A Google search will tell you that Dischi Fenice is a ‘record store', but it is so much more than that. One of a disappearing breed of shops, it sells CDs, LPs and DVDs, it's true, but it is also possible to book tickets for Florence's Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florence's spectacular new opera house), buy music-inspired gadgets, perfumes and artwork, as well as posters, programmes, books and photographs. Importantly, it's possible to have a chat over a cup of coffee or attend one of the music encounters that are offered in a small room at the back of the shop.
Covid restrictions put a stop to these meetings, but at the end of October a new series began with the presentation of the Italian translation of Patrick Barbier's book on the life of Pauline Viardot, which I attended (what a life… and what a family). Italian translator Paolo Bonpresa was joined by the musicologist Paolo di Nicola and the mezzosoprano Marina Comparato who has recorded an album of songs by Viardot.
Dischi Fenice (Phoenix Discs) grew from the ashes of ‘Disclub' in piazza San Marco (near to the Accademia Gallery where Michelangelo's David is housed). Disclub was a lively meeting place for musicians and music lovers for thirty years and was founded by Giorgio Venturi, the father of Dischi Fenice's present owner, Silvia Venturi. It was Giorgio who saw the exciting possibilities when a new way of listening to music emerged in the 1980s – the compact disc. The shop was the first in Florence to sell this newfangled invention, it became a distribution centre for several record labels, and also produced several music magazines.
Fenice opened in 1993, a few years after the closure of Disclub. The opening months were not auspicious, and although the shop is close to the railway station, the conservatoire and the university, the small road where it is located can easily be missed. But word of mouth built a large following in the following years and its clients now are from all over Italy and beyond – all collezionisti know Dischi Fenice.
It was Fenice that the new opera house turned to when it opened its shop next to its vast foyers, which gave Silvia and her team contact with a substantial new clientele.
To combat the decline of sales of CDs due to online ordering possibilities (OK, let's say it, Amazon) and the rise of streaming services (and pirating), Silvia and her collaborators Danilo Dannery and Martina Magionami, have been inventive in finding ways of keeping the market alive as well as adding in new possibilities of revenue. A weekly newsletter via email offers second-hand CDs and books and provokes a rush at 1pm on Thursdays to scroll down and reserve items of interest before others do. Almost daily Fenice puts second-hand and rare CDs onto its Facebook page and they are snapped up immediately.
The shop also imports discs from abroad that have not found an Italian distributor, and they have early bird access to certain labels. Its collaboration with the cultural associations of Florence has ‘you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' advantages, and the ornaments on sale (not necessarily with a musical or theatrical theme) are popular with tourists and regular customers alike.
A constant flux of couriers brings in new material as well as sending out online orders as well as those of the visitors to the shop – a tourist doesn't want to lug around books and CDs for the rest of their holiday.
So many of these specialised shops, brimming with charm, have closed down, but the inventiveness and passion with which Dischi Fenice is run keep its head above water… for now.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.