For this week’s installment of our most amazing, surely to be award-winning web series “Get To Know Your Local Indie Retailer” we spoke with Gwen Berthy, a Frenchman who somehow ended up in Charlottesville, VA and opened his very, very killer record outpost Melody Supreme. Something we learned in posting this; Gwen is a killer photographer. Take it away, Gwen.
1. Tell us briefly about your store.
We opened our doors in October of 2010, so we’re relatively new. On top of that, my background’s pretty atypical since I’ve only been in the US for a few years. I arrived directly from France, lived initially in Richmond, before moving to Charlottesville in October of 2009. I was complete stranger in town, knowing no one, and I opened my store one year after my arrival. I guess you’d need to be French (in other words, crazy) to dedicate yourself to a retail sector believed by most people to be dead. Melody Supreme sells only vinyl, new and used, new music and reissues. We offer a wide range of music, that goes from 60’s psych to electro, from Afro-beat to blues, from classic rock to indie rock, from jazz to punk, etc.
2. What got you into the independent record store business?
Around the time of my fortieth birthday, I started to question my life as a professional photographer. Though this had been my career for over 20 years, it no longer gave me the same satisfaction as before. It had given me the possibility to travel the world, but like any life-long vinyl lover, my favorite activity when I wasn’t working was to find the best record store in any town I visited. I guess that after taking stock of my life, I realized that of all the places I’d been, the record stores were among my favorites. Charlottesville really lacked this (in my opinion), so why not open one myself and experience it everyday? I have been collecting records since I was 20 and have always been interested in new music, never falling into the ‘it was better before” trap. After 9 months of intense preparation, between a tiny borrowed attic and a rented storage unit, I finally secured a retail space in the historic center of Charlottesville, right in the nerve center of the music scene. From there, it was all engines go.
3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary stores?
Wow, that’s a hard one. My references are pretty much from the past, and I must say that since opening Melody Supreme, I haven’t had much free time to travel in the US. Also, I know Paris much better than any city here so I’m going to have to recommend (in case you find yourself in France) Born Bad, a store run by a group of garage and punk enthusiasts who also produce on their own label obscure reissues from the 60’s, minimal synth from the 80’s, or contemporary groups like Cheveu. In Virginia, I’d have to cite Deep Groove in Richmond who had the flair to open a really friendly, inviting space just a few years back (when the economy was in free fall) – a worthy model for the small vinyl-only store.
4. How have things been going from a business perspective?
It’s pretty early to say; we still have a couple of months to go before clearing that essential 18-month mark. But I will say this first year was pretty intense, working solo where I can count my days off with the fingers of one hand. I am new in town so I had to be patient while word of mouth and some good reviews on the web performed their magic. Right now, despite my pessimistic French nature, I’m finding that things are definitely heading in the right direction. Thanks to existing record stores in town who had partially converted to vinyl, there’s a growing interest here in vinyl, in having the beautiful object and impeccable sound, which I find really encouraging. For the immediate future and beyond, I know that this is going to be a project for the long haul, with each month bringing new challenges: the fight of a small business to keep its head just above the water line.
5. What do you think spells survival for an independent record store today?
Passion. I get really tired sometimes, but each morning I’m happy to walk through the door of my store. Selling records is not an easy job and my store is too small to compete with behemoths like Amazon. But I can honestly say that the vast majority of new stock we carry has been chosen, listened to, and valued. I know the music I sell. The same can be said for my used stock: they’re here in the store because I chose, inspected and carefully cleaned them – my clients don’t have ugly surprises when they get home. I consider myself very much like a gourmet market of music. I choose carefully and try to know as much as possible about my music, its history, its quality, its origins, so that I can offer it to my clients.
6. What are some of the coolest things labels have done with you?
First off, unlike my European homologues, just getting the chance to work directly with independent American labels is the coolest thing ever. Not having to pass through a distributor, being in direct contact with the actual producers of the music is a dream and makes me feel like I’m in the beating heart of the action. Promotions and sale strategies aside, having access to new items, especially limited or exclusive editions (Matador Buy Early Get Now, first-run on colored vinyl and promo 7”) is fantastic. And then there are the incredible efforts labels put into providing us with Record Store Day merchandise, which for me was enormous last year.
7. Why do we need record stores?
Because music can save your life, and for most of us who are truly passionate about music, the record store will always be a sort of refuge where you can dig up new tonal phenomena. I’m part of a generation that had to construct a musical culture piece by piece through friendships, brick-and-mortar stores and musical press. For me, it was a long process. Today, you can have access to everything, and listen to it instantly (and gratis) via the web. I think the web is a fabulous tool, but it doesn’t compare to flipping though cases of records and visually contemplating cover art enthroned on the walls of a record store – or swapping suggestions with store owners and friends. A record store really is a singular place where you can exchange, interact and forget about the worries of the day – a place of comfort really. It also true that record stores contribute greatly to the quality of local life. You’ll always be able to buy on line, but I really can’t imagine the pleasure in doing that. You should have more faith in your local record store – if they don’t have what you’re looking for they can always order it. You’ll be contributing to your local economy and (in my store, at any rate) it’s usually cheaper than buying online anyway.
8. What kind of taco is your favorite?
I am not what you would call ‘knowledgeable’ when it comes to tacos.
9. Who are your top three favorite bands right now?
Today it’s Veronica Falls, Porcelain Raft, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra (I love 1st albums). For tomorrow I choose Fucked Up, Electrelane and the Gun Club (I’ll be needing a morale boost). For the day after tomorrow I choose Shugo Tokumaru, Animal Collective and Moon Duo (I’ll still be listening to them in 10 years). The next day after that, it’ll be Sebastien Tellier, Alain Bashung and Florent Marchet (I miss France sometimes). The next day after that, it’ll be Yo La Tengo, Pavement, Pixies (the 90’s were pretty sweet). Then the day after that, it’ll be: Sagitarius, Love, and the Zombies… Music to me is a bit like children – you love them equally but differently, and it really is impossible to choose.
10. What is your favorite thing about your store? And you can’t say the customers. That’s like saying Einstein or Ghandi when asked, “If you could meet one person, living or dead…”
I think first off it would have to be that I get to listen to music all day long. I get to listen to new music all the time (for better or for worse) and I get to discover used records that I’ve never heard of, but that are absolute gems. And then there are the visits. Like the day Fucked Up’s singer came away with some coveted new wave albums, or when Arcade Fire spent an hour just chatting, or the rainy morning that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings spent warm and dry, hanging out in the store.
11. What are your goals for the future of your store? Long term and short.
To keep the store alive and to some day find that super-talented, charismatic, but unknown group and sign them on my own label – just to know how it feels.
12. Tell us about the cool used and collectable action you have going on over there.
Sometimes you have to dig far and wide, and there’s always ebb and flow. The best way to be abreast of our collectible finds is to follow us on Facebook – and hit the ‘Like’ button while you’re at it.