The minute you encounter Sam Adato, you know you’re meeting a throwback. It’s not uncommon to walk into his shop and find Sam—still proudly rocking the hair of someone who was wreaking double-kick havoc on the Bay Area metal scene of the late ’80s—blasting Blue Öyster Cult as he works on a repair at the counter, surrounded by vintage kits, concert toms, snares, and old rock posters that make you feel like you’re in a drummer’s bedroom circa 1973. Sam caught the vintage drum bug as a teenager in the late ’70s—before they were even called “vintage drums.” That bug became a passion that’s sustained him as a shop owner for twenty-five years. With guidance from the late Johnny Craviotto and financial assistance from his parents, Sam opened the original shop in 1993 in San Francisco. Changing times and a desire for a change of scenery brought him to Eugene in 2013. Sam spoke with MD about his journey from budding vintage drum nerd to long-standing shop owner.
I started playing at seventeen. I bought a Ludwig kit a year later in 1979 and was looking to add on to it, and I saw an ad: ‘Garage full of old drums.’ So I went over and met the guy, Joe Northern. He had multiple 3-ply Ludwig Thermagloss kits with 26″ and 28″ bass drums, old Slingerlands and Radio Kings. And he did rewraps, so I asked him to rewrap my kit in blue sparkle. I started taking lessons from him, and we became friends. He taught me about refurbishing drums, polishing and tuning them. I would go home and take my old Ludwigs apart, polish the lug casings, make sure the screws were tight, tuning them, all that. We’re still friends to this day. I don’t know where I’d be without him.
I moved to Santa Cruz in 1988, and there was a music store called the Musician’s Trading Post. It was buy-sell-trade, and the drum department was a mess! It was mostly used stuff, but everything was dirty. Nothing was polished, nothing was tuned, there’s a guy sitting behind the counter eating a tuna fish sandwich…. I remember saying to my girlfriend, ‘I should be working there.’ I ended up meeting the owner and said I wanted to work there. He asked, ‘How do you know how to do this?’ and I said, ‘Well, I do some work for Johnny Craviotto.’ Johnny was legendary around there, so I was hired. I immediately started taking apart every drum—polishing, tuning, all the hard work cleaning out that whole shop.
It was the tip of the iceberg for the vintage drum market in the late ’80s. Slowly but surely, after I started refurbishing stuff, guys would come in and buy these old Slingerlands and Ludwigs. It was almost like I was setting the prices of vintage gear. There was Not So Modern Drummer, which was just a paper back then. So I’d refer to that and use my expertise.
Around late 1991, you could see that the shop wasn’t doing so great. And a light bulb went off in my head: ‘I could open my own shop.’ I knew what to pay for stuff; I knew what to sell it for. I knew how to refurbish. I had a one-track mind: opening my own shop in San Francisco. Every spare dollar I had, I started buying gear. When I opened, there was no Craigslist, no eBay. So people that wanted to sell stuff would bring it into the shop. By the late ’90s, business was ripping in San Francisco. I was packed with killer vintage stuff.
Things started changing. Drummers started buying things off Craigslist. And a lot less vintage stuff was coming in, as people started selling it themselves on the internet. To my detriment, I was a latecomer to the internet, and I wasn’t going out looking for stuff. I was so spoiled with things coming to me for so long. So my inventory started shrinking. Things were getting more expensive in San Francisco. I was in my fifties. I could’ve spent another ten years there, but sometimes you just want a change.
I’d been up to Eugene before; I really liked it. And I did my research. I knew it was a college town, that there were some clubs there and a big enough music scene that I thought I could survive. And I do. It’s not the same as it was in San Francisco. I wish business was better here. But a lot of stores are struggling. I still manage to make a living doing what I love. I have my own little niche here. And how many people can open the doors to their own business, turn up the stereo, work on drums, and rock out all day? I’m kind of living the dream as far as that goes.
Adato, pictured above with his beloved 1954 Ford F-100 “Big Blue” pickup, says it’s been a trade-off moving his shop from a major city like San Francisco to a town like Eugene. “Smaller city, fewer drummers, less business. Drummers here are looking for the same thing, only on a smaller scale. But my house is five minutes from my shop. I don’t have to deal with commuting an hour or two. That makes up for not making as much money. My stress level is a lot lower.”