Birmingham’s Charlemagne Record Exchange is 42 years old. Here’s why we love it.

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Who hasn't browsed the used records at Birmingham's Charlemagne Record Exchange?
Southside’s Charlemagne Record Exchange has been Birmingham’s favorite used record store since 1977. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

How many people in Birmingham first fell in love with the vibe of record stores at Charlemagne Record Exchange?

Since 1977, Charlemagne has been a haven for recorded music and those who like to trade it. It’s hosted countless famous musicians, and introduced generations the joys of recorded music.

Charlemagne had its roots in Paris and Berkeley

A hand written sign reads "please ask to use the turntable."
A hand written sign reads “Please ask to use the turntable.” Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

Marian McKay Rosato remembered how they got the idea for the store:

“My partner at the time, Gary Bourgeois and I went to Europe, and I really enjoyed the shops over in Paris. We went to a little boutique across the street from Notre Dame, and there was a young lady ironing clothes and there was a little dachshund under the ironing board. I had dogs and wanted a shop with a shop dog. We did have dogs for years and years.

When we came home, I met someone who’d just moved from Cincinnati. They asked ‘where’s your used record store?’ and told us the workings of how that happened. We went to visit Rasputin Records in Berkeley—and came back with a stack of albums.

My brother Mike McKay, my partner Gary and I pooled our resources together and started Charlemagne.

Charlemagne had humble beginnings

A box of used records at Charlemagne Record Exchange in Birmingham.
A box of used records. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

“We started out with five peach crates full of albums and $500. Back then, buying and trading used records was a new concept in Alabama.”

“First, we started trading and building our collection. The store was at the Garages on 10th Terrace South and moved to our current location that same year.”

Charlemagne was the first place in Birmingham where you could trade records or get used records. Before streaming music came along, this was a big deal.

Charlemagne—in the heart of Southside since 1977

Charlemagne's been in the heart of Southside since 1977.
Charlemagne’s been at its current location almost since the beginning. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

Birmingham received the new venture with open arms. According to Rosato, “It was great. We’ve met all kinds of people through Charlemagne that we’ve long been friends with. We’ve been doing this for 42 years this July. It’s been very well received and we have enjoyed it.”

Charlemagne’s iconic steps have introduced generations to the joys of vinyl

Charlemagne's iconic steps have introduced generations to the joys of vinyl.
These stairs . . . Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

“Now a lot of my friends’ grandkids are coming in, and I’m a great-grandmother!”

Charlemagne’s customers love the vibe

A selection of classics at Charlemagne.
A selection of classics at Charlemagne. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

I asked Rosato what the customers like most about the place. She responded: “Just the whole vibe in here. This building was built in 1918. There was a residence upstairs and a Lebanese grocery store downstairs. It’s a very homey atmosphere. Meeting people and sharing music is such a wonderful way to pass the time of day.”

A few of Marian McKay Rosato’s favorite things

Marian McKay Rosato of Charlemagne Record Exchange, holding an expensive item from the store.
Marian McKay Rosato holding one of the most expensive items in the store. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

Favorite memory—met my husband Frank Rosato here.

Best customer storyCarlos Santana came up to the store. He was playing at City Stages and was looking for an African artist named Baaba Maal. We didn’t have it. While he was shopping with his band members, the mail came in. A lot of times we would get promos, and there was the artist he was looking for. I said “this must belong to you,” and I gave it to him. He played it before his performance at City Stages.

Famous customers—A lot of famous people have come up! Gary Busey, Warren Zevon, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Waits . . . lots of fond memories. 

Favorite Bham musicians—the people that I play with. I’m also a jazz vocalist and play around town.

Favorite Birmingham pianist – Choko Aiken. 

Favorite jazz musiciansBillie Holliday, Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke

Favorite place to play music—I’ve been really enjoying playing at Elyton Hotel on the rooftop.


Rosato closed by saying this:

“My customers have been so great to support us all these years. We get to meet new people every day and get to listen to music. It’s a wonderful community kind of experience, being part of this area of town and being part of music.”

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Author: Sharron Mendel Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference