Talking to Gary Walker, you don't feel like you're speaking with the 80-year-old who's been master of Nashville's main supply of used music for the past 35 years. He jumps from idea to idea — like a needle skipping across a vintage LP marked "Check Condition" — touching on one business plan or concept and then another as they flow out of him at a dizzying rate, all the while staying focused on the central theme that he built his business on: "I'm a used-product person," he says. "I wouldn't even be selling new comic books if I didn't have to in order to stay in the comic book business. We built The Great Escape on used product."
A native of Missouri, Gary Walker was a 21-year-old college student who was writing songs and performing in his spare time when he placed the tune "Trademark" with one of the hottest honky-tonkers in Nashville, Carl Smith. Smith made the classic of hillbilly swagger and bravado a Top 10 hit in the summer of 1953, and the success of that record brought Walker to Music City. He continued to write songs for several years, composing Top 10 hits for Jim Reeves and Kitty Wells and having his songs recorded by Brenda Lee, Webb Pierce, Porter Wagoner and others. Eventually, Walker became a successful song plugger, a job that required artistic insight to match singers with songs, but also a hard-scrabble sense of salesmanship and the ability to close a deal — both qualities that would serve him when he left the music business.
By the early '70s, the music biz in Nashville was modernizing, and Walker realized it was time to move on. It was his teenage son Greg who provided the inspiration for his entry into a very different combination of art and commerce. "Greg got interested in collecting comic books," Walker says. "As I traveled, I would look for back issues. We found a store in Atlanta, Cantrell's, that sold old comics and used records, and when I saw the prices they were getting for them I started buying comics to resell part time."
The father-and-son team created a mobile operation selling comic books at flea markets, shows and conventions, quickly establishing themselves as major comic dealers in the Southeast. But after more than two years of working the funny-book circuit full time, Walker decided to launch a small shop at 1019 Division St. The Great Escape opened its doors on May 30, 1977. At first, the shop specialized in just comic books, movie memorabilia and sports cards, but Walker's past led to him back to music about six months after opening.
Walker had plenty of old records from years in the music business. "I took some to the flea market and some to the store, and wham!" Walker says. "It exploded as far as attention and sales. In three or four months we were 'the' record store." Walker soon found that proximity to Music Row brought in not only buyers but also sellers with huge collections of near-mint-condition vinyl. And whatever misgivings those in the music business had about used product were soon overcome by the store's strict anti-bootleg policy and their refusal to purchase promotional copies.
The success of that first shop soon led to the move to a bigger space just down the block at 1925 Broadway, but also to other stores — in Madison, Louisville, Ky., and Bowling Green, Ky. Multiple locations gave them greater buying and stocking power as each store developed its own area of specialization. Another advantage was having multiple product lines to cushion their sales in times of change, such as the major shift that occurred with the introduction of CDs in the late '80s.
"We were sure at the time we were out of business," Walker says. "We thought that people would want to keep their CDs." But they soon found that people were in fact eager to trade or sell CDs. "The '90s was the golden era of CDs, comic book sales and the Pokémon craze," Walker says. "But then the Internet turned everything upside-down." The past 10 years have played havoc with the used-and-collectibles business. From eBay effectively destroying the old pricing system for collectibles to file sharing and the rapid change of media for music, movies and video games, it has been a "wild ride," as Walker puts it.
But the greatest challenge of the past five years was the devastating flood of May 2010, followed by the loss of their flagship location on Broadway. The Great Escape at 5400 Charlotte Ave. had opened as a half-price store in 2008 in a 27,500-square-foot former bowling alley. The location housed the retail store, corporate offices, warehouse space for all stores, and eventually their online sales division. The unrelenting rains of May 1 and 2, 2010, created a lake in that section of Charlotte Avenue, breaking down the doors and sending a surge through the building that left fixtures floating in 2 to 3 feet of standing water and mud. "We lost half of our LP backup stock — 300,000 LPs or more which were irreplaceable," Walker says. That's not to mention all the other merchandise destroyed in the store or in the 15,000 square feet of warehouse space.
Despite a lack of insurance, Walker and his employees began a massive cleanup effort that led to the store reopening in just three months. In slightly over a year, however, the second blow came when an extreme increase in rent led to the closing of the flagship Broadway store. While the staff and shoppers miss the character and history of the Broadway location, the move to Charlotte has allowed The Great Escape to reinvent itself as a "superstore," with more room to display stock including vintage vinyl and a small selection of new.
The presence of new vinyl has allowed The Great Escape to take part in the annual Record Store Day, and this year's event resulted in the highest combined store sales for a single day in its entire 35-year history. People came for the new, but ended up buying even more of the used — results that pleased Walker, but also reinforced his vision of being "the place" for used records at good prices.
"The Great Escape started as 'the bargain store,' " Walker says. "The place where people go first to look. We're constantly scrambling on how to survive the next technological change that tries to put us out of business, but here we are having a great year, so we'll figure out a way."
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