Photography by: Dana Veraldi
Melody Ehsani is a shop owner living in the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles, CA. Her namesake store has carved out space for women amongst a male-dominated block in The Fairfax District. Using strong design and a strong point of view as tools to empower, Melody takes the knowledge and experience she has gained through reading and owning a business to better serve herself and guide other women who ask her for recommendations. Creating an open and welcoming environment like this has garnered Melody several big-brand partnerships with Reebok and Nordstrom. We chatted with her about books and what it means to be a female run business at the local Intelligentsia.
Girls at Library: So tell me, what was the first book that made you fall in love with reading, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Melody Ehsani: When I was younger, The Babysitters Club series transported me to another world, and I realized it as a kid, “Oh this is taking me somewhere.” That’s what caused me to fall in love with it and with reading. But at every stage of my life, that feeling happens all over again with different kinds of books. When I read the Twilight series, I was like, “Oh my god!” all over again. Even when I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which was a big thing for me. I was studying philosophy in undergrad and I thought, “Whoa, how did she bridge these two worlds?” At every stage I’ve been reintroduced to my love of reading in a new way that I didn’t know was possible.
GAL: What is it about Ayn Rand's philosophy that you find most compelling and why?
ME: At the time that I read it, I was really struggling with deciding what I was going to do for the rest of my life. This book was basically an ode to the creative freethinker. Its main character was an innovative architect who was brilliant, but most often misunderstood and rejected by the majority. He struggled for acceptance of his ideas and often had to go up against tradition and the status quo and all the fear that people in society have of letting go of how something has always been done to try something new. The theme, as Ayn Rand states, is the individual versus the collective or "collectivism" as she calls it—not in politics, but in men's souls. It's about the conflict between those who think for themselves and those who allow others to dominate their lives. The way in which she creates this world around this idea was what made me fall in love with the book, because by the end of it, I was more clear as to what side of things I wanted to be on—and how I wanted to live my life.
GAL: What book or series has guided you to the most current state of “I love reading”?
ME: Twilight. I know the books are cheesy, but the series came out around the time I had started my business. I was super stressed and I worked a lot, and my friends kept trying to get me to read this book, and I was like, “It’s so stupid, I’m so not this person, I’m not into vampires, not into any of this stuff.” Then I read it and it just consumed to the point where I would take breaks in the middle of the day when I had to read, or there would be nights where I didn’t sleep, instead I’d just be up reading all night. I was so engulfed in this book that it became my own little escape. So since that, I’ve been thrown into this whole new stage of cheesy reading.
GAL: Did the Twilight movies disappoint you after reading the book? Or were you satisfied with how the book was represented?
ME: Ok, I have to admit, the movies were pretty cheesy. However, because I was already in love with the story, it actually caused me to really enjoy the movies. In terms of how they were adapted, I was also really happy with that.
GAL: What was your follow up to Twilight?
ME: The Discovery of Witches. Have you heard of that? It’s kind of the same sort of thing, but it’s vampires and witches. That was really good, and then my other friends put me onto this other series called The Magic series, and it’s co-authored by this couple called Illona Andrews, she’s Illona and he’s Andrew. It was such a departure from my life that I really liked it.
GAL: Yeah, it’s definitely more like reading for pleasure and excitement rather than reading for philosophical knowledge. But there must be something else in it too. People were reading Twilight and they were saying it was good, but then people were reading 50 Shades of Grey and saying it was a horrible book, when people were going through not just one but the whole Twilight series.
ME: Yeah, I tried reading 50 Shades of Grey and I couldn’t get into it, because it was too unrealistic. I was like, nobody has sex like this. I just couldn’t identify with any part of it, and the make believe part of it didn’t really grab me, whereas in Twilight I really loved the characters so even now to this day, it’s really corny, but I’ll watch it again and I’ll open the book because it feels like I’m hanging out with friends. You know? It’s like, I have a connection with these characters.
GAL: On the opposite end, besides Ayn Rand, are there any memorable philosophical books you discovered while in school?
ME: Not really. I was so busy studying. I had a crazy workload at school so I didn’t have time to read, which was really sad. Even the Ayn Rand thing, I did an internship in D.C. for a quarter away from school, and that’s the only reason I got to read that, because I had time. I was in a different city, and then I was on a program that UCLA was doing, so my coursework was a lot less because part of it was supposed to be experiential.
GAL: You finally had time to get into something.
ME: Yeah, I finally had a minute to do something other than study. Even now, with a heavy workload, by the time I get home at night I’m so tired, I just can’t. So whenever I can fit in reading I will—like right now my friends and I are all reading A Wrinkle in Time, which I’m excited to start but I haven’t yet.
GAL: Oh yeah! I’m excited they are making it into a movie.
ME: Yes! I heard that, I’m going to read it before the movie comes out. My best friend is an avid reader, and A Wrinkle in Time is her favorite book of all time—the kind of friend who finishes a book in three days. This intrigued me—I’m like, if you’re saying that, I need to pay attention to it.
GAL: It is well known amongst a younger crowd also. I read that younger girls come into your store all the time for advice as your store acts as an enclave on the male-dominated block. Are there any books that you typically recommend to the girls you’re giving advice to, who are coming in to talk to you about life and books?
ME: Yeah, totally! I always recommend The Artist’s Way. It’s a good, basic guide to finding your compass in a sense. So that’s one that I recommend a lot. It just depends on who the person is and what they’re asking about. I’ve recommended other books too depending on what they need, because a lot of them are in situations that are kind of hard at home, so something transportive like a Twilight could be good. But it really depends on the person, and what they’re into.
GAL: But they definitely come in and ask for book recommendations?
ME: Oh yeah, it’s happened before. Or it’s funny, sometimes if I’m reading something I’ll post it, like I posted it on Facebook, and then I’ll have like 10 people respond and say “Oh gosh, can you tell us what else you read?” And I’ll be like, “I didn’t know this was a thing!” I forget how lucky I am because I have this incredible circle of friends that I can share recommendations and talk about these things with. If I were to just go into a bookstore, I wouldn’t know where to start at all. It's so nice to have books recommended from a person who might be in the same place you are, going through the same things, or the same age.
GAL: Yeah, because you feel like books have helped you get through things in your life.
ME: Totally. I think one of the reasons I liked Twilight so much was because it helped me through a breakup [laughs].
GAL: What about Twilight helped you through your breakup?
ME: The main male character. By the time I broke up with my ex, I was despondent. I was like, oh maybe this kind of guy doesn’t exist. I became really cynical and I kept thinking that all guys are like this ex, everybody cheats, and everybody this, and everybody that. When I got to know the Twilight character, it created a fresh prototype who helped me believe again. It’s so corny saying all this out loud, but it was really cool to get to know him, even though he was a character. He was so real to me. He and Twilight helped me get back to not being in a negative or cynical frame of mind.
GAL: Having books on hand for certain kinds of life events is helpful. Are there any other books that have gotten you through things?
ME: I have my own business. I’m the first one who graduated school and went to college in my family. Nobody in my family quite understands what I’m doing, so a lot of times it feels like I’m doing things blindly, and I’ll wonder if am I doing things the right way. As my business has grown, decisions feel more and more dire because there’s so much more on the line. I have employees and I have overhead now that I need to maintain. Reading biographies seems to help. I read Walt Disney’s biography recently, and it was so helpful to read about somebody else who had done something that hadn’t been done before in his own world, and what he went through, and how many times he failed.
GAL: Yeah, learning little things about each person’s life experience and even that one thing you get out of it can be profound. It's similar in an on-topic yet off-topic sort of a way to being in another’s home, seeing how other people do things, how they treat their objects, manage their lives, in ways you’ve never seen in your own home, that can be interesting and life-altering. I love learning from friends and people that I’m interested in. Similar to how you find out these pieces of them in their biographies sort of getting a glimpse of their mental home.
ME: Totally. It’s inspiring because you can take their skill set and pair it with other things to create your own way. Even with the current political situation, it’s been so helpful reading books that were written in the 60's, when different movements were occurring, and reading about history in that way, where it’s more recent and realizing how little has changed and what hasn’t worked and what our role is, because I know that’s been a thing. I’ve felt so helpless recently. How do I contribute to the solution versus being a part of the problem? So reading a lot of those books have really helped.
GAL: In this current political climate, do you have any specific go-tos for help?
ME: I’m a Bahá’í and delving into spiritual writings really helps me center and put things into perspective when it comes to the political climate, and James Baldwin—his books have been helping me a lot lately. Remembering that many of the issues that we're dealing with now are not new—they have existed for a long time—and we have an opportunity to really do something about them now. It’s our time.
GAL: I read on a blog that you’re the only female-run business on your block. Are you still the only female-owned business? Has that been difficult?
ME: When my store first opened, many of the guys were really happy we were there because they don’t want it to be a boys club. Everyone was really welcoming and very nice, and it’s still like that. A lot of restaurants have moved here, like Jon and Vinny’s, and the head chef there is a woman as are higher level staff. It creates a certain positive synergy with my store. Down the street there’s a women-owned barber shop which is really cool and a vintage store called Tried and True that’s also owned by a girl.
GAL: It does seem kind of crazy that it was all guys before your store opened.
ME: It’s a really big skateboarding culture around here.
GAL: Do you find that there’s a lot of girls around the neighborhood who are into skateboarding?
ME: Well, the girls who are into skateboarding come and infiltrate the block, but it’s such a boys club, it’s kind of hard to get in. So unless you come through the ranks, unless you know someone or grew up with them or something like that, it’s really hard. It’s kind of immature; it’s like high school.
GAL: Since you're a designer and heavily influenced by aesthetics, can you please name either a well-designed book cover that you particularly love or an aesthetic description or moment inside of a book that really struck a chord with you?
ME: In general, I really love aesthetic descriptions inside fantasy or sci-fi type books like Harry Potter, The Discovery of Witches, or this series I recently read called Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews. Something that comes to mind more recent is a book by Julie Burns Walker. She's a medical intuitive that had a lengthy near death experience. Every page in that book contains a couple lines to a paragraph that blows my mind. In terms of a well-designed book cover, I really loved the cover of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
GAL: You come from a Persian family. Do you have a favorite Persian author? Rumi comes to mind as being one of the most famous ones.
ME: Yes, Rumi is wonderful! But I'm also in love with Hafiz. There are many translations of his work available, but my favorite is done by Daniel Ladinsky.
GAL: So, as you may know, we have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
ME: I think I have a whole arsenal of go-to's depending on what’s happening around in general—but the two most common ones are:
The Artists Way — I pick this up every now and then and just flip to a page and there's always knowledge there that helps me.
Twilight — I feel like I'm making a confessional. But I love these characters and it makes me feel like Im hanging out with friends.
GAL: Lastly, you say on your website: "A portion from each M.E. item purchased will go towards the advancement and education of women in our society." Is there a particular charity or organization you work with?
ME: I've left this sort of vague on my website, because this changes regularly, depending on what I designed and why and who Ive dedicated it to. For example this last season I gave a percentage of everything to the following charities, because I wanted to support women of color:
Black Girls Rock
Black Women's Health Imperative
Black Girls Code
Black Women's Blueprint
National Council of Negro Women