Oakland’s Mountain Music owners look ahead after surviving pandemic
By Lou Fancher
If Mountain Music owners Adam and Felicia Lipansky were a stereo sound system, they’d be a high-fidelity model. Unlike most business partners or married couples — the Lipanskys are both — they rarely interrupt or complete each other’s sentences. Instead, they operate at perfect pitch with balanced, complete harmony, especially when they speak about Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue community and their roles in it.
Adam Lipansky is a musician and luthier (someone who makes stringed musical instruments) who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has a master’s degree in songwriting and self-classifies as a jam band artist.
“I’ve been playing instruments since I was 10,” he says. “I like Grateful Dead music, Americana. I play mostly guitar and mandolin, but I’ve also played percussion and a banjo.”
A teacher for more than three decades, he gave lessons for many years out of his home, calling it “Adam’s String Shack.” Felicia Lipansky has a full-time career as a biotech program manager. With a lifetime in marketing, branding, managing inventory, establishing business designs that build on well-structured phases and practices, she brings critical business skills and vision to their store. The couple’s combination of music knowledge and business expertise were critical when the discordant realities of COVID-19 struck the store — along with most of the rest of the world — in March 2020.
Mountain Music is just steps from the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Pleasant Valley Way. Formerly Acme House of Music and owned by Adam Lipansky’s employers, Annette Loveless and John Middle, Adam Lipansky says they decided to sell the business and offered him the option to buy it.
“I always had a business plan to start a café music store. It had been 20 years since I’d thought about it. It all just fell together.”
Of course, the pandemic that in March 2020 shuttered all nonessential commerce within days of their grand opening as owners was a blow. The store offers an extensive line of music lessons taught by local professional artists and relies on rental programs that are popular with students involved in band and music programs at nearby schools. Adam had planned to launch his dreamed-of café/music shop with in-store performances and workshops.
“That’s why I created a small stage with a couch and a coffee machine,” he says.
The couple immediately redirected their energy to renovating and upgrading the space, designing new logos and marketing plans and bolstering their online capabilities and services. Although business during the last year is not what it would have been had the pandemic never occurred, Adam says, “We’ve been pretty darn busy. Online sales took off, and my repair business keeps me standing for 10 hours a day. Most often I’m repairing stringed instruments; electrics, acoustics, anything with strings.”
At Mountain Music’s coming-out-of-COVID celebration June 20, about 70 people attended. Swag donated by Mountain Music and local businesses was raffled, a taco truck supplied food and beverages and local artists displayed their work while two outdoor stages with live music featured six different acts.
Inside the shop, Adam says roughly 30 people packed into the spaces between rows of glistening, top-end Fender and Gibson guitars, ukuleles of all makes and sizes, mandolins, drum sets and shelves stacked with vintage and new electronics. Even with inventory honed by Felicia with a keen eye to what the community most wants, it’s fair to say every spare inch of the shop is well occupied.
“They all had masks indoors,” says Felicia. “People were excited about events like ukulele day, when everyone plays together. The community aspect is important: local artists performing onstage, local fine artists and craftspeople showing their work. I had inquiries about lessons — and with the open summer coming and people not comfortable traveling yet, that was one of the bigger interests.”
In addition to hoping enrollment in lessons picks up in the fall when students have returned to in-classroom schooling, the Lipanskys plan to continue concentrating on their presentation of a welcoming, safe environment for everyone. Felicia says Kaska, a graffiti artist who uses they/them pronouns and painted the walls of the store’s upgraded restroom, participated in the reopening.
“They had skateboards with LIT (Lost In Transition) on them. It was important to us because they’re part of our community and we’re blessed to have a diverse community. They feel comfortable here. This is a place that does more than sell electric guitars. We’re happy to reflect the community,” she says.
Adam says that during the last year, they relied on another mom-and-pop shop, Rockin’ Robbies, to coordinate instrument rentals of three months or more. Mountain Music handled shorter-terms rentals, such as guitars or keyboards for single weekends, in-house. To stay current on repairing newer equipment he relied on Internet forums and how-to videos. Zoom instruction meant lessons could go national, a practice they expect will continue even with in-person lessons resuming. Also for months Adam has taken throwaway parts from repair projects and built them into workable instruments.
“Mostly guitars, a few basses. It’s kind of random,” he says. “We call them Parts Casters because Fender is known for its Stratocaster models. I put our logo on it, and I donated one of them to ALS Foundation. They’ll raffle it, I think.”
With a new synthesizer room built up by employee Heng Wang and September rentals and lessons kick-started by the school year, he says, “I might get bombarded with things to do.”
Ultimately, music is community, he adds.
“I’ve always had a large crowd of friends who just sit down, someone starts playing something, everyone joins in.”
Felicia says she loves when people simply drop in.
“When I moved here, the West Coast thing seemed to be texting to say ‘we should get together.’ I grew up in the East Coast, where people just ring the doorbell, and say, ‘I’m here.’ I love that that’s where we’re at; people just stop in and start talking.”