“Find a need and fill it if you want to start a business” – Celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Great Escape

submitted by The Great Escape

“Find a need and fill it if you want to start a business” is a time-proven principle for success, and Gary Walker, the founder of the Great Escape Record and Comics Stores, was the beneficiary of this principle when he started dealing in comic books as a part-time enterprise in the early 1970s.

The Great Escape is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and its journey from a tiny one-shop operation that started on May 30, 1977, to its current four-store chain has been a long and interesting one.

After his son, Greg, started collecting (The Amazing Spiderman comic book), Walker began helping him build his collection. Greg also had an avid interest in football, and a father/son weekend trip to Atlanta for a Falcons vs. Chiefs game had unexpected and life-changing results, unimaginable at the time. While in Atlanta, they found a store named Cantrell’s that proved to be somewhat of a prototype for future Great Escape stores since its main product lines were back-issue comic books and out-of-print record albums. For the first time, they realized that back-issue comics were now collector’s items, and that select issues had gained considerable value in the marketplace. After purchasing a copy of the Amazing Spiderman #6 at the shocking price of $12, Gary started haunting flea markets, yard sales and used book stores in a search for back-issue comics, and a part-time business was born.

Then, according to Walker, a modern-day miracle occurred in the form of a young Horse Cave, Ky., resident named Tom Blevins. Blevins, who had just graduated from high school, was the quintessential comic collector and had accumulated runs of superhero and fantasy books published by Marvel Comics, dating back to the early 60s. Blevins had a need for funds for furthering his education and decided to sell his collection. Walker heard about it being up for sale and made a life-changing trip to Horse Cave from Nashville, hoping to pick up some key issues of The Amazing Spiderman. But Blevins wanted to sell his collection complete and made an astounding proposition – since Walker was short on funds and buying the whole group was out of the question, Blevins said, “Just take them all, and send me the money when you can.” Not surprisingly, Walker accepted the offer and, as luck would have it, was able to set up at a Nashville flea market the following weekend at a favorable location, next to the area’s leading comic dealer. Keeping the Spiderman issues for Greg’s collection, he offered the rest of the comic books for sale at his booth and fans responded enthusiastically when they saw the long runs of popular Marvel titles offered at reasonable prices. A business was born, and the following Monday, Walker sent Tom Blevins a check for the balance owed him.

“There probably would have never been a Great Escape store if it hadn’t been for Tom Blevins and his amazing act of trust”, Walker stated emphatically. “I’ll always be grateful to Tom, and I enjoy reminiscing with him when we see each other from time-to-time.” (Blevins is a regular customer at the Bowling Green Great Escape.)

Walker was burned out from a 20-year career in the music business and was ready for a change. He started working a weekend circuit of flea markets, which included Louisville and Memphis events.

“Customers began bringing in books for sale or trade, and my inventory in quantity and quality grew rapidly,” Walker reclled. Without his being aware of it at the time, the principle “find a need and fill it” was materializing. When he decided to open his first store, he needed a name, and an employee’s wife came up with the name “The Great Escape.”

Shortly after opening a tiny shop in midtown Nashville, he added record albums to the inventory, and the store soon became a favorite hangout for music industry people. Movies (first in the form of VHS tapes, and eventually DVDs) were added to the product mix. As the business evolved, video games and systems, role-playing games and toys joined the Great Escape product lines. Walker had developed a strong customer base while operating the flea market circuit, and area fans were quick to support the new enterprise, and sales grew rapidly. As a result, Great Escape stores were opened in Louisville, Ky., and in Madison, Tenn., (a Nashville suburb) during the next few years.

The Bowling Green Great Escape store (now in its 27th year of operation) was acquired from former owner Kathy Brown in 1987. It operated under its original name, Pac-Rats, until 2000, when the name was changed, and it became the fourth store in the Great Escape chain.

Pac-Rat’s was originally a comic book specialty shop, but the entire Great Escape product mix was soon added to its inventory. Area music lovers found a large selection of CDs available, and die-hard vinyl junkies could search for their treasures among out-of-print record albums carried in the store’s inventory.

When CDs replaced vinyl in the marketplace in the 1980s, all the Great Escape stores continued to carry a large stock of LPs to service collectors, who preferred the vinyl sound over the new CD format. In recent years, vinyl popularity has enjoyed resurgence in the marketplace, and the majority of record companies are releasing recordings in the vinyl format, as well as CDs.

“Historically, Great Escape stores have achieved high status as a place to shop for hard-to-find and out-of-print record albums, and sales of pre-owned LPs have dramatically increased at all of our locations,” Walker said. “The demand for new vinyl titles was so intense that we decided to experiment with offering new releases at our Bowling Green shop, as a test location for a new product line. Customers were also offered a special order service for records, which proved to be popular with some music lovers. Potential profit margins are extremely thin in new record releases; markups from wholesale prices to retail proved to be too small, and when overhead and labor costs were added to the formula, we were just not able to continue the new vinyl experiment. As a result, we made a decision that we knew would be unpopular with a number of loyal customers: we dropped new vinyl as a product line, and discontinued the special order service.”

Bowling Green’s version of the Great Escape stores currently has a strong management team, and sales have increased significantly since manager Chris Hargrow and co-manager Tanner Perry have been in charge.

“We now have one of the most qualified management staffs of any of the Great Escape stores,” Walker said. “Chris Hargrow first came to work at our Nashville location in 1998, where he learned the nuts and bolts of how our business operates. He attained product specialist status in all the products that we deal in, and as opportunities for advancement occurred, he transferred to the Madison location. After the company opened a new store in West Nashville, he transferred to the Charlotte Avenue store and gained experience as an assistant manager, before eventually making the move to Bowling Green as full manager.”

Tanner Perry also has a long history with the company, having worked first from 2003-2007, helping run flea market operations for the Nashville location. After being employed elsewhere for a few years, he rejoined the organization in 2011 at the West Nashville store and immediately showed a strong, proactive attitude towards his product specialty of toys. Approximately one year ago, he made the decision to transfer to the Bowling Green as a co-manager and has been a part of rising sales and profits there ever since.

“With Chris’ and Tanner’s help, we hope to continue to be southern Kentucky’s one-stop destination for a wide array of fun and fantasy stuff,” Walker said.

The Great Escape Bowling Green is located at 2945 Scottsville Road in the Kroger shopping center near Greenwood Mall. For additional information, call 270-782-8092 or email thegreatescapebg@gmail.com.