Music, "you must be serious."
Home to an estimated 3-million records — unofficially the largest selection in the country — Bananas occupies two anonymous warehouses. Climb the unpainted metal stairs to the second-floor entrance. Walk past the sign that says Hippies use backdoor. Scratch the head of Shelby, the bandanna-wearing black Lab who serves as the official greeter. Gaze down the long corridor stretching dimly into the distance, branching into who knows how many subcorridors, each crowded with high shelves full of 33s and 78s and box after box of 45s — so much vinyl, so many lifetimes of listening, it seems like you've stepped through the gates of infinity.
Many utter an astonished oath the first time they enter. Others, overcome with ecstasy, just nod toward Doug and his wife, Michelle, who opened the store three decades ago and have barely sat down since.
"You need some help?" both say, almost at the same time. They're one of those couples who complete each other's sentences.
"Tell your joke," says Michelle.
"Married for 32 years," says Doug. "Seventeen of them happily married."
Bananas is hopping today. One of their regulars is roaming the R&B aisles, hunting for the 11-minute version of Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up. Internet orders are pouring in from the United Kingdom and Brazil and Australia. Someone else is on the phone, looking for a Tiny Tim song called Hello Hello.
In the middle of the blissful chaos, Doug puts a 78 on the turntable. As the needle slips into the groove, you hear a slight hiss and then a guitar and then the trembling voice of John Lee Hooker.
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet.
Hooker's voice crawls straight inside you. He recorded these lines 50 years ago, but it feels like he's in the room right now.
Hard times, hard times.
Hard times seem like it's here to stay.
Somehow, the song is both devastating and gorgeous. As it fills you up, Doug studies your face. Already he's debating what to play you next.
Maybe you heard: Hundreds of record stores around the United States just staged a celebration to announce that they aren't dead yet. In a fit of divine inspiration, they called it — yes — Record Store Day.
From San Francisco to New York to Tampa, stores joined in and got Metallica and other bands to make personal appearances. Others, including Chuck Berry and Paul McCartney, offered testimonials about the wonders of entering a record store, instead of just downloading a bunch of soulless 0's and 1's.
Cameron Crowe, the filmmaker and former Rolling Stone reporter, described record stores in spiritual terms:
It's the soul of discovery, and the place where you can always return for that mighty buzz. The posters. The imports. The magazines. The discerning clerks, paid in vinyl, professors of the groove. Long live that first step inside, when the music envelops you and you can't help it. You walk up to the counter and ask the question that begins the journey — "what is that you're playing?"
The funny thing is, Doug and Michelle Allen — two of our most distinguished professors of the groove — weren't even aware of the festivities. The people who organized Record Store Day didn't notify Bananas, apparently because they had no idea it exists.
"Never heard of 'em! Ever!" Don Van Cleave, the president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, said during a phone interview.
According to Van Cleave, the largest independent record store in the United States — as far as he has always understood — is Amoeba Music, a trio of massive outlets in California. In sheer floor space, the three stores dwarf Bananas. But in terms of selection, especially vinyl, Bananas seems to have the edge. One of Amoeba's owners, reached the other day, said the three stores offer roughly 2.4-million records, CDs and DVDs — more than half a million short of what Doug and Michelle estimate they're carrying.
Still, there's really no comparison between the two stores. Both are music lovers' dreams, but offer entirely different experiences. Amoeba is like a super-sized version of most record stores: rock gods staring from posters, the clicking chorus of customers flipping through CDs in a sea of waist-high bins. Plus, the stores occupy some of the most fabled real estate on earth — Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, Sunset Boulevard.
Bananas is located — write this down — at 2226 16th Ave. N, an unglamorous corner of St. Petersburg. The Allens have had different locations over the years, but today they're based in the twin warehouses, which sit just west of the interstate, behind the back fences of a Home Depot and near a city sanitation center crowded with trash bins and garbage trucks.
"We prefer to think of it as an artistic neighborhood," says Doug. "It's the Paris of the South."
And yet the faithful find their way, sometimes from the far side of the globe. Vinyl addicts from Japan fly into Tampa International and then use GPS devices to guide them on the winding path to the front door.
First-time visitors are often overwhelmed. Walking through the narrow corridors, they catch glimpses of album covers they haven't seen in decades, hints of melodies they haven't heard since childhood. The Partridge Family album you and your little sister adored? The Tommy Roe single, Jam Up Jelly Tight, the one that inspired you to invent your own "dance step" — left leg firmly planted, right leg wildly twitching — in seventh grade? The 45 of Smokey Robinson's The Tears of a Clown, which played over the PA system one flawless winter afternoon in Indiana, almost 40 years ago, when you were ice-skating with all your friends on the lake?
Even without checking, you know that every song in the soundtrack of your life is here, or that the Allens can get it for you. Even more striking, as you walk through the warehouses, is the sense of how many other people's memories are contained on these shelves. Music others loved before you were born. Music ready to live in you now, resurrected.
Every available inch of space overflows with music. Two of the four stalls in the bathroom downstairs are full of 45s. The store contains multitudes within multitudes: piles of 78s, three boxes of bullfighting music, entire shelves of Sinatra, an album of loon calls from a Canadian lake, a recording of a seance where someone attempts to summon the ghost of Elvis.
In one of the aisles near the front desk, the Allens keep boxes of the old phonograph cylinders invented by Thomas Edison more than 100 years ago. Doug and Michelle don't recommend listening, though. Edison may have been a genius, but he would never have cracked the Top 40.
"He was deaf," says Doug, "and he had bad taste."
Such judgments are rare from the Allens. Usually they refrain from commenting on their customers' tastes. Even the request for the Tiny Tim song is handled without a smirk.
Although business has slowed since the '90s, the Allens report that Bananas still grosses close to $300,000 a year. Roughly half their business is walk-ins. The rest comes from online sales through their Web site, musicfinder.com.
When they're not working, what kind of music do the Allens love to play?
"Everything," says Doug. "I have a Top 10,000."
Doug is partial to Bing Crosby, Alison Krauss, Nat King Cole, the Beatles, Jethro Tull. Michelle loves Sam Cooke and still swoons for Yes, whose trippy songs used to thrill her as a kid when she'd listen on quadraphonic headphones during thunderstorms.
Doug says no to Yes. When his wife plays their albums, he abandons the facade of nonjudgment.
"I actually leave the room."
All afternoon, the two of them play more music for you. John Fogerty, a big band group called Kid King's Combo, a blues singer named Mable John.
Just before you go, Doug takes you back in time with another 78. It's Basin Street Blues, released on Decca in 1938. Louis Armstrong calls with his trumpet, and his voice takes over, and then the room disappears.
Now Basin Street is the street
Where the folks, they all meet
In New Orleans
In the land of dreams
Thomas French can be reached at (727) 893-8486 or [email protected]