A tough year, but Alley Tunes is emerging stronger than their coffee

Max Le Bras, manager and co-owner of Alley Tunes in Glenferrie.
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“This is what we love, we love music, we love records,” says favourite Swinburne cafe co-owner and manager Max Le Bras.

For 14 years, Alley Tunes has sold records and coffees in the heart of Glenferrie Station to university staff, students and train goers.

Alley Tunes’ atmosphere radiates through its surroundings, attracting people of all ages and walks of life. Customers can buy their coffee through the front window and then browse through the thousands of records while music plays.

Owners Le Bras and Fabrice Lemoyne’s passion for music enticed them to turn an old 1994 record store into the major coffee stop for Swinburne University students.

Relaunching the business as both a café and record store with the same name in 2007 was a key strategy.

“We knew the station and the university were right there, so we bought it and if in three years’ time the records were still not doing well, we could fully transform it into a café,” Le Bras said.

With vinyl record sales growing in the 2010s, Le Bras knew it might soon become the more important source of income.

“Every year, we saw an increase of enthusiasm from people and an increase of sales and release of records as they gradually came back into trend.”

A tough year, but Alley Tunes is emerging stronger than their coffee
Jasmin Iliopoulos and Lucy Bassed at Alley Tunes. Pictures: Jennifer Pittorino.

First-year university student Jasmin Iliopoulos says she and friend Lucy Brassad go to the cafe several times a week and have done since year 12.

“It’s just good music and good coffee,” she said.

Bassed says her sister introduced her to the cafe. “I would come here and hang out with her and her friends during lunch.”  

Le Bras says he has his loyal customers to thank for making it through last year’s tough Melbourne lockdowns.

“We have a strong customer base, a strong following, that helped, among other things.”

With most of Swinburne’s students studying a “blended mode”—half online and half on campus—Le Bras says every day feels slow.

We are operating as if students are on their uni breaks. Now every day is like a quiet day during a normal year.

Steve Williams of the Glenferrie Traders’ Association says businesses along the street have been hugely affected by students being off campus.

“Some businesses have been doing really well, but it’s been hard for all of them,” says Williams. “We have missed the staff and we have missed the university students big time.”

“We are noticing that students are missing. It’s good to see them back on the street but not in the same numbers they were in.”

Le Bras says he is fortunate to have had two businesses in one. “The records kept us afloat more than the café. People bought a lot of records in between those times.”

A tough year, but Alley Tunes is emerging stronger than their coffee
Records are a big part of the store’s ambience.

The first stage four lockdown in early 2020 forced Alley Tunes and many other cafes to close completely.

During that time, Le Bras and Lemoyne put over 1000 records online. “We always do a little bit online, but it was a lot more during lockdown,” Le Bras said.

Once restrictions eased Alley Tunes was able to open for takeaway only. “The customers were very limited, but we were open and doing really well.”

Fast forward a year and Alley Tunes is serving less than half of the customers it was in early March 2020.

“In 2020 there were 15,000 people on campus. We were so busy this time last year, I wouldn’t have been able to sit down and have this chat with you.”

We were under the pump, you could hear the coffee machine going constantly. We had a huge line of people and everyone it seemed, like constantly walking past.

But Le Bras has learnt to embrace the new normal. “We just have to appreciate the quieter days and the slow pace, there’s a positive side to everything,” he says.

After 14 years Le Bras and Lemoyne took the downtime during lockdowns to refurbish the café by painting inside, buying new furniture and decorating the outdoor stools.

“We gave it new life, so we had something to be excited about when we came back to work,” Le Bras says.

Regular customers, like Iliopoulos, visit the spot for its unique atmosphere. “It’s a whole culture, coming here and hanging out with people. I really like the whole store,” she says.

The music keeps us coming back, the people that are here, the workers are so kind.

With fewer students on campus, Le Bras is relying on their regular customer base to keep them thriving.

“We see the same people that come every day and order two or three coffees. It’s them that make us survive.”

“We’re now 14 years in and it’s still a record store and a café, we expect within the next two years to be running business as usual.”