Steve Adams of ALO Starts Oakland’s Mars Record Shop Specializing In Local & Vintage

It’s no surprise that full-time musicians are obsessive record collectors, but it might raise an eyebrow of interest when that notable musician opens his own record shop. Steve Adams is that industrious artist who has been the longtime bass player in the California rock band ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) which is signed to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records. Adams has toured with Brett Dennen, Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers and is a pillar of the Northern California music community where he can often be heard performing with members of The Mother Hips & more.

Adams can now add record store owner to his credits as he recently opened up the colorful new Mars Records in the Piedmont Section of Oakland. Glide recently had the pleasure of speaking with Adams about opening Mars, some of his coolest vinyl finds, and just what makes Mars different than other shops.

How did you go about opening Mars Records?

I opened Mars Records at the end of 2020. I’ve been a full-time musician since 2005 – gigging, touring, and recording. With music venues closed and gigs canceled due to the pandemic, I found myself brainstorming what else I could do to make it through the times. 

I’ve always loved records, everything about them. Finding them, collecting them, studying them, listening to them of course. I’ve worked part-time at lots of record shops throughout the years, and in 2018 I started selling at local swaps and such. I always thought I might spend my later years/”retirement” running a record shop. The window of opportunity came a little early I guess!

I’d been helping out a vintage shop on Piedmont Ave with a little record section which unfortunately had to close doors in the Summer of 2020. With the idea brewing in my mind, I started researching logistics and locations, and found myself back in the same zone as that vintage shop, but just next door. I already knew the landlord somewhat, so we felt comfortable working out a “pandemic deal” that was good for both of us. 

I got the keys that Fall, and with a little help from some friends, we cleaned up the space and painted it. I had one buddy build the record bins and the stage. And another buddy brought in his art. I brought my records in on Thanksgiving night and was up and running on Black Friday. To my amazement and delight, Mars looked like a cool record shop!

As for new vs old, I’d say 95% of the Mars inventory is used records. 

Other than your own store, what and where is the greatest record store shopping experience you ever had?

My greatest record shopping experience ever would probably be one of my earliest. As a young teen, I would get myself out to Streetlight Records in San Jose – their first location I believe. I remember it like a little shack, with a few low-ceiling rooms, and records in every nook. Thinking back, it feels like a dream. I’m sure there was some great collectible finds that I was very unaware of, but my joy came from digging through the bargain bins, walking out with a short stack, and keeping my spending still under 10 bucks. Stanley Clarke, Spyro Gyra, Little Feat, Steely Dan – some of my favorite Lp scores from back then.

What is your greatest $1 bin find?

A minty early mono pressing of “Black Saint & The Sinner Lady” by Charles Mingus. Found it at a Salvation Army in Santa Cruz. It’s a record I would’ve paid a collector’s price for some day. Still one of my absolute favorites.

Do you have a cheap bin and what do you typically find in there?

My bargain bins start at $1 typically. They cover most genres and range in condition, although I make an extra effort to weed out anything cracked, warped, moldy, etc. I also try to keep them somewhat organized so I can dig in there if a customer asks for Barbara Streisand or Percy Faith. 

The “more expensive” $3 bins tend to be a little more curated, better conditions, titles that match the shop vibe. I know recently I sold some $3 Les McCann, Joni Mitchell, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Herb Alpert. It’s really different every week though, so you never know what you’ll find.

Also, most of my non-vinyl media (Tapes, Cds, Vhs, Dvds) are all $3 as well. Better ones are sometimes priced up a little. And any $3 item in the store can always be combined for a “4 for $10” deal. Some days I do “2 for $5”, some days “buy one get one”, and some days “free” even. Depends on how much space I need to make that week!

My favorite media next to vinyl is probably Vhs tapes. They give me a similar nostalgic “hit” as the records. I tend to favor movies that have a strong musical connection – obviously, rock docs and stories about musicians, but also movies with great soundtracks like Pulp Fiction, Dazed  & Confused, Almost Famous, High Fidelity of course, and classic 70s/80s movies like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Spinal Tap, Breakfast Club, Back To The Future

The Vhs doesn’t get picked over as often, but it’s fun to see people’s reaction to them and on occasion, a heady collector rolls through.

Photo by Andrew Quist

What was the transition like from touring musician to record shop owner?

Easy at first! Gigs were off the table, so I really had a lot of time to put into building up the shop. Physically, all the infrastructure and inventory. And promotionally, connecting with future regular customers – mainly folks in the neighborhood but also record/art lovers from all parts.

So I feel like I cruised pretty well for the first year. But this year has definitely been trickier, trying to manage the ALO schedule and all the local/regional gigs that come up.

I have been turning more gigs down, which makes me a little sad some days. And as live music builds back up, I do find myself missing that full immersion in the playing scene. But I also have really loved having the shop routine too. It’s a whole other thing, connected to a whole other community, but there’s still a huge cross-section. It’s all music-related after all. 

Inviting bands by the shop, promoting local releases, having in-store/backyard shows, it still feels very connected. And seeing the shop grow is thrilling, it just puts more management and responsibility on my plate. But seeing it all working in its best moments makes me determined to find that sweet spot for it all.

What is your curation process like for the shop? 

The record curation at the shop is really a combination of my own personal tastes (and all its sideways-evolving directions) along with the same from my tight group of consignment sellers. I also do my best to listen attentively to what customers are hunting for and relay that to my consignment folks too.

And in more descriptive terms, I’m constantly looking for good Jazz, Soul, Classic Rock, Classical, Lounge, Country, Folk, World.

I also have an 80’s section that’s pretty fun. Personally/lately, I’ve really been digging 80’s Electro-soul vibes, and sorting out who had all those killer hits I heard growing up – Cameo, Klymaxx, Ready For The World, Dazz Band, LTD, Club Nouveau. My own unexplored areas are typically where I dig in. The unknown edges are always the most thrilling. 

My consignment folks also do a great job rounding out the shop style. They’ve been bringing in great rare Psych/Garage Rock, Americana, Reggae and I got a guy who’s deep into Metal. I try to balance out the shop with a little bit of everything, best I can.

I see in your bio that you have always had an affinity for collecting, do you remember the first record you ever bought? 

I’m not totally sure the first one I “bought”, but I remember the first one I “owned”. It was the Beatles’ “Greatest Hits”, with a white jacket cover and the Beatles logo up top. It was a birthday gift. I was pumped, I was already a big fan of the band, thanks to my parents of course. But little did I know I would become a massive fan of vinyl records.

As an avid collector, what is one vinyl you’ve always wanted but haven’t gotten your hands on yet? 

I’ve definitely been checking records off my list as years go by. A Folkways release – “Country Brass Bands of the South” – was pretty high up on the list. Also, original copies of “Ah Hum” and “Mingus Dynasty” by Charles Mingus. I also got Bobby McFerrin’s “Medicine Man” recently, which was only released in Europe. But by request/assignment, a friend found it overseas and brought it back! 

One record I’ve been wanting for a good while now though is “Rules” by The Whitest Boy Alive, a German release from 2009. My drummer buddy turned me onto them, and I really dig their minimalist/groovy sound. I may break down soon and order it online. Though everyone knows, it’s more fun finding those sought-out titles in the wild. That feeling of discovery is a big part of the joy of collecting.

You also have a section of your shop for local artists to display their albums, how did that come about? 

Being a musician myself, I knew before I opened that I really wanted to promote local bands, big and small. Lucky for me, that included many of my friends right off-the-bat. But I’ve definitely gotten to know many more local bands and musicians since opening the shop, so that’s been super fun. Record shops are magnets for musicians I think, so connecting with the local scene has come very naturally.

How would a local band go about getting their album placed in the shop? 

Call, email or just swing by the shop. Let’s do it!

What is the coolest record someone has brought in to trade/sell? 

A customer recently came in with a couple of boxes of records, thinning out his collection at home, etc. He had a bunch of great titles but when flipping through together, he stopped me on one and said “that one is special”. It was one by his composer teacher from college, Luigi Zaninelli. It seems to be a pretty low-profile release, but I’ve listened to it a few times now and very much dig it. It’s one I plan to “hard-file” at home, along with the great memory of hanging with that customer that afternoon.

What has been the most challenging part of starting up the new shop? 

To be honest, figuring out how the business tax stuff works, that’s been very new to me. 

And also, managing incoming inventory. Records pile up quickly and before you know it, you’ve built a cardboard fort around yourself in the corner of the shop. Every week you figure out a little something new about how to do it all though, which keeps it exciting. I always enjoy each little breakthrough/evolutionary step.

Tell me about your relationship with Jeff Boozer, what has it been like hosting an art show at the shop? 

Jeff was a good buddy who passed away in May 2020 from diabetes complications. We met working at Open Mind Music in Rockridge, and ended up becoming friends and doing lots of swaps, digs, and hangs together. Jeff was also a super-talented screen-print artist, creating lots of cool concert posters, but also very stylistic pieces of his own, non-concert-related.

When I decided to open the shop, I already knew I wanted to feature rotating art, and I mentioned to Jeff’s family that if they wanted, I would love to do a Boozer art show at Mars sometime, and maybe even a little memorial hang too. They loved the idea and we put it all together this Summer. The opening was in June and was an amazing, unforgettable day and night.

As it’s been with other artists I’ve featured at the shop, the rotating art is always a special component for me. Since I’m there almost every day, I feel like I’m getting extra hang time with the artist, surrounded by their style and expression. 

Jeff was a dear friend, and I know so many of his friends miss him a lot. He was loved by many little scenes around Oakland, and I feel super honored to be showcasing his art at the shop this Summer.

Photo by Andrew Quist

What inspired you to start hosting art installations at Mars Record Shop? 

Like the local bands thing, I knew I wanted to do it before I opened. And I also knew the first artist I wanted to feature – my buddy Danny Luehring

I’ve played lots of music with Danny, especially up at the Terrapin Crossroads scene in San Rafael. He’s a fantastic local drummer, and his art is super cool – very colorful, abstract in ways, soulful, and joyful. Danny started posting images of his art pieces and I fell in love quickly. I had no idea he made art besides music. 

Danny hadn’t shown his work too much yet and the timing seemed perfect for us to collaborate. I was opening the shop and he had pieces ready to go. His art was the first “visual art” vibe up at Mars, and I just loved it. We kept it up for 9 months maybe! 

After feeling more settled in at the shop, I started to rotate the art shows more regularly, every 3 months or so. Lucky for me, I’ve managed to keep the space filled with great art by friends old and new, and even some regular local customers. 

What is your top priority when running a store like Mars Record Shop? 

Connecting with customers, stocking great records, presenting used records as clean as possible, spinning good music, making sure people feel welcome, keeping the shop fresh and tidy, being available to customers, and just doing my best to create a fun, chill, positive, creative vibe.

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