The Locker Room: Retail Legend on the Strip

Alex Gatewood looked a lot like a typical University of Alabama student when he drove into Tuscaloosa in 1964 pulling a U-Haul and seeking some fraternity brothers to help him unpack. But Gatewood wasn’t heading to a student dorm room. Instead, his new home was a 750-square-foot building located on The Strip, where — at the age of 23 — he was about to open a menswear store called The Locker Room.

Gatewood arrived in town with a stack of clothing inventory he had acquired from his new business partner, Bill Samuels, who already owned a men’s apparel store called The Locker Room in Anniston. Unfortunately, Gatewood had nobody to assist him in unloading the U-Haul.

So he used his connections as a Kappa Alpha fraternity graduate from Mississippi State and asked the president of the local Alabama KA chapter for assistance. Soon, nearly two dozen KA pledges showed up and assisted Gatewood in setting up his new store.

The Locker Room has signature brands for men and women and, of course, University of Alabama-themed walking sticks.

Fifty years later, both Gatewood and The Locker Room have become fixtures on The Strip. The store offers a variety of traditional brands, such as Cole Haan and Ralph Lauren, as well as newer sections with women’s clothing and Crimson Tide sportswear.

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“I’ve been very lucky to make it 50 years in the business, ” Gatewood says. “There were 18 stores in town selling men’s clothing back when I started. I was a little fish in a big pond. I had to work hard, six days a week. I may not have been smarter than anybody else, but I probably outworked most of them.”

Gatewood was introduced to hard work at a young age, as a child growing up on a farm in the Mississippi Delta region. In addition to helping out in the family-owned gas station and grocery store, Gatewood drove a tractor at the age of 12 and plowed a 40-acre field during the scorching Mississippi summer. “That convinced me that I didn’t want to be a farmer the rest of my life, ” Gatewood says.

In that environment, Gatewood learned to appreciate nice clothes — something he couldn’t wear in the fields or at the gas station. “Whenever my mother bought me something new, I took real good care of it, ” Gatewood says.

So after graduating from Mississippi State with a degree in marketing and retailing, Gatewood moved to Alabama and entered the junior executive management training program for the old Pizitz department store chain in Birmingham.

Gatewood worked for Pizitz for approximately 18 months. It was during this time that he met Samuels, and the two men discussed expanding Samuels’ operation beyond Anniston. “He said he was looking for locations, and I told him not to worry about it, that I’d find one, ” Gatewood says. “The Pizitz people were great, but I was ready to go out on my own.”

Gatewood got his father to co-sign for a $5, 000 loan and found a small space on Tuscaloosa’s Strip where the rent was $100 per month. Then with a helping hand from the KAs,  he set up shop.

“Some company had given me a box of dollar wallets to hand out to customers, so I gave each of (the KA pledges) one of those wallets for helping me unload the inventory, ” Gatewood says, chuckling at the memory. “I still know most of those guys from that pledge class.”

Gatewood’s funds were limited at that time, so he had to be creative with how he operated. He bought some picnic tables from J.C. Penney’s and used them as display fixtures for his merchandise. He found a student who was earning $1 an hour at a grocery store and offered him $1.10 an hour to come work at The Locker Room. He hired the business manager from The Crimson White student newspaper and struck a deal where an advertisement for his store was placed on the back page of the paper each week at a reduced rate.

“I had to scramble, but I’ve had to do that all my life anyway, ” Gatewood says. “You have to go out and meet people. You can’t wait for people to come to you.

“I’d invite the fraternity pledge classes to the store, and I would talk to them about how to dress up. I was pretty close to their ages when I opened the store, so I could relate to them. I chaperoned parties for the fraternities. I mixed with them a whole lot. The more you get to know people, the more they’ll trade with you.”

In 1966, a new upscale menswear store opened in a red wooden house only two blocks away from The Locker Room. “I thought they were going to blow me out of the water, ” Gatewood says. Instead, the new store went out of business barely six months later, and Gatewood moved into the vacant space. That is where The Locker Room remains to this day.

Gatewood says he has had approximately 90 people work for him over the years, and he invited all of them back to Tuscaloosa for a 50th-anniversary celebration on Nov. 14 at Indian Hills Country Club. It was his chance to thank the people who have helped him and The Locker Room persevere over the past five decades, through the wide collars and the narrow ties and all the other ever-shifting trends in the fashion worlds.

“In 50 years, you see it all, ” Gatewood says. “We’ve sold puffed shirts and polyester suits and all that stuff. The business is very cyclical. Things come and go, but you just have to keep taking care of your customers. That’s something that never changes.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer who lives in Birmingham. Art Meripol is a freelance photographer who lives in Birmingham.

text by cary estes • photos by art meripol

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