Hip-hop legends Jazzy Jeff and ?uestlove still frequent Armand’s Records on Chestnut Street, despite the fact that a handful of turntables, behind the cash-for-gold section, are the only reminder that this former DJ mecca once claimed the city’s largest vinyl collection. Vinyl isn’t dead in Philadelphia; it’s just more likely to be in the hands of some unexpected music lovers than in those of DJs, who have all but abandoned records in favor of digital formats.
“There’s a renaissance of older people who want to have this experience again — and young people are impulsively buying records who don’t even have record players,” says Adam Porter (a.k.a. DJ Botany 500), who recently opened Milkcrate Cafe on Girard Avenue in Fishtown. “Right now, vinyl is the one thing that’s putting value back into music.”
Part coffee shop, part vinyl gallery, Milkcrate will eventually host a 10,000-disk basement record store. It’s tapping a market that includes baby boomers who’ve begun buying $15 Abbey Road vinyl reissues at Best Buy and $90 turntables at Bed Bath & Beyond. (Nationally, vinyl sales increased nearly 90 percent in 2008 and then another 33 percent in 2009, to 2.5 million.) And it’s drawing hipsters and connoisseurs who geek out over $1,000 phonograph needles and pick through racks at Philadelphia record stores like Long in the Tooth and Beautiful World Syndicate, and millions of esoteric 45s at Val Shively’s R&B Records in Upper Darby.
But it’s not all about the listening experience and showing off your collection — for some, it’s also an investment. At the Philadelphia home of music producer Aaron Levinson, an army of 10,000 records has commandeered his living room. Levinson bought 20,000 records last year, flipping all but the most valuable. He points to a Tom Waits box set. “I got this last week for $150, and in six months it will sell for $300. It’s better than the stock market. It’s better than buying gold,” he says. “What else can you buy for $150 and sell for $300 six months later?”
As with stocks, vinyl’s value fluctuates. Yesterday’s dollar-bin fodder could sell for $4,000 in Japan tomorrow — and it sometimes does. So collectors come from around the world to scour Philadelphia for a rich inventory and prices a fraction of those in New York. “I don’t have a car, but I do have monoblock tube amps,” Levinson says. “You have to make choices in life.”