End of an Era: Oakland Venue Starline Social Club is On the Market

Sudan Archives headlines the Starline Social Club during night two of the Noise Pop Music and Art Festival on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Before the pandemic, Starline Social Club overflowed with chattering party-goers on Fridays and Saturdays, hosted low-key folk and jazz shows during the week and offered a safe space to belt out karaoke every Sunday. Since shelter-in-place orders began in March, it’s mostly sat boarded up, apart from a short-lived period of serving takeout.

The popular Oakland bar, club and eatery’s owners say they’ve found themselves in a tough predicament as bills pile up, their Paycheck Protection Program loan runs out and legislation to help music venues stalls in Congress. And to avoid a potential future foreclosure on their property, they decided to sell the building and business. They hope a buyer with deeper pockets will carry forward Starline’s legacy after the pandemic is over and full-capacity concerts resume again.

“We’re not worried about our own egos and attachment to the business,” says Drew Bennett, one of the club’s four managing owners. “Our primary goal is to land the baby in safe hands.”

A historic ballroom built in the 1890s, Starline Social Club was once an Odd Fellows Hall and, later, an advocacy group for deaf people. It operated as a venue called 2232 MLK in the 2000s, and housed the Starline janitorial supply company. The building was mostly in disuse when one of the Starline Social Club owners, Adam Hatch, first visited it for an underground show over 10 years ago. He later rented it with several others as an unofficial artist live-work space, and, after undergoing the proper permitting processes, opened it as a bar, restaurant and music venue with seven business partners in 2015. They later acquired the building in 2018.

“I always had been doing underground kind of events, so the idea that we could do something legally or above ground was weird to me,” says Hatch. “But we got our stuff together. And when we got enough people involved and realized there was this opportunity to create this weird business that does shows, sells food and does stuff for the community, it got real.”

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Hatch, a co-founder of storied underground venue LoBot Gallery, carried with him a breadth of experience and connections in Oakland’s eclectic music scene, and the other owners came from various backgrounds in arts, culture and dining. (Alex Maynard, who developed the food and drinks menu, is also involved in Afro-Caribbean bar Sobre Mesa.)

Over the last five years, Starline Social Club became known as a home to Oakland’s many creative scenes, with rap shows, dance parties and indie rock concerts all taking place there—sometimes on the same night—while food and drinks were served downstairs. I DJed there semi-regularly over the last three years, and always found a diverse, open-minded crowd of people eager to embrace new sounds and underground throwbacks alike.

A crowd of dancers in a busy ballroom.
Partygoers at Starline Social Club in 2019. (In a Dream )

Hatch takes pride in the fact that Starline’s business model included paying a living wage and giving back to the surrounding community. As housing costs climbed in Oakland, it held rent parties where bar proceeds went to the living expenses of someone in need. Several times a year, the bar rounded up volunteer barbers and medical professionals and collected tent donations for the encampment of unhoused people down the street on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

“One of the reasons we were successful is one of the reasons we can’t survive,” says Hatch. “The bottom line to us wasn’t financial—the bottom line was what was happening in our community.”

Starline’s former talent buyer Jason Stinnett booked shows there with up-and-coming acts like rapper Princess Nokia and house producer Channel Tres, as well as nostalgic artists with cult followings, such as Egyptian Lover and Mike Jones. Local, multi-cultural party outfit Club Chai held a Boiler Room party there—the first in Oakland. “People were excited to hear new voices and new stories,” Stinnett says warmly of Starline’s audience.

Nearly seven months into the pandemic, some Oakland bars have reopened with outdoor tables and curbside food and drinks. But the owners of Starline say it’s unfeasible for them to operate at 25% or even 50% capacity. Their business model relied on their 400-person-capacity upstairs ballroom and 100-person-capacity side room to be packed to the brim, with people crowding in and ordering food and drinks all night. They also regularly rented out both spaces for more costly private events as an additional revenue stream. Though the venue never lacked patrons, the owners say they rarely profited with around $300,000 a year in mortgage, loans and insurance, in addition to what they paid their 65 employees.

“We don’t know how to survive with anything except for 100% of our full business models,” says Bennett.

And with the Save Our Stages Act, which would offer substantial grants to music venues, still awaiting a vote in Congress, the Starline team decided that it was better to sell than await help that may never come. “We have a mortgage, insurance and that kind of stuff, and there’s no money coming in,” says Hatch. “It’d be great if there was a signal from the government there’s going to be some kind of relief.”

The 8,520-square-foot building is now listed for $3.2 million; additionally, the business is priced at $300,000. Hatch, Bennett and the other owners hope the right buyer will come along—one who can preserve the Starline vision, or at least keep the space as a venue. “The pie in the sky would be that the hyper-inclusive, safe space, hyper-eclectic programming, thoughtful food and drink, activist-forward kind of culture would remain,” Bennett says. “That’s the center of the bull’s-eye. The rough aim is to keep the property as a cultural arts space for Oakland.”

He concludes, “The hot lava we’re trying not to step on is have the building fall into the hands of people who are not invested in the arts and culture.”

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This story was updated to include details about the Starline Social Club building’s previous incarnation as the venue 2232 MLK.