Aloha Got Soul: prioritizing vinyl in the streaming era

The couple behind Honolulu record store AGS explain why their business is essential in the age of online music.
Aloha Got Soul 16x9 hero
The owners

Roger Bong: ‘I was born in Seattle, Washington, but grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was living in Portland, working as a newspaper photographer, when I started Aloha Got Soul in 2010 as a blog documenting rare records from Hawaii. I had come across a Japanese DJ's Hawaiian Breaks mixtape, which had this funky, soulful Hawaiian music that I had never heard of even though I grew up here. But a lot of the music was non-existent online. A year later, I moved back to Hawaii and met others collecting rare Hawaii funk and soul. It led me to believe that this music should be reissued. In 2013, I met Lei at the annual Hawaii Record Fair; I launched Aloha Got Soul as a record label in 2015. There are fresh, forward-thinking bands from Hawaii – especially in the seventies – that shaped the scene here, but they're hard to find on vinyl. The records are either damaged or sitting in someone's collection. Vinyl was how I discovered music in my 20s. I thought: if we could put it back out there on vinyl, we could inspire future generations. We've released 60 albums so far, 80% reissues, starting with late-seventies to early-eighties funk and soul. Now we cover almost every genre.’

The idea

Roger: ‘We had a record label, DJ gigs worldwide, we started a party event business and a now-defunct online radio program. We were traveling; things were hectic. The pandemic in 2020 meant no events, so we focused on the label – admin stuff. Early last year, we got tired of working from home and started looking for an office.’ 

Leimomi Bong: ‘We also saw an opportunity for retail. We started using a co-working space and heard about an opening in a nearby building. It was perfect. We divided the space into an office and a shop. The design is modular and cost-effective, using mostly recycled materials. A lot of people got into vinyl during the pandemic. Customers might not know where to start, so we walk them through releases – we're bringing back the conversations in record shops (about an artist's discography, liner notes or labels) which is how record collectors dig for music, but you don't get from streaming music. We tell people: “Buy what you love, records should be played.” Other vinyl shops are more head-down, sorting through bins.’

The name

Roger: ‘AGS stands for Aloha Got Soul. We want the store to have its own brand identity, with room to grow beyond the label. The more we tried to find a good name, the more we realized most people were going to expect it to be called Aloha Got Soul. So we kept it simple: AGS. The name will make it easy to tack on a city name. For instance: AGS Los Angeles, AGS Tokyo. A friend told us: you have 10 years of brand equity in the label and six in the logo – put that on the store window. He said, if people drive by and see AGS, they won't know what it is. He was so right.’

The inventory

Roger: ‘We sell new and used vinyl records, books and magazines, turntable accessories and lifestyle goods. We have an emphasis on local musicians, and we support indie artists and labels with a focus on Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas. The shop is an extension of our work as DJs and radio hosts. We also sell Japanese city pop and jazz fusion that a friend in Tokyo curates for us. Locals here in their 20s and 30s who grew up on downloads and streaming are saying they want what their parents listened to, and we're introducing many of them to a physical music format culture. Running an indie label helps us stay on top of the music that's out there. We recently started a reggae sub-label, and are thinking about an AGS shop record label to release music by indie bands that don't fit into what Aloha Got Soul does; a reflection of what's happening on the ground now in Hawaii.’

The website

Roger: ‘AGS' website is separate from the label's. We didn't want people to go to the label's website for our latest releases but get inundated with the shop's hundreds of new and used titles. We also knew we'd have different designers for the store and label merchandise and that the store would expand into areas unrelated to the label. Our [online sales] site has our entire store inventory, but we also sell premium records on Discogs, an online market for secondhand vinyl. AGS gets more in-person sales than [online] sales, while the label's sales are mostly online. We're trying to find a balance of offering in-store-only items, so locals get a first shot at our inventory. To give people an idea of the music we carry, we use Spotify playlists. It's working so far.’

The neighborhood

Leimomi: ‘We're in the McCully Chop Sui Building from the forties. It was once a family-run Chinese restaurant; everyone remembers the neon sign. Now it has a barbershop, design goods store, sneaker store and other boutiques that cater to what our generation needs. The neighborhood is residential, working-class, with small eateries and mom-and-pop businesses and a Japanese-American community that's been here since the plantation era. It's accessible from many areas: Manoa Valley, Chinatown, Waikiki beach, where the tourist hotels are, and the University of Hawaii. For retail, it's low-key, which is why rent is reasonable. There's a trolley-bus service for Japanese tourists that stops in front of our shop. If people want to come to our store, they'll find us.’

The support

Leimomi: ‘​​We consulted friends who are knowledgeable about retail. They gave us confidence in our numbers and concept, and came up with our tagline: “Celebrating homegrown local music.” We also asked friends who have run a shop in the McCully Chop Sui building for years about foot traffic, hiring employees, inventory, holidays. Our contractor buddies advised us to reuse materials for the shop interior. Through a friend, we asked a local woman to perform a Hawaiian blessing: she cleared the space of any energy that might deter us from being successful. On opening day, friends volunteered to work the cash register and help with crowd control. Honolulu's two other vinyl stores have supported us by sending customers to us, and we reciprocate. We want to hire people but not hiring has given us time to think about what that would look like. It's been slow, but maybe that's a good thing.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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