The Allen’s have been in the business of making and selling music since the days of the big bands
It's hard to get Boyce Allen to stand still. He usually has many things on his agenda as he sets about his hurried flight around Allen Music. While taking photos for this article, Boyce relaxes for a few moments before the shop opens, picking his way through a song on a Martin guitar. After a few photos are snapped, his true love is revealed. "Now I just want to sit here and play," he says smiling.
Even though it's a weekday morning, there's no rest for Boyce. As soon as the door to Allen Music opens, customers enter. So back to work it is.
Boyce is a throwback in many ways. "I still love my vinyl. I was just listening to some of them this morning," he says, referring to his album collection. He's not a man of the hard sell, either. "In this business, you have tons of people who look, but they may not buy. That's ok. We want to treat everyone the same and value everyone who comes through that front door. When we can serve them down the road, we'll be ready." He also believes that service isn't just a tack-on to a business or a way to make extra buck, but it's part of what the customer should inherently receive. "It may be a big portion of the profits for a lot of folks, but I think it should just be complimentary to a person's experience here."
Many things have changed around Boyce since he started Allen Music in 1976. If you'd have caught a snapshot of the business just twenty years ago, you may have said it was outdated. Yet for all that has changed, things have remained steady and even come back around for this in-the-business-of-music man. In a time of e-commerce and big box stores, hands-on, personal service and an actual relationship with those you do business with is more than a novelty, it is refreshing. And vinyl is back in a big way, too.
Boyce's lead at the helm allowed Allen Music to be one of the oldest businesses in downtown Paducah. The family business goes all the way back to 1945 when Boyce's parents Annette and C.E. Allen opened Allen Sewing Machine Exchange. The store ended up on South 4th Street next to Leroy's Music Store, much to the pleasure of C.E. "He had a nine dollar Stella guitar," laughs Boyce, "and he loved to play that thing."
Boyce, who was influenced heavily by his sister's Elvis record collection, often used the guitar to play to imaginary audiences. At age eleven, he finally got his own. This one was electric. His life would never be the same. He formed a band called the Palisades and helped his mom sell a few guitars in the sewing machine shop after Leroy's closed in 1966. After graduation, Boyce wound up working at Friendly Finance, but he still helped his mom who, after the passing of her husband, renamed the business Allen's Sewing Machine & Music Co.
By 1976, Boyce had a decision to make. Mrs. Allen wouldn't be able to carry the business forever, and his sister was already running another well-known family business, Price's Barbecue. Boyce decided to quit Friendly Finance and go back to the store he grew up in. "I think my father-in-law thought I was crazy!" laughs Boyce.
"I was running the shop all day and teaching lessons in the evening," he says. "It was a lot of fun and a lot of work." His wife Cheryl soon joined him, and by 1995 they'd moved to 218 Kentucky Avenue in search of more space. By then, his daily routine of hectic walks around the shop were intrenched. "Chaos!" he laughs. "There's a word you can use in your story." It was during that time he learned that he couldn't do it alone. Employees were hired, and, most importantly, another generation of the Allen family came on board.
Son Brandon, who'd already been doing most of the guitar lessons, took over the day-to-day operations of Allen, which is perfectly fine with Boyce. The addition of Brandon hasn't slowed him down, but it has allowed him to focus on an aspect of the business he loves: service and repair. "Here's my bench where I come to get away," he says as he shows me around his upstairs office. He sits down to install a bridge on a brand new cello. He's flanked by a stack of vinyl albums, an Eric Clapton poster, and a signed 8×10 of the Ink Spots. Oldies and classic rock are playing on the radio. "I am much more conservative than Brandon is," admits Boyce, "and this business needs him to move forward."
Already the business has expanded to teaching lessons across many different instruments, not just guitars. Church PA installations, band instrument repair, and instrument set-up are common fare. And Internet business now makes up a good portion of sales. But Allen's still has its own vibrant personality that keeps many coming in and coming in often.
"We are tremendously blessed," says Brandon. "God has been so good to us." There is no doubt the talent of Brandon will take Allen Music in new and exciting directions, but, like with any great landmark business, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For Allen's, and for Paducah, it’s a way of life that really strikes a beautiful chord.