Melody Records, approaching its swan song

John Kelly
Columnist January 8, 2012

Sometimes people would walk into Melody Records near Dupont Circle and sing a song they’d heard in the hopes that Jack or Suzy Menase, who opened the store 35 years ago, could identify it. Sometimes the telephone would ring and it would be a customer holding his phone up to the radio. “I must have this song,” he’d say. “What is it?”

Once, that’s what it was like to run a record store.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

As you’ve probably read, Melody Records will close soon, the victim of a lot of things, but perhaps most perversely of all of a technology that allows you to bypass Jack or Suzy — or Charley Manning or Suzy’s dad, Leon Dana, or any of the other music-loving, tune-naming Melody employees — and simply push a button on your smartphone, hum a few bars and then wait as your iPhone or Android spits out the song’s name.

“When I heard that, I said, ‘That’s pretty much it, I think,’ ” Jack told me last week.

Progress. There’s probably an app now that replaces the hipster friend who tells you why your favorite band stinks.

We’re sad when these places close — Melody, the Guitar Shop, five out of eight Penn Camera locations — but then, we’re the cause, right? We didn’t shop there enough, preferring the cheaper prices and seamless transactions of the Web.

Jack and Suzy recognize this. Suzy laughed when she told me the story of the customer who came in last week to express his condolences about Melody’s demise and to buy some CDs. As he was paying at the cash register, he remembered that he wanted some recordable CDs, too. He looked over Melody’s selection and said, “Oh, that’s too expensive. I’ll buy them online.”

Said Suzy: “It’s hard to break the habit.”

Said Jack: “We don’t blame them. They have to do what’s best.”

They get it. And frankly, running a retail business consumes your life. The Menases realize it’s time for a change. One door closes, another opens. The couple has never taken more than a week off before. Now they can go visit their youngest son, who’s studying in Germany, without worrying about their store.

(I remember when the Iron Gate Inn lost its lease and closed in 2010. The owner told me he was going to open a garlic farm instead. There’s probably something to be said for farming garlic. Garlic doesn’t skip out on its check. Garlic doesn’t shoplift. Unlike the customer, garlic isn’t always right.)

After I talked to Suzy and Jack I went over to Penn Camera on E Street NW. It pained me to see guys on nearby street corners holding “Entire store up to 30% off” signs, as if Penn Camera were one of those cut-rate furniture places in a strip mall. It was bustling inside. Some customers were clucking sadly. Others seemed eager to get a deal. It was hard not to feel a bit like we were feeding on a still-warm corpse.

I bought a GorillaPod and slunk out. The last time I purchased a camera from Penn was seven years ago. The Canon I had in my pocket was from Best Buy. Et tu, Kelly? Yep, I’m afraid so.

But I don’t want this column to be an after-the-fact obituary. I’d rather it was a before-the-fact celebration. How can we save Washington’s small, independent stores before they go the way of Melody? If you shop at one, e-mail me to sing its praises. Explain why you prefer it to the depth and breadth of the Web. If you run one of those stores, tell me what it’s like to be fighting for survival in the 21st century.

As someone once said, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Melodic memories

Jack and Suzy are both from Turkey originally. They worked together at Serenade Records on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the record store Suzy’s father and uncle owned. They fell in love, got married in 1976 and opened Melody in 1977.

Stevie Wonder came into their store once. And Jackie Mason. And Jerry Lewis. Wonder was great. Neither comedian smiled.

The best part of working in a record store? Hearing music all day. Whoever happened to be working would line up albums to play. Employee Gordon Soutar has a fondness for an album called “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone.”

“Every time we put that on, we sell it,” Suzy said.

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