Joint Custody Is Open for Business in Occupied D.C.

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Gene Melkisethian, Courtesy of Angela Owens

It’s a shitty, gray day in January, made infinitely shittier due to it being Inauguration Day in Washington D.C., and it takes a couple hours of texting to find Gene Melkisethian, co-owner of Joint Custody, a local record shop and vintage clothing store. The cars on the Metro leading into the city from Arlington, Va., are almost completely empty, save for a couple twitchy-looking folks in MAGA hats, and the main cluster of train stations downtown are closed, but once you do make your way toward the National Mall, there’s still no crowds — just swaths of people looking for where to go.

A younger normal approaches, hurriedly asking where the protests are, explaining that they’re a journalist — as if that makes them sound less silly, not more so. They repeat the same question to several more groups as we make our way up K Street toward the eerie sound of flashbangs, and some form of tear gas-type crowd deterrent sours the air. The riot cops are implementing a mix of forward-steering with shields and flashbangs, and some form of eye / skin irritant. Only two blocks away, Against Me! are playing and Michael Moore is speaking where the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations took place. They have a permit, and the mood is infinitely more calm, although the Pret a Manger sells out of food before 3PM. After an hour of confusion and texting adjacent to a messy scene that’s half Antifa and Black Bloc, and maybe half reporters (with a dash of riot police and a cute dog that remained very calm because he’s a good boy), Melkisethian emerges from the scrum, with his smiling father in tow. “He loves demonstration photography!”

What made him so tough to find, on top of everything else, is his all-black attire, which matches the mood, as well as nearly everyone on the street. Up close, the distinction is that his jacket is from Theory, which on Melkisethian is charming instead of obnoxious. As the drummer of No Justice, Desperate Measures, Lion of Judah, Zoom and now Give, his bona fides as a member of the D.C. hardcore punk community are indisputable, and his political interests longstanding, but he’s not self-serious enough to not own a cool jacket. This is fitting, since his store, Joint Custody — which he co-owns with former LOJ frontman James Ritter — is filled with records you want to listen to and very cool things to wear.

James Ritter, Courtesy of Angela Owens

Melkisethian and Ritter have been hunting for treasure at swap meets and thrift stores for decades now, and it’s only natural that their hobby would take on the form of a retail store at some point, as flipping rare records and gear was a primary tool for staying on the road in bands, and staying out of normal 9-5 life, although both hold down career-oriented day jobs on top of their duties at the store. I met Ritter for the first time in the back of a vets hall in California in 2003, when he looked like a young Norm MacDonald and was a roadie for Desperate Measures. Although we were at a hardcore fest, he wore Homer Simpson thong sandals until the last act of the night, because, “Outspoken gets shoes.” Now, his absence is less conspicuous, as he is married with a child, and at work (January 20 fell on a Friday).

As we leave the protest and walk over to the shop, located on U Street near 14th — generally prime real estate for foot traffic — the streets are once again quiet and the mood is off-putting. Even when we enter the store, there’s a millisecond where the usually warm staff pauses, before it registers that it’s just the owner and a friend. “You just don’t know today," says Ambrose Nzams, the first employee the store ever hired, who’s holding it down behind the counter. "I don’t think we’ve gotten any MAGA people, but all of a sudden it feels like everyone is suspect.”

He’s not alone — the store is fully staffed with familiar faces of the D.C. hardcore scene. Two guys folding shirts, Connor Donegan (Protester) and Ace Mendoza (Pure Disgust), account for many of the new bands coming out of the area, and the latter is playing a sprawling anti-Trump benefit at the Black Cat in a few hours that features Sadie Dupuis (Speedy Ortiz) and Ted Leo. In the back, “Crucial” John Scharbach, the singer of Give, is processing orders adjacent to a vintage Bold poster, but the vinyl on the walls reflects current good taste, showing off the new Solange and Blood Orange LPs, as well as archaic youth crew and genre gems.

Although he’s physically caught up taking care of life this particular weekend, Ritter is on the phone with Melkisethian throughout the day, as they position themselves to possibly head over to a collector’s house that night to buy a haul. The guy in question is a bit shifty, however, and they end up calling it off after he speaks to them differently, as if they don’t work together and communicate often. Melkisethian seems a bit disappointed, since the guy has good stuff, and generally they’re willing to pay generous prices as far as shop buyers go; it’s worth it for them to have the best and rarest things at all times. When I rub my hands staring at the wall of T-shirts, asking what their best is at the moment, his response isn’t to pull five things regardless of whether the subject matter matches my personal taste or not, but simply ask, “What you want?”

That is the delicate balance of being in D.C. rather than Los Angeles or New York. It doesn't make sense for them to cater only to premium clientele, even though the core of their collections could amount to a by-appointment-only store in another kind of city. Instead, they employ a bunch of smiling hardcore kids, and if you dig for 10 minutes, you might find a Boyz II Men tour shirt for $75 instead of the couple hundred it might be elsewhere. If that’s out of your price range or wheelhouse, there’s a special display for Moshers Delight cassettes, an excellent selection of women’s vintage and, appropriately, a jarring shirt made by the shop that says, “No White Hoods in the White House,” with a quease-inducing drawing of our dangerous moron President with a KKK hood pulled up to reveal his stupid leering smirk. Naturally, I posted a picture of it on social media almost immediately after purchasing one.

Gene Melkisethian, Courtesy of Angela Owens

The next morning, I woke up to find a handful of requests and a preemptive Venmo payment to pick up these shirts for folks back in New York. It’s no surprise, as every band that Melkisethian and Ritter have been in, or involved with, has had sought-after merch and coveted record art. It speaks to a taste level that has both depth and breadth, as much as them taking that taste and know-how, and providing a shop that employs their friends and delights their city. Returning to the shop to pick up more “No White Hoods” charity shirts, I find a different scene altogether. Much as the day of the Women’s March was literally brighter and warmer than the day before it, the sensation of 500,000 people marching in the streets warmed the entire city back up psychologically. Nzams was working alone with two friends hanging out at the counter, having the sort of inane, heated and detailed music conversation that takes place at all great record stores, interrupted only by someone almost returning a new Talking Heads record they had bought only hours before (their needle was messed up, not the record).

A month later, the shirt still isn’t up on their Etsy account, and it’s sold out, spare for a few XL and XXLs. Clicking through what they make available on the web, you only get a sliver of what it’s like to be in the space. The gear is good and the prices are fair, but in the age of availability, Joint Custody still manages to provide for so many wants while providing a physical space that’s the rarest of all.

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