The Melody Records storefront in February.
The Melody Records storefront in February. Tom Cole/NPR
How do you measure the value of an experience — one that promises the thrill of new discoveries; the chance to experience, at least vicariously, foreign cultures, new ideas, unexpected emotions — and, at least for a moment, escape? What's that worth?
Probably more than words can express — whatever experience those questions might conjure for you. For me, they're prompted by the loss of an experience — of going to a record store.
Melody Records, on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., closed on March 9, 2012, after 35 years in business.
It wasn't a niche store — it didn't specialize in vinyl, or metal, or dance. It was that rarest of things in our era of compartmentalization (after all, niches are just a way to divide us): a full-service record store. It crammed a relatively small storefront with a remarkably deep selection of jazz, folk, classical, rock. Its international racks were ear-opening.
Jack Menase and his wife Suzy opened the store in 1977.
"We always wanted to carry a full selection. We never wanted to be a top-500 store. We just wanted to carry the full selection and always to concentrate that if we didn't have something in stock, we wanted to be able to order for a customer. We always tried to concentrate for small labels, unknown labels, unknown artists because we always believed that the music was not only 500 titles. It was a lot more than that," Menase said back in February, when the store announced it planned to close.
Jack and Suzy are from Turkey. They met at a record store — the long-gone Serenade Records on Pennsylvania Avenue, a store run by her father and uncle. Jack and Suzy married and opened Melody.
Charlie Manning worked at the store for 30 years. He met his wife, Kathleen, in the store.
"We've been married over 20 years," Manning says. "She came in as a customer, and she worked right around the corner, lived right around the corner. And we just took it from there. And that's been great. A lot of good memories. Geez."
Melody was a community, a family. Suzy's Dad worked there, Jack's brother, their kids. And business was family, too.
Todd Dibell is a former account manager for Universal Music distribution — before that, he worked for Polygram Group — 20 years in the business altogether. He covered the mid-Atlantic — everything south of New York and north of Norfolk.
"They're a music family. Everybody there was dedicated to music, passionate about music. It was fun to go there and talk music. You'd learn as much as you would tell. They'd turn you on to something and inevitably you'd leave with a new purchase," Dibell says.
Check that — the guy whose job it was (he was laid off in October 2010 during one of many industry contractions over the past 10 years) to sell the store records couldn't leave Melody without buying something.
And you wanted to buy something every time you went in there — not just because there were always treasures to be unearthed — but because the people who worked there were your friends.
Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor of The New Republic, went to the store for 30 years.
"The people who worked there, some of them were these colorful characters," Wieseltier recalls. "You remember, there was a man called Christoff who was an expert on jazz. ... We just talked and argued. He'd put [records] on. He was always wearing black leather and talking about his motorcycle, but he knew everything there was to know about jazz, including the old stuff. He wasn't a free-form snob or anything like that. Then he was killed on his bike and I remember the people at Melody, Jack and the others, convened a memorial service for him upstairs at Childe Harold [ED: A legendary bar across Connecticut Ave., now also gone] and the people who came were the people who shopped there. It was extraordinary."
Wieseltier wrote an elegy for Melody in which he puts into words better than I can the value of the experience of "going to Melody." Beyond the place and the people and the actual records, it was the value of "browsing."
"Browsing is a form of learning that is intense but indirect," Wieseltier says. "It's learning by osmosis, by serendipity. It's being surprised because when you browse, you don't know what you're looking for. You're not indulging in 'search.' You're basically making a bet on the richness of the world and immersing yourself in it and coming away with something that you've discovered. ... Look, we grow by discoveries. We don't grow by what we already know. But for these interventions and revelations and illuminations, we would be only what we already are. Who wants to be that?"
No kidding. Plus, going out and browsing — a record store, the park, the world — gets you away from the screen.
"Not long after Mubarak fell, I ran into this very interesting Egyptian fellow," recalls Wieseltier, "and we were talking about the role that the Internet played in the revolution in Tahrir Square. ... And he said to me that shutting down the Internet was Mubarak's biggest mistake. And I said, 'What do you mean?' And he paused and he said, 'Then everybody left their apartments.' And I thought, 'Exactly!'"
"Going to Melody" gave you an excuse to get out of your apartment or house or office and go on a little adventure — a treasure hunt. And the folks who worked there wanted you to have that experience — they weren't just merchants concerned with the business of retail. Of course, they had to be but Jack Menase really seemed to be about the music and sharing it. When pressed about financial or sales particulars, he didn't have them off the top of his head. It was in the music.
And that commitment had an impact — not just on the store's customers, but on the music industry, says Todd Dibell.
"Something they did so well was eclectic jazz and international music and roots and stuff like that, Americana," Dibell says. "Labels like ECM and Lost Highway and Rounder, that would be a go-to store for them. [Melody] could do things with ECM records that other stores wouldn't even carry — where an objective for a record like that is relatively low, they would take a significant percentage of sales nationally in a small store like that."
But the music business has changed. Brick-and-mortar sales are down drastically. Leon Wieseltier blames Melody's demise on Amazon's Price Check app, which he writes turns shoppers into "spies." Jack Menase traces the beginning of the end to the advent of the iPod ten years ago.
"If things were the way they were 10 or 15 years ago," Menase says, "if the music sales were the same, we had no plan really to close. But we were concerned that — we always remembered to be a full-selection music store — and we were concerned that if the sales continued to go down, things would be a lot more difficult and we wanted to leave it on a good note. We wanted to have it in our memories the store that we had."
There a lot of memories for all of us, especially for the dozen or so people who are out of a job — a great job.
"I've been lucky to be able to do this," says Charlie Manning. "It's not like it's not a job you ever think, 'Gee, I gotta go to work today, how crappy is that?' It's fun. It's like going to your house ... and seeing a lot of people and a lot of people that have become your friends. Time flies by and you just don't expect it to change. And I guess that's probably one of my personality flaws. I think everything's going great forever and it's going to stay that way forever."
Charlie didn't know what he was going to do when I talked to him. Maybe a little surfing. Jack didn't know either. But he did know one thing:
"One thing that we will not stop doing is continue listening to music."