R&D Vinyl looks to build community, left-of-center style, in new South Philly digs

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R&D Vinyl | photo by David Milstein

Just over a year ago, Queen Village locals started peaking their heads in R&D Vinyl’s original Fourth Street location. At first the curious window shoppers were coming into the store out of earnest friendliness and interest. But quickly things changed, influencing R&D to take their experimental-focused and cassette tape-heavy inventory to a better-suited block of South Philly’s Dickinson Narrows neighborhood.

Now situated only a couple doors off Dickinson Street’s southwest corner at Sixth Street, R&D, which is short for Research and Development, is feeling at home. As a matter of fact, co-owner David Milstein calls that block of Sixth Street home, too. One day he passed the storefront, noticing a “For Rent,” sign on the door, automatically imagining having the store on the same block in which he lives being “kind of like a fantasy.” At the time, he and other co-owner John Mariano, had been considering moving the store for multiple reasons. One of which was the pushback they got from Queen Village residents throughout R&D’s inaugural year in business.

R&D Vinyl | photo by David Milstein

Milstein includes hosting live music as part of the store’s missions, among being a destination for cassette tapes and vinyl records, especially for experimental and local music. However, after putting on just a couple shows, people began to complain. It wasn’t so much about noise pollution as much as the crowds of R&D patrons found on the sidewalk between sets during shows.

“No one wanted us to have shows,” Milstein says about the store’s first neighborhood while sitting inside the new location last month prior to finishing moving in. “And I don’t want to fight that. I think people in the neighborhood were being quiet at first. But by the second or third show it became apparent that they didn’t like that we had shows. So, they started to vocalize and complain. But they wouldn’t talk to us. Maybe they were too shy or not confrontational enough to talk directly to us. Long story short, when we realized it was becoming more of an issue than we initially realized, we decided we had to stop having shows.”

Milstein says R&D was approached by a district official representing the neighborhood, whom he says tried to be accommodating and was happy to have another record store in the area. However, Milstein was skeptical it could continue.

“I didn’t want to have another show unless it was exclusively a positive thing for everybody,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to think we were being rebellious or we were trying to fight anybody like that.”

R&D Vinyl | photo by Shaun Dermond

He adds that, aside from the fact that R&D would’ve been open for business when they were having shows, the store never made any money from concerts. They were strictly to support local and touring artists. Neither profiting on shows was his intention, nor was moving the location originally, though. But Milstein is bringing what he learned from these changes to the new digs.

“The first year taught us a lot about what kind of relationship we want to have with the landlord, the neighborhood and the community,” he says. “We want to be able to have shows and we want to be transparent about that. And we want to know how we affect the area. So, we’ve talked to the [new] neighbors and people in the area to see how they feel and so far everything has been positive.”

The store has already held several shows in the Dickinson Narrows location, without any issues by cooperating and communicating clearly with neighbors. The performances have been largely experimental musicians. It goes along with the music they keep in stock. One of their most popular artists has been Philly’s electronic noisemaker Nah, according to Milstein. He says on more than one occasion, Nah had been playing over the store’s stereo when customers excitedly ask who it was. Without hesitation those people then bought Nah cassettes. The format of which Milstein says they carry just as much of as vinyl and plans on making R&D’s specialty.

R&D Vinyl | photo by Shaun Dermond

Milstein has a close relationship with Nah’s label, Ranch Records, and keeps much of the Ranch catalog in stock regularly as well as Ramp Local, the record label he runs with Jake Saunders. Milstein hopes to develop such partnerships with local imprints for more cross-promotion and consignment to keep a solid footing in the Philly scene.

Milstein and Mariano work other full-time jobs as well, so they aren’t looking for R&D to grow beyond its means, just yet anyway. Perhaps exposing their niche of experimental and local music is what the neighborhood needs and they’re taking it in the right direction.

“We’re not trying to have this be some bolstering business that will support ourselves and our families,” Milstein says. “I want this to level-out to be a music space for the community. And if that can happen here in South Philly where we can have the freedom to have shows and things, then that’s really the dream.”

R&D Vinyl | photo by David Milstein

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