My entry into the world of record collecting began as chain record stores were successfully expanding throughout the Atlanta area. The Philadelphia-based Franklin Music arrived in 1971, opening in Perimeter Mall. In 1975 the California-based Peaches Records opened their first Atlanta store on Peachtree Street. 1976 saw the very first location of Oz Records open in Buckhead. However, none of those chains could claim the impressive success that Turtle’s Records & Tapes experienced in Atlanta’s music retail scene.
Turtle’s Records & Tapes was founded by Al Levenson who already had twenty years of experience in the wholesale music distribution industry. Al’s financial partner was his uncle Milton Saul whose background was actually in the clothing apparel industry. During his collage years Al’s nickname was “Turtle,” so the new venture was launched as Turtle’s Records & Tapes. Al appointed Joe Martin as general manager (and eventually vice-president) of the chain, and Unger Associates to handle their advertising.
The first Turtle’s location opened in June of 1977 in the Belmont Hills Shopping Center in Smyrna. The second store followed in Hawthorne Plaza in Mableton and in October, the third, and largest store opened in the Northeast Plaza Shopping Center on Buford Highway.
The color motif chosen to decorate the stores was a simple but distinctive yellow, green and red (green for the carpet and yellow for the walls and counters).
My first visit to Turtle’s was in 1977 at the new Northeast Plaza store. Northeast Plaza had a JCPenny outlet store that my father liked to shop at. This made it easy for me to tag along and head over to Turtle’s. The Northeast Plaza Turtle’s was the chain’s flagship store and also their largest. It was definitely the biggest record store I had ever been to so far.
I don’t know if my memory is correct on this, but I seem to remember passing through a turnstile that counted the customers at the entrance. In 1980, this Turtle’s would add a glassed-in room at the rear of the store to create a separate listening area for the Classical music shoppers from the rest of the store. The sound-proof room was popular with the classical music shoppers and would also be a feature in a few other future Turtle’s locations.
Turtle’s had an impressive inventory of budget LP’s. These would be displayed in wall racks on one side of a store. Turtle’s display walls became known as the “Great Wall of Values.” The Northeast Plaza store had an exceptionally high ceiling. This was used to great advantage when in 1980, that location supersized their cut-out vinyl inventory and introduced “The Stacks”. This was rows of albums along the wall that were displayed so high that the average person could not reach the top rows without some assistance. It was the biggest cathedral of cut-outs I have ever seen.
The strategy that Levenson employed for the Turtle’s chain was to avoid the high rent spaces of the malls, choosing instead to locate his stores in strip centers, ideally the ones that would be convenient to shoppers in areas of new population growth or strip centers that served as satellites to major malls. Levenson estimated that the savings on store rent could be passed on to the customer by allowing Turtle’s to sell current album releases as low as one or two dollars below their competition.
The Turtle’s stores were stocked from the Turtle’s warehouse located in Chamblee off Peachtree Industrial Blvd. This central location made it easy for the stores to receive inventory quickly when needed. On occasion, warehouse and office employees were given the task of dropping off stock at store locations on their way home from work.
Another goal Levenson aimed for was expansion of the chain. He intended to open five new stores a year. Each store would remain a modest size (aside from the larger Northeast Plaza store) as he figured music shoppers would choose the convenience and ease of a smaller neighborhood store in a plaza, as opposed to driving into town to visit the supermarket-sized Peaches or Oz Records, or venture into a mall. By the time of Turtle’s second anniversary, they were operating ten stores.
Turtle’s created a fun incentive for shoppers to make their music purchases at their locations, in the form of the Turtle’s Saving Stamps program. Customers received Turtle’s stamps with each purchase made. I usually received one or two stamps when purchasing a 45, and even more when I purchased an LP or tape.
Every Wednesday, customers received double stamps. Sometimes the cashier would pull the stamps from the dispenser in such a way that I would receive an additional half-stamp which I would also save. The stamps could then be licked and stuck to a Turtle’s Savings Stamp booklet. If I remember correctly, the original booklets had three or four panels to fill up with stamps. Once you had all of the panels filled with stamps you could trade your booklet in for five dollars of store credit (which was usually the price of a new release album at Turtle’s when I began shopping there). Later they added more panels to the booklet.
In 1978 Turtles introduced their Golden Gift Medallion. It was basically a gift certificate, but they were more fun to give or receive than a traditional paper certificate because they were actually small metal, record-shaped medallions. These were sold with a small custom-sized yellow envelope which was just big enough for the medallion to slip into.
During the year 1982, Peaches closed down its Atlanta store. Oz Records was operating three Atlanta stores and attempting to regain their footing after their Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the closing of their grand Buckhead store. Meanwhile, Turtle’s opened more locations and took in 30 million dollars.
By May of 1983, Turtles had grown to 26 locations. At this time Levenson and Saul decided to sell the chain to Clinton Holdings, a New York-based investment company. Even though they sold the chain, Levenson, the rest of the management team and the store employees would retain their roles in operation of the stores.
The success of Turtle’s continued and the chain continued to expand. By 1989, Turtle’s had opened stores in Florida, Alabama, and Tennesse. Sales of recorded music had shifted away from vinyl records to compact discs which by the start of the 1990’s, would become the dominant format. Turtle’s had also entered into the home movie rental business. Now their music inventory would have to share the space with multiple copies of rental VHS tapes.
As the 1980’s drew to a close, Turtle’s had grown to 114 locations. In October of 1989, the Turtle’s chain was sold to Super Club North America which was the company that owned the Record Bar and Tracks Music chains. Tower Records finally came to Atlanta and opened their huge superstore the following month, on the edge of Lennox Mall. The music retail industry was changing again. A new model of music/video/entertainment superstore was emerging.
In 1991, Al Levenson resigned as the president of Turtle’s, and the following year Turtle’s opened their very own entertainment superstore. It was christened Turtle’s Rhythm and Views. Ironically it was on Peachtree Street, just a few blocks away from where the giant Peaches Records once stood ten years earlier.
The brand-new Rythm and Views store was 17,000 square feet (3000 more than Tower Records’ Superstore at Lennox). The sleek and futuristic store featured video monitors suspended from the ceiling, listening kiosks, a play area for kids in the children’s section, and a stage for in-store concerts. It was most likely the biggest record store Atlanta has ever had. After this, Super Club began to open large Turtle’s stores inside malls.
The new Turtle’s Rhythm and Views staged regular in-store promotional appearances by artists as they came to Atlanta. In 1993 I went to see the band Squeeze, who were touring behind their album “Some Fantastic Place.” The back wall of the stage had a display promoting the Rod Stewart CD “Unplugged.” The display consisted of a picture of Rod Stewart and one of Ron Wood from the “Unplugged “CD cover. These pictures were blown up and mounted on dry board. They must have been close to eight feet tall. During the Squeeze performance, the picture of Rod Stewart decided to come lose and tip over on top of drummer Pete Thomas. The band all got a giggle out of Rod stage crashing Pete and his drums.
In 1993 Blockbuster Video purchased Super Club. Blockbuster had already purchased the Sound Warehouse chain, and with the Super Club acquisition, Blockbuster now owned Turtle’s, Record Bar and Tracks. In 1994 they decided to convert all of those stores into Blockbuster Music stores.
I still continued to shop at all of the familiar locations but along with the LP’s, the 45’s, and the savings stamps, the original Turtle’s vibe had quietly slipped away forever.
The Turtle’s Locations I Liked to Go To
Because of their high visibility and large number of locations, some people compared the Turtle’s chain to McDonald’s, including Levenson himself. Even though the stores were uniform in their fixtures, decor, advertising and product line, each Turtle’s store still somehow managed to have a little bit of its own personality. I visited as many of the stores I could but a few of them became my regular music sources for almost two decades.
Cromwell Square/Sandy Springs Plaza
This location (Turtle’s 9th store) opened in in Cromwell Plaza on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs during April of 1979. A few years later, the store moved up the street a few blocks to Sandy Springs Plaza. My father worked from an office only a couple of blocks away from Cromwell Plaza. Sometimes if he had an appointment at the office on weekends, I could ride with him and then walk over to Turtle’s. Later as an adult, I worked across the street from Sandy Springs Plaza. It was near home also, so this became my go-to store for many years.
I received my only Turtle’s T-shirt at the grand opening of the Cromwell Plaza store. It had the Turtle’s logo on the front and advertised Tycoon’s “Such A Woman” album on the back. Unfortunately, I wore it out decades ago. It was at this store that I would place special orders for 8-track tape titles that I wanted to play on my G.E. “Loudmouth” portable tape player.
When the store moved to Sandy Springs Plaza it increased its size and then later moved into an even larger space a couple of doors down.
The Roswell Village store (Turtle’s 18th) opened in February of 1981. At this time, the school I was attending was located directly behind Roswell Village Shopping Center. This meant I had very easy access to shop for records right after school – especially fun on new release day. Ironically this shopping center was the same one that had once been the home of The Village Record Shoppe.
I shopped this store during my last two years of school. I liked to purchase Chu-Bops which were mini album replicas with record-shaped bubblegum inside. They sold these from a small display on the front counter and on occasion an employee would open one of these just for the gum and save the mini album cover to give to me when I would show up after school.
When 8-track tape cartridges began to be phased out in 1982, Turtle’s had large selections for only .99 cents. I remember purchasing quite a few at the Roswell Village store that were displayed on a large table display near the front of the store in the spring and early summer of 1982. Little did I know that a year later I would be listening to a different tape format on a new device called a Walkman.
Northeast Plaza/Buford Highway
One of my most favorite features of the Northeast Plaza store was the incredible display of picture disc records. This collection belonged to Al’s son Jeff Levenson and was mounted in frames that were placed in rows high on the wall up above the merchandise. I had never seen that many picture discs in one place before and I remember standing fascinated, studying them all. There were some discs there that I would never see anywhere else (until decades later with the internet).
The Northeast Plaza store also had a very well-stocked section of import LP’s. They also had a fascinating selection of older warehouse stock they called “The Collector’s Corner.” These LP’s were long out of print titles that were of interest to collectors.
In March of 1985, when their lease expired, the Northeast Plaza store was relocated to the old Steak ‘N Shake building down the street. Jeff Levenson’s picture disc collection did not go to the new store. Although I missed gazing at the picture discs, I still continued to shop at the location whenever I was in that area. The unique feature at this store was that the old Steak ‘N Shake drive-through window was still intact. Although they didn’t use it for anything, this was the only record store I know of to have one.
The Belmont Hills store was located on the south end of the Belmont Hills shopping center strip. It was Turtle’s first store. My father liked to go to Bellmont Hills shopping center because it had Sears and JC Penny outlet stores. So, while he shopped those, I would explore the goodies at Turtle’s. Later as an adult, I lived in Smyrna, so this (along with the Akers Mill store) became my go-to branch of Turtle’s. It wasn’t a very big store, but it had full windows on two sides and had a very open and bright feeling.
The Chamblee Plaza store opened in January of 1983 as Turtle’s 25th location and also their outlet store. This store was the closest one to the Turtle’s warehouse and someone once told me that this was the reason this store was chosen to be the outlet. It was set up like the other stores with the same fixtures and inventory, but the difference at this location was their budget section towards the rear of the store. It was always filled with unique items at clearance prices. Many albums were priced at .99 cents. I purchased picture discs (some of them imports) for just $4.99 and also the Turtle-shaped E.P. by The Turtles.