It’s a Community Thing: Strange Matter’s DIY Fest

by | May 10, 2010 | RICHMOND NEWS

The building at 929 W. Grace St. has deep roots in many Richmonder’s lives. A lot of kids grew up going to shows there when it was Twisters, 929 Cafe, and the Nanci Raygun.

The building at 929 W. Grace St. has deep roots in many Richmonder’s lives. A lot of kids grew up going to shows there when it was Twisters, 929 Cafe, and the Nanci Raygun. Needless to say, people were really bummed when it’s final incarnation, the Raygun, shut down in 2006, and pretty skeptical when it reopened as The Bagel Czar in 2008. Well, the Czar has since come and gone, and Strange Matter, a multi-facted bar/arcade/venue/community center has taken its place, offering more than just live shows, but still having some pretty big shoes to fill.

I have to say, while there’s still a lot of work to be done on getting the status of Strange Matter as a music venue back to where it was in earlier years, the staff have done a great job of creating a sustainable atmosphere offering more than just music. The place has a laid-back, friendly atmosphere, the food is pretty good, and vegan friendly, the staff is really nice, and the arcade games are all classics from growing up.

This past weekend, Strange Matter hosted a DIY Fest, which included video game tournaments, an art exhibit, a clothing swap organized by Rumors, and discussion panels on queer-positive sexual health, urban gardening, basic bicycle maintenance, screenprinting, and beatmaking. The event had a solid turn-out, with most of the sign-up events being fully booked up, and a steady flow of people coming in off the street to check things out. I got a chance to sit down with managers Bobby Pembleton and Jenn Ward, and business consultant Giovanni Zayas, to shoot the shit about the DIY Fest, the business so far, and what they think Strange Matter can mean for the community.

ben stein embroidery

DIY exhibit 1

DIY exhibit flyers

Me: So when did Strange Matter open?

Bobby: December 28th, 2009.

Jenn: It was difficult opening up because we didn’t have shows. I applied for that permit in June, when we took over the lease, and people kept suggesting that we should have shows as if we weren’t trying. It was pretty frustrating.

Me: So when did you get your music license back?

B: About three weeks ago, we got it on the 21st of April.

Me: How’s business going?

B: Better every week. It’s almost impossible for a restaurant to turn a profit in the first year, but we’re doing better than we’d expected. As always though, we still need the support of the community.

Me: So you guys worked here when it was the Bagel Czar, which didn’t last very long, is there anything you learned from that experience?

J: What it really taught us was to listen to other people’s ideas, because not every idea we have is the best one. And also we learned to put our foot down a little bit.

Me: Is it surreal managing this place given the history?

B: I saw my first show at Twisters, and I saw dozens of shows here in high school. It’s weird. Usually you get absorbed in the day to day stuff, but every once in a while I stop and think about the shows I saw in high school and it’s pretty fucking crazy.

Me: So who’s idea was DIY Fest?

Giovanni: It was Jenn’s idea. We wanted to have a big event, we were brainstorming and Jenn came up with DIY Fest.

J: We planned it in the middle of when we weren’t having shows.

B: We also wanted to show the community what we wanted to do with the space and what the space was all about. We sort of accomplished the goal of showing the community what kind of space we’re trying to have here.

Me: Which is?

B: Something that maintains the historical presence of the building itself. Something where active participation in the community is encouraged.

record monster

clothing swap

DIY gyno discussion

J: One thing we’ve tried to do is take as many suggestions as possible from the community, employees and customers alike. To the point where sometimes I want to pull my hair out. For example, people saying “you should have more vegan options,” I have to go and get 4-cases of jackfruit from TAN-A every day.

Me: What’s a jackfruit?

J: It’s a fruit from Southeast Asia, if you let it ripen it’s sweet. They pick it before it ripens though and when you sautee it you can pull it apart like pulled pork.

Me: Sounds Tasty. So, backtracking a little bit, how was the process of getting your live entertainment license back?

B: Like banging your head against the wall.

J: You go down to city hall, you have to find parking first and foremost. You ask some questions and they give snippets of the answers to completely different questions.

B: It’s like Dungeons and Dragons. You can play every day of your life and never win.

J: You email a bunch and call a bunch, you have to listen to a bunch of automated messages and finally you get someone, and they just sound confused. When we tried to schedule an inspection, it ended up being automated. And then they asked why I didn’t do that in the first place. And everything costs so much money too.

B: Starting a small business, if you’ve never done it before, is incredibly frustrating.

J: Yeah, you oughtta wait a year before you ask me if I’d do it again. When the Bagel Czar closed, there was this huge auction. We had been repainting the space because everything was super fucking white, and we took a weekend off. We came back and apparently they’d reclaimed everything so they could list it and sell it. The place was completely empty.

Me: How’d you get it back?

B: We contacted the auction company, argued with them over the ownership for a bit, but we ended up buying a whole bunch of stuff from them and establishing a pretty good relationship with them.

J: But I stole a milkshake machine from them anyways.

safe sex flyers

DIY gardening talk

DIY printmaking

Me: So how’d the DIY Fest come together?

B: Well as far as participants, enough of the people we included had been supporting us as customers, so we contacted a bunch of them.

J: Bob from Play N’ Trade totally helped us out with gift cards as rewards for our video game tournaments, that guy is fucking incredible. So helpful, so selfless.

G: We already had certain ideas, and I really wanted to include some Richmond basic businesses, so I thought of Ellwood Thompson’s and we got them to do the gardening seminar. We knew this guy Spencer Hansen who does screenprinting, so we called him for a screenprinting workshop, etc. We had a bunch of meetings at Babe’s in Carytown, selected what we liked, and we ended up with the DIY Fest.

Me: How’d you find the artists?

G: Michael Birch-Pierce offered to do an embroidery workshop so we got him to show some of his work too. The other artists were people I knew, the illustrators were girls I knew that expressed interest in getting their stuff put up, and Julia had already done one of our murals. So we got her to put up some stuff. And Devon, he’d already expressed some interest to Bobby about doing some illustration stuff, so we invited him as well.

J: We wanted some academic stuff in there, so we found people to do the DIY Gynecology and the Queer-Positive Sexual Health discussion. We made a harness out of a bike innertube. Do what you want with that.

DIY prints

DIY bike maintenance

DIY bike maintenance 2

Me: Very cool. So did you plan on Strange Matter being as much of a multi-faceted business as it ended up being, or did that just happen organically?

B: When we were planning his place, it was going to be a music venue, like it’s been for generations. When we found out we couldn’t have live entertainment right off the bat, we were just really concerned that the community would reject anything besides this space being a venue. So we made sure to do our best to give the best possible space we could without having live music in order to encourage them to support the business long enough to get live music. And they did.

Me: How do you feel about the business right now?

B: As managers we’ll never be 100% satisfied, I don’t want to be 100% satisfied, but I think it’s gotten better every week and we’ve got a really special spot here. With continued support from the community we’ll build this place up brick by brick to hopefully be one of the best venues this city has seen.

Me: How did the arcade games come into play?

B: Happenstance. We expressed a general interest to our friends and someone let us know that Beth had a whole bunch she would sell us. It’s impossible to determine what a huge art community like ours would want as a theme, so I just thought about what I would want as a theme, and the answer was “space and video games.”

(Jenn leaves the table momentarily and comes back just in time to hear “the answer is ‘space and video games.’)

J: To everything. I don’t know what the question was, but yeah.

Thanks again to Strange Matter and everybody involved in setting up the DIY Fest, keep up the good work guys!

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.




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