Alex Gatewood initially came to Tuscaloosa to go to graduate school at The University of Alabama. Instead, he put his marketing and retailing undergraduate degree from Mississippi State University to work immediately.
He entered a management training program for Pizitz, one of Alabama’s leading retail department stores at the time.
After a year and a half, that experience convinced Alex he had what it took to operate his own retail business.
On Nov. 1, 1964, he and a partner opened a 750-square-foot store at 1402 University Blvd. on The Strip in Tuscaloosa called The Locker Room. At the time, Alex was 23 years old.
Fifty-seven years later, at age 80, Alex is still at it, six days a week.
“I do still enjoy it,” Alex said.
In 1966, Alex moved The Locker Room two blocks away to a failed competitor’s spot at 1218 University Blvd. On Thanksgiving weekend 2015, the store moved to its current location at 2104 University Blvd., where University Boulevard intersects with 21st Street.
“Tuscaloosa is a great town. It has been good to us,” Alex said.
Alex remains at the helm as president of the business he founded more than a half century ago. The other owners include Rush Crawford, who also serves as vice president; Alex’s son, Mark, who is in sales for an outdoor media company and also helps some with sales at the store; and Tracy Gatewood, Alex’s daughter who is a retail real estate broker.
“Growing up around the rhythm of retail helps me communicate with owners. I understand business challenges,” said Tracy. When asked about her father’s influence on her career choice, she added, “There is a kinship in the retail industry, and my family and I have a sincere desire for all to be successful.”
Selling and retail run deep in the Gatewood family. Alex also notes that his salesmanship first developed at age 6, while working for his father at his Mississippi grocery store and gas station. It was his dad that co-signed for the $5,000 loan that made it possible for Alex to open the traditional menswear and game day clothing store in Tuscaloosa.
The University of Alabama’s athletic programs play a key role in the success of The Locker Room. “The football season is more important for us than the holiday season,” said Alex, who at the time of this interview was looking forward to the Crimson Tide’s seven 2021 season home games, especially the four in a row preceding the big away game against Auburn on Thanksgiving weekend.
The Locker Room started the private label mascot trend with its original Elephantwear collection. Its trademarked green-eyed elephant symbol can be found on knit shirts, button downs, pullovers, jackets, pants, belts and assorted giftware.
Its University of Alabama premium apparel and giftware sales fluctuate based on how UA ranks. National championship years give sales the biggest boost. So far in its history, The Locker Room has benefited from 12 University of Alabama championships.
The University of Alabama also provides Alex with much of his workforce. Half of his current staff are UA students. Rush, the store’s vice president, began working there in 2003 as a freshman in college.
“We are lucky to be where we are,” said Rush, who ended up staying on after graduation, rather than taking a job in the brick industry. “Nick Saban and I started our full-time tenure the same week, and business has grown vastly since.”
In 2006, Rush added an ecommerce component to The Locker Room’s website, which first appeared in 2001. “We’ve seen exponential growth with the national recognition Saban brought to the University of Alabama’s football program,” Rush said. Under Saban’s coaching, the Tide has won six national championships.
Alex advises his loyal customers to order sooner, rather than later, this year. “Order early or you don’t get it this year,” he said, referencing lingering supply chain and shipping issues related to the pandemic.
‘Service is What We Do’
While its customers include nearby college students, the Locker Room’s customer base spans generations.
“We serve three generations, from 18 to 80,” Alex said.
“Service is what we do,” the store’s founder said. “If a kid comes here at 3 o’clock and needs a suit tonight, we’ll have it ready for him.”
MEMBER SINCE 1985: The Locker Room at 2104 University Blvd. in Tuscaloosa is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Visit online at locker-room.biz