When news broke last fall that Oakland’s Starline Social Club was for sale, it was a crushing blow to a scene already in free fall. The club’s business model was 100 percent based on filling the music venue’s 400-person ballroom for shows upstairs, and providing food and drinks for partiers downstairs; drinks to-go would not be enough to sustain it. When the pandemic hit, bills began to pile up, and there was not yet any guaranteed government relief in sight yet.
To save the business, Starline’s partners — including artists Adam Hatch and Drew Bennett, and Sam White, co-owner of Ramen Shop — decided to find a buyer, listing the 8,520-square-foot space for $3.2 million, and the business itself for $300,000, and hoping to find a like-minded buyer who believed in the inclusive, community programming it had become known for. Luckily, it didn’t come to that, as the second round of Small Business Administration Loans came through, and with the future promise of the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant (SVOG).
Now it’s planning to reopen, this time as a worker-owned collective, says founding partner Adam Hatch. The process of determining the best structure for the new model is in the early stages, but that’s the plan. “Running Starline was always like building the plane while you’re flying it,” says Hatch. “Now that we have some downtime, we’re revising a lot of our systems, dialing things in, and doing some renovations to the building.” That includes improvements to the kitchen to increase efficiency and volume, and a few fixes to decrease that ever-present bathroom line.
When it opened in 2015, Starline immediately became a hub for the local art and music scene, hosting jazz nights, comedy, poetry, karaoke, and open mic nights to diverse crowds in its cavernous space. The building, which the partners were able to purchase in 2018, was originally an Odd Fellows Hall, built in 1893. Before becoming the club it is today, tenants have included a saloon, a social club for the deaf, and Starline Janitorial Supply. Before Hatch, an artist and former owner of LoBot Gallery, launched it as Starline Social Club, he hosted underground dance parties, art installations, and food pop-ups there.
Over the years its seen artists like Solange Knowles and Big Freedia, local hip-hop stars, metal bands and punk bands, hosted Oakland’s largest natural wine fair, and endless events to support the community, from parties to raise rent money for neighbors in need to hosting resource villages for local unhoused people with showers, hot meals, barbers, and more.
Now that community energy will return, even more deeply entrenched in the business than before. “It became clear to me that we’ve always been a very community-oriented space and that if we were going to emerge from this, the idea of making it into its ultimate form is a community-based, mixed-use venue that’s actually owned by the people that work there,” says Hatch. “That way everybody has some skin in the game, and it just feels like that’s the right move.”
“I love the idea of people going to work there and having not just a sense of ownership but a piece of ownership,” says Hatch. “Understanding what that means on a technical scale is ongoing, but that’s where we’re going and that’s where we’ll be.”
Hatch and his partners sent out an email to former staff outlining the upcoming changes, and giving them the opportunity to participate. Many have moved on during the pandemic, says Hatch, moving to other cities like Los Angeles or Austin, or changing careers completely. “We just want to create the platform and refine the infrastructure so it’s more efficient and better to work there,” says Hatch. “We want to give people agency at their place of work.”
By September, it’s possible that more people will be vaccinated, and ready to venture out to see shows in group settings once more, especially considering Gov. Newsom’s vow to reopen the state by June 15. Hatch thinks it’s going to be the next roaring ’20s, an explosion of new art, music, and thoughts.
“All the artists, musicians, and activists have been distilling their craft, and when it’s time to open up the content is going to be incredible,” says Hatch. “There needs to be a venue for it.”