As you first approach the Bond Bread building in the Lawncrest section of North Philadelphia, it appears to be exactly what it once was—an old, abandoned factory. However, the closer you get to the Godfrey Avenue site it begins to display new signs of life. There is hustle and bustle going through the front doors, and the loading dock is filled with trucks making deliveries. It is here that I meet Federico Casanova of the soon-to-be-open Softwax Records plant, the only vinyl record production facility in the area. Like many other start-up businesses—from Amazon shipping subsidiaries to commercial kitchens—Softwax has decided to make their home in this massive, recently unused industrial site.
For nearly six decades, beginning in 1921, the building was home to General Baking Company’s Bond Bread factory, once a staple of the neighborhood and an employer to many of its residents. It was said by some who lived nearby that during the height of the company’s production you could smell the bakery from a mile away. After closing its doors in 1981, the Bond Building became the home to a Ports of The World outlet, an offshoot of Boscov’s department stores. In the mid-1990’s the Ports of The World store was transformed into a regular Boscov’s before closing for good in early 2005. The space then spent years almost entirely untouched.
Putting Local Pressing on the Platter
Casanova’s friends call him “Kiko,” and his warm, upbeat presence immediately makes you feel like one of them. As we first enter the warehouse, he guides me on a tour through a giant maze of boxes, furniture, and forklifts. It was in this room where the former Boscov’s department store was held. There are even some vestiges of this iteration in the form of lighting fixtures and signs advertising layaway.
As we push past to the back, Casanova opens the doors to what will soon be the Softwax plant. Although there’s not yet much in the huge space, you can hear the excitement in his voice about what is to come. The cavernous white room seems to inspire Casanova as a blank canvas soon to be filled with multiple record pressing machines, offices, and employees.
The Bond Building is still a work-in-progress, but will soon be the home to even more workspaces, storage units, meeting rooms, shipping centers, and kitchens, along with the companies operating out of them. This repurposing of the historic space excites Casanova. “That’s part of what I love about it,” he says. “It’s like we’re part of a revitalization.”
Casanova was born in Miami and spent his first 18 years there. An artist and musician, it was only after his brother moved to Philadelphia and invited him to come visit that he began to think about moving here.
“I fell in love with the city as soon as I got here. I went to go visit a couple months [after the first visit] and it just solidified my love for the city. It was really cool. I never experienced a city that had as many like-minded people as me. I met so many people that were out there doing the same things that I was doing.”
While living in a South Philly house that hosted bands from around the city, country, and world, Casanova noticed that many of the groups were playing songs they had written over a year-and-a-half before that, since that’s how long it took them to get the songs pressed on vinyl and make them available to sell. With no local pressing plants around, there was definitely a market out there.
“My engineering friend said, ‘We should look at pressing records. How hard could it be?’ Turns out, really hard,” Casanova laughs, “and really expensive!”
In 2013, he set out to make this dream a reality, although not without its hurdles. Since the industry was so small at the time, he found almost nothing about it online. Casanova eventually contacted Chris Moss of Lathe Trolls, an online record pressing forum, for advice.
“[Moss] ripped us a new one,” Casanova remembers. “He told us we don’t know what we’re doing, so we start writing notes. After about an hour and a half of him teaching us everything, my team was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore. This doesn’t sound fun.’” With his team bowing out, not only did Casanova still want to pursue the record plant, he “wanted to do it even more after that.”
The next step was getting a business plan together, which was difficult. To get accurate numbers, he called up every supplier he could find until he finally got it done. Casanova even took business classes to learn more about what goes into making a start-up.
Now armed with some concrete numbers to show people, he got a job at a record pressing plant in New Jersey, one that prints vinyl exclusively for major labels like Epitaph Records. He even met his current engineer Dan Greathouse there.
Casanova eventually moved back to Miami to work for another record pressing start-up. “That’s where I learned a lot,” he admits, “but also learned a lot about what not to do. It was a start-up and you’re gonna mess up sometimes.”
So why vinyl? “Listening to a vinyl is extremely engaging,” Casanova says. “The whole ritual of it is cool, the sound is super warm, the artwork blows my mind.”
His love for the format and of music helped him to stick to his dream, even during the harder times.
“There was a time when I was selling insurance just to try to save up money to have capital for the business,” Casanova recalls. “The days would be at the office, making phone calls and going out to meetings. I would come back home around 10pm just beat and all I would do is go back to the record player, put on the headphones, kick my legs up and damn, it felt so good. That was the highlight of the day.”
Although it had been a long process, Casanova, along with engineer Greathouse and Michael J. Wodnicki, Softwax’s chief technical and financial officer, finally began to searching for a building that would have everything they needed. They ended up spending nearly six months with no luck.
The team told their realtor, “We’re wasting time looking at every property. Let’s only look at properties that have high-pressure gas lines installed.” To run the record-pressing machines, it’s imperative to have high-pressure gas lines. Installing some would cost around $100,000 and would take weeks.
“We should have been doing that from the get-go,” Casanova says, “but we just didn’t know. There’s no guidelines on how to be doing this. It’s an industry that’s been asleep since the 1980s. Only the big companies stayed alive.”
Once they found the Bond Building, the crew at Softwax knew it was the perfect spot for their goal of making affordable records for local bands, something that Casanova knows is needed in the area. “It would make sense because shipping vinyl costs about $500 or $600, so they’re already saving money on shipping alone.”
The boiler room and gas should be ready by the end of July with production kicking off in the fall if all goes well. Casanova says there will be four presses at first, with the ultimate goal of six machines pressing a record every 30 to 40 seconds.