Local Music Check-in: Melody Supreme

Posted on March 5, 2014 by

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When Gwen Berthy was 11, he purchased his first LP – The Beatles (The White Album) – from an older man who sold clocks and a few vinyl records in a neighboring village in Brittany, France. “Because I wasn’t starting with something easy,” he says, “I initially hated it!” Today, it’s his favorite album, “because it has everything.”

Melody Supreme, 115 4th Street SE

The same can be said about Melody Supreme, Berthy’s brick-and-mortar, vinyl-only record shop. It has everything.

Well, just about everything– not all albums are issued on vinyl, but Berthy fills his store’s bins and shelves with a variety of genres from just about every era of recorded music: jazz, big band, psychobilly, yé-yé, blues, country, rock’n’roll, industrial, 60’s garage… and the list goes on. A quick walk around the store and you’ll see a mix of the familiar—Prince’s Purple Rain, a Beatles bin, some Rolling Stones, John Coltrane—and the not-so-familiar. There’s always something new to discover.

But the best part of Berthy’s store? Berthy himself. He offers a service that puts the algorithms used by Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes Genius to shame. He observes a customer’s purchases and tastes, and measures how adventurous a listener they are. That’s how he makes his recommendations – and he’s usually spot-on.

Even if you don’t have a turntable, stop by Melody Supreme and ask Berthy what’s on one of his.

On a recent trip to the shop, I asked Berthy what he’s been listening to and what it takes to run Cville’s lone vinyl-only music store.

A Q&A with Gwen Berthy

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you land in Cville, and what did you do before you got here?

Gwen Berthy, vinyl enthusiast and owner of Melody Supreme.

Gwen Berthy, vinyl enthusiast and owner of Melody Supreme.

I’m French, born in Brittany and lived in Paris for over 20 years. After finishing photography school, I worked as a professional photographer for more than 20 years in Paris. I work primarily for decorative ‘art de vivre’ and travel magazines and also for decorative catalogues. Photography as I had known it was already in decline at the end of my ‘career,’ the budgets were shrinking, the work was more stressful and confined with the arrival of digital photography. It just wasn’t the same and had become too accessible to former photographers’ assistants and amateurs. In the end, to be completely honest, despite the travel opportunities and the great people I met, I was tired, bored and things had just become too routine. My wife and I decided to move to the U.S. to shake things up a bit, originally to continue photography in New York, but afterwards our vision quickly began to change and we settled on Charlottesville.

Melody Supreme has been open on 4th Street for a little over three years now. When did you first think of opening a record store and how did you finally do it?

Ending my career as a photographer was not an easy decision, but once made I had to find another activity. The idea of a record store had been ripening in my mind for quite a while; music, particularly on vinyl, is one of my oldest passions. In my travels around the world, one of my greatest preoccupations had always been to find the record store in each town I visited. New York was a fantasy, but Charlottesville met our needs better and was far more realistic. I had often spent time in Charlottesville, where my wife went to school and where her family lives, and I was always a bit frustrated to not be able to find a record store that satisfied my needs. That’s really what gave me the idea to open my own store, even though I didn’t know a soul.

How do you stock the bins at Melody Supreme?

For new records, there’s a network of small to large distributors that I use. For used records, sometimes people bring things into the store, sometimes I go to them.

The used rock bins at Melody Supreme. The shop stocks a variety of genres- jazz, soul, yé-yé, funk, psychobilly, country and blues are just a few- from many decades of recorded music.

The used rock bins at Melody Supreme. The shop stocks a variety of genres- jazz, soul, yé-yé, funk, psychobilly, country and blues are just a few- from many decades of recorded music.

What are the challenges of owning and operating a brick-and-mortar record shop? The rewards?

The number one challenge is not going under. The economy is poor and, as we all know, you must add to that competition from online sales and online prices.

The rewards? First, I enjoy what I do. I listen to music all day like I did when I was a teenager; I get to discover new artists, find rare treasures, receive musicians that I admire in my store, spend time with and share interests with my loyal customers, many of who have become friends.

If you could only own 10 albums, which 10 would you choose?

The Beatles / The Beatles (The White Album)

The Beach Boys / Pet Sounds

The Gun Club / Fire of Love

Serge Gainsbourg / L’histoire de Melody Nelson

Alain Bashung / Fantaisie Militaire

Neil Young / On the Beach

Roxy Music / Boys and Girls

Talk Talk / Spirit of Eden

Tindersticks / 1st LP

Love / Forever Changes

Ok, I rattled this list off without too much thought, but these are the first album titles that popped into my head, and they’ve all been very important to me.

Sales of vinyl LPs have been rising since 2007. Recently, Billboard reported that, in 2013, sales of digital songs and albums declined for the first time since the iTunes store opened in 2003, but vinyl sales climbed. Why do you think that has happened? Why are people buying and listening to more vinyl?

A peek inside the shop.

A peek inside the shop.

It’s difficult to respond to this question because I’m not a sociologist. However, I will say this: this expression, ‘the return of vinyl’ is a bit annoying for people like me, because for me vinyl has ALWAYS been there. Nowadays there is a trend toward vinyl and people are surfing that and discovering (or rediscovering) it; this is true. Urban Outfitters has been selling vinyl for a while now… but I would be surprised if they stopped before long. Because vinyl will never replace digital music, certainly [not] for young people. It will always be a niche product that interests people who are truly passionate about it. There just aren’t millions of dollars to be made here.

Even though digital music is omnipresent today, there’s a real nostalgia for the physical object. Do you know, for example, that they have attempted to recreate Polaroid film? But people are also very selective. There may be thousands of albums in their iPods, but they only want a fraction of that in vinyl (if at all). They’ll buy only those albums that are important to them – for the permanence and for the ‘vinyl’ experience and sound. Keep the digital support for volume and construct a smaller vinyl collection of essential albums.

How is vinyl different from other music formats?

Digital music is a bit like having a photocopy of a Van Gogh.  With vinyl, we practically have the original object. I’m not going to go into vinyl’s superior sound, the CD actually achieved a sound that rivaled vinyl anyway. No, it’s really the tangibility, the carnal aspect of vinyl that other medias don’t have: the gorgeous cover art, the liner notes and back-cover literature, and this glossy round black disc that we place gingerly on a turntable. All of that has very physical appeal, is very sensual. And then, yes, the sound really is pure magic.

Opening an LP to find pop-up album art is just one of the many splendors of perusing the bins at Melody Supreme.

Opening an LP to find pop-up album art is just one of the many splendors of perusing the bins at Melody Supreme.

What’s on the Melody Supreme turntable this week?

together PANGEA / Badillac

Queens Of The Stone Age / Like Clockwork

Cate Le Bon / Mug Museum

You’re at the shop seven days a week, but what do you like to do in town when you’re off the clock? Do you have a favorite spot to grab a drink or dinner?

Some of my favorite spots are, of course, the concert venues like the Jefferson and the Paramount. We are truly fortunate here to have so many chances to see great acts in such a small town.

My favorite place to eat is definitely home, because there’s no better cuisine than what you (or your spouse) make yourself. Drink? My wife and I love to open a good bottle of wine and talk business, politics…

You have a bunch of new projects going on here in town. A weekly column, Le Disque Du Lundi, for Nailgun Media, occasional DJ gigs at Tempo. Can you tell us a bit more about those?

Nothing pretentious; just a few opportunities to reach out. The Nailgun Media blog posts are even a bit tongue-in-cheek—I get to talk about and album (or a song) that’s important to me. What could be better? I do DJ evenings at Tempo on occasion, and that’s also just for the fun of it. Tempo is a great place for music and the chef is a good friend.

Keep up with Gwen and Melody Supreme on the store’s Facebook page. New and forthcoming arrivals are posted almost daily.

Melody Supreme is located at 115 4th Street SE, just off the Downtown Mall.

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Posted in: music