Chico: still good and weird

Don’t let nostalgia trick you into thinking Chico is fading

The mustaches at the Winchester Goose (like the one on server Kyle Forrest Burns) are a sign of good, funky times in Chico.

The mustaches at the Winchester Goose (like the one on server Kyle Forrest Burns) are a sign of good, funky times in Chico.

Photo by melanie mactavish

When I first moved to Chico in 1989, there were four record stores downtown: Sundance Records, The Underground, Tower Records and Melody Records (in its old location in the “Upstairs Mall,” above House of Rice). Today, of course, only Melody remains. As I think about those numbers now, I’m not so much bummed at the dearth of brick-and-mortar music shops available to us as I am amazed at the fact that we ever sustained four record shops in a two-square-block radius!

I think fondly of those four places often, as well as the other frequent stops on my at-one-time regular downtown loop that also took me to the funky rock shows and plays of the Blue Room Theatre; to the endless eclectic rock lineup at Juanita’s (and before that Hey Juan’s/Burro Room); to the dusty books of The Bookstore; to the art-house flicks at the Pageant Theatre; to the constant hipster/hippie/homeless freak show at Café Sienna; and, after turning 21, to the cheap pints of Sierra Nevada at Duffy’s Tavern.

For a kid who grew up in the cultural black hole of Shasta County, downtown Chico was an endless sideshow of rock-and-roll and weirdness, and I immediately fell into its relaxed, funky rhythm, and I have been living Chico-style ever since.

But as we here at the Chico News & Review have, as of late, been making a lot of noise about “Keeping Chico Weird,” I’ve been thinking a lot about where our little city stands in that regard. Is Chico still the same unique, funky progressive NorCal outpost it once was? Is Chico still weird?

The inspiration for the CN&R-sponsored Weird Talent Show (coming to the El Rey Theatre Feb. 1) came during the course of putting together a Keep Chico Weird-themed issue this past October, and we of course got the idea for that issue’s title from the famous Keep Austin Weird and Keep Portland Weird campaigns that were born in those respective cities during the early 2000s. The basis for those movements were the efforts of small businesses to promote locally owned shops over corporate ones in their city centers, and in the process retain the funky identities of the energetic and creative progressive communities.

Chico definitely has its share of creative, eccentric characters, but what about the broader picture of the unique character of the city as a whole? Over the past year, against the backdrop of failed city finances, downtown homelessness issues, decaying infrastructure, frequent stabbings, drunk knuckleheads, etc., I have heard a lot of people say Chico is changing for the worse.

There is no doubt, Chico is facing a lot of challenges as it continues to grow during increasingly uncertain economic times. Just in my time here, the population has nearly doubled (to more than 80,000), and more people will always mean more problems.

But more people can also mean an opportunity for the small businesses in town to impress a bigger pool of potential clients. And even though some of the old favorites have faded away, there are a ton of new/newer, very promising locally owned businesses popping up—the Winchester Goose, Home Ec, The Banshee, the soon-to-open Sweet Cottage pie shop, the many second-hand clothing shops (Konjo, Three Sixty Ecotique, Yard Sale, Bootleg), Argus, and a fleet of food trucks and carts—that are carrying the weird-Chico torch admirably.

And there’s also the very positive sign of the outpouring of support that locals gave via the crowdfunding of two of the Chico institutions that have contributed greatly to our city’s funky character—The Bookstore and the Pageant Theatre.

And besides, burritos are still $3. Rock shows are only $5. We still have Melody, Duffy’s, Upper Crust Bakery, the many farmers’ markets, Naked Lounge, Lyon Books, the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative, Bat Comics, The Banshee, the bike shops, Collier Hardware, community theater and art galleries, Café Coda, LaSalles, Shubert’s, hundreds of bands, Tin Roof Bakery & Café, the Home Brew Shop and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

The City-Plaza trees, however, are never, ever coming back, and we very likely will never have more than one locally owned record store again, but if we keep the chain stores out of downtown as much as possible, build upon our locally focused, sustainable economy, and continue to let our freak flags fly (maybe add an eclectic all-ages music venue/taco shop to the new blood downtown?), we’ll be good and weird for the foreseeable future.