At Melody Record Shop, sadness and a tinge of guilt as an era ends

January 20, 2012

The phone is ringing at Melody Record Shop in Dupont Circle. Charlie Manning, a buyer and manager who has worked at Melody for 32 of its 34 years, answers.

“Did you hear about everything? We’re closing the store.” Pause. “There’s a closing sign out front.”

Ask him how he’s doing, and he says, “Okay. I’ve had better days. Better weeks.”

Melody owners Jack and Suzy Menaseposted the announcement on their Web site on Jan. 3. “We are a family owned business and it has been our privilege getting to know many of you so well,” it read. “Melody was not just a store; it was a community where customers shared the joy and magic of great music.”

Neon orange stickers mark every item in the shop, littering the place like funereal confetti. Signs all around the room read “Entire store now 20% off. ALL SALES ARE FINAL.”

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, is lingering just inside the entrance.

“Jack told me on Sunday,” he says. “He told me the bad news and we just fell into each other’s arms. . . . I can’t imagine being without them. I came in here the first night I got to D.C.

“There’s not a bin in New York City or L.A. like that bin of classical new releases,” he insists, pointing to the display by the door. “You come here to learn. For serendipity. . . . What you’re looking for turns out to not be what you’re looking for. It’s what’s next to it. It’s an experience.”

It’s true: The cacophony of the store is something the Web can’t replicate. It’s right there in the structure. In Melody, opera is sandwiched between blues and jazz, which sits beneath a giant poster of Justin Bieber’s Bambi-in-the-headlights gaze. Buddy Guy bumps into Gilbert & Sullivan. The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” grabs at the Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia” across the way from Debussy. Chopin backs up to the international section, which may as well be the United Nations, the way every nationality is properly represented.

In the back, Jerry Lanning is mulling over the jazz selections, just as he’s done two or three times a week, every week, for — how long?

“Forever,” he says. “Forever. I was here in 1977, year one. They always had what I’m looking for: the best selection of jazz in town. I mean, most other record shops haven’t even heard about Sue Raneyor Blossom Dearie.” When Melody is gone, he says, “It’ll be sad. Very sad. It won’t be the same.”

He flips through another row of CDs. “You think about it too long, it’s like you can’t even breathe. It’s like you’re drowning.”

* * *

That Melody is closing is not nearly as surprising as the fact that Melody didn’t close years ago. The store had managed to remain, for an unrealistic amount of time, immune to the reality that Melody is an institution almost entirely at odds with the way people purchase and listen to music.

Most listeners demand that music be acquired instantly and transported anywhere. Melody traffics in the art of the browse, the appeal of the bulk. Someone who craves efficiency would sooner download a song on iTunes than wander down to Dupont Circle and search through the store’s stacks. But surely this is news to no one: Try to remember the last time you bought a CD, not at Target or Wal-Mart or Best Buy, but in a small store like Melody.

To be fair, it’s tough to even find a small store like Melody. Today, according to Neal Becton, owner of Som Records, there are only six record shops in D.C. He rattled off the list: “It’s us, Melody, Crooked Beat Records, Red Onion Records & Books, Smash Records, and Joint Custody.”

For a music shop to survive, “The store has to either have evolved or have been started with today’s market in mind,” said Glenn Peoples, senior editorial analyst at Billboard. “You can’t do the old model. In the ’90s, a lot of really terrible stores survived just because everyone was buying CDs. Now there are a lot of good stores that have been weeded out.”

The record store, both the literal institution and the people who comprise it, still has a monopoly on one major selling point: taste. “Just because Pandora recommends something doesn’t mean it’s cool,” said Peoples. “To know what’s cool and what people are excited about, you’ve got to go to a record store.”

It’s a trade-off. The upside, among other things, is that somebody from a town without a record store can now discover Blossom Dearie on YouTube. The downside is that, sooner or later, perhaps we will all live in towns without record stores.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Manning says of the closing. “But still, you’re never prepared. . . . You just get that sort of dead feeling in your stomach.”

Manning, for his part, is a fan of the Internet. But it’s not quite . . . the same. “People like the physicality of being in a store,” he says. “It’s a sense of permanence, of seeing a business that’s always been there, that’ll always be there.”

Chris Artiga-Oliver, a customer in the shop, agrees. Vehemently. When you close Melody, he says, “You kill culture. It’s literally the death of something in America that people won’t miss until it’s gone. It sickens me. Just one more layer of human contact gone.”

“The only reason these guys are out of business,” he declares, “is the corporate greed of Amazon.”

Amazon. Funny you mention Amazon. Because what’s especially strange about the vibe in Melody now is how sorry everyone is — sorry in both senses of the word.

They are sorry to see the store go, to watch a cultural institution, a phantom tollbooth to an almost-bygone era, shutter its doors.

But they are also sorry because they could have saved it, and they didn’t. Sorry because clearly some people, maybe even the Amazon-haters, are buying more music online and less music at Melody, or Melody wouldn’t have to close at all. These is a sadness mingled with guilt in the air. They are sorry to see it die; they were complicit in the killing.

* * *

Jack and Suzy met while working at Serenade Record Shop in the District, owned by Suzy’s father. The Turkish immigrants loved music and each other; they were married in 1976 and opened Melody Records on E Street the following year, when Suzy was 18. “It’s been a business and a marriage together,” Jack says.

And not just for the Menases: Manning met his future wife at the shop, 26 years ago, when she came into the store with her cassette player (a dated appliance even then) to buy a tape by Paco de Lucia, the flamenco guitarist. She still has the cassette.

Melody moved to the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Q Street in 1978, then came up the street to its current location, which the Menases now own, in 1989.

The Menases don’t have a definite closing date yet, though they’re anticipating it’ll be sometime in February.

Once they’re done closing up shop, the Menases will take their annual vacation. After that, well, they haven’t really gotten that far yet. Jack, who is 60, doesn’t know what’s next for him. “I’ve never not worked at a record shop.” Suzy is 53, with an identical employment history.

Suzy says she and Jack have “no hard feelings. Our customers are like family. They know about our kids. They drop in just to say hello.”

“It was hard to write that goodbye letter. It was especially hard to hang up that ‘store closing’ sign in the window. There were a lot of tears.

“It was our life,” she says. “Simply put, the store was our life. It was our heart and soul, it really was.”

Check out a playlist of songs that regulars often heard in Melody Records on The Style Blog.

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