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Where can you go to find the most unique counter-culture items in America?

That would be The Alley, located in Chicago, IL, of course. The store has over 40 years of rich history and has supplied generations of rock n’ roll, goth, and punk lovers. Started in 1971 by Mark Thomas when he was just 17 years old, the founding of The Alley has one of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard…

The Rise of the The Alley

In 1971, 17-year-old Mark’s family was going through tough times and could no longer afford his private school tuition. After being thrown out of school for being unable to pay the bill, Mark met a man who sold jewelry. Inspired, Mark decided to use the $1725 savings bond his parents had accumulated for his college education to begin his own jewelry casting business. Every day, Mark and his friends would come home from school and go straight to the garage to make jewelry until 7pm. Although his parents had wanted their son to become a doctor or lawyer, Mark liked the idea of entrepreneurship. As the years passed, Mark became increasingly influenced by the revolutionary events of the 1970s and became known as the “King of Paraphernalia.” His business endeavors also began to shift to focus on more unique items like funky-colored hair dye, leather motorcycle jackets, and Doc Martens (he was one of the first people in the country to sell the iconic black boots!).

Today, The Alley prides itself on carrying the coolest and rarest biker, punk, and rock items in its 12,000 square feet space. One can find just about anything from belt buckles, leather goods, to crazy home decor in the store. In fact, Mark frequently travels all over the world to find the most unique items he can for his customers.

A Visit to the Circus

Although he has 40 years of experience with running businesses, things aren’t necessarily easier for Mark – he tells me frankly that if he had the chance to do it all over again, he probably would have stayed on the “straight and narrow line” and become a lawyer like his parents had wanted him to be. The competition in retail industry today is simply too high, especially when brick and mortar stores have to compete with online giants like Amazon. To combat this problem, however, he makes sure to bring something to his customers that the internet just can’t: a special experience. A visit to The Alley is like a visit to the circus – there is entertainment along with merchandise being sold.

Still, Mark tells me dismally that today’s business atmosphere is more suited for opening restaurants than retail stores. Someone wanting to be successful with retail must be selling something extremely unique (what he calls “niche items”) that are hard to find at chain stores. To compete with stores like Target and Walmart, The Alley has been selling their own screenprinted t-shirts for $10.95.

The Alley’s FiveStars Story

When asked what marketing strategies have worked best for his store, the first thing Mark tells me is that he doesn’t believe social media bring a good return on investment (ROI) for small businesses. To my surprise, he tells me that advertisements on bus benches have actually worked remarkably well for them! As he explains it, people repetitively see bus benches and it reminds potential customers that the store exists. In addition to that, every time a customer is rung up, they are asked how they heard about The Alley. This helps Mark and his team decide which marketing channels are working and which channels aren’t useful.

For over a decade, employees at The Alley have been collecting customer emails in order to send out coupons and promotions. Mark realized FiveStars would be able to help bring up the percentage of people who gave out emails because of how it easy it was to sign a customer up for a loyalty card. Of all the FiveStars features available, Mark tells me his favorite is the ability to text his customers. He has realized that texting has become more important than any other form of advertising for his business – they send out almost 20,000 text messages a month! As Mark puts it, texting allows The Alley to “get directly in front of someone’s phone.”

Fighting for the Future

Despite the increasing hardships that running a retail store faces, Mark loves being a business owner. He loves that he doesn’t answer to anyone but himself and he loves being his own boss. His business has evolved a lot throughout the years in order to serve the people, and he firmly believes that bringing a fantastic atmosphere and experience to his customers is the key to success. Mark is proud to have been the main provider for his niche items for tens and tens of years in Chicago and for having the chance to leave an impression on people from all walks of life. Mark is even currently running for Alderman in the ward of Chicago that The Alley is currently located in. He started this journey over 40 years ago, and although he’s unsure whether or not The Alley will still be around in five or 10 years, he refuses to stop fighting.




Original Article by Tracy Gao

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