The Towne Lounge’s uncertain future
Building’s owners would like something different in its place
Woody Sjostrom is a sturdy man, a working man who owns two bars in town and also works at a marble company to provide for his large family—a fiancée, four children and two grandchildren in Forest Ranch. He opened Woody’s on the south end of town 14 years ago. It’s now for sale. And he took over ownership of the Towne Lounge, a Chico institution, about seven years ago. That’s the place he’s been pouring his heart and money into lately, only to be threatened with eviction because the building’s owners don’t like his clientele.
“[Alan] Tochterman told me my clientele was ruining his chances for renting out what used to be The Underground,” Sjostrom said.
The conversation started almost two years ago, Sjostrom said, but nothing much came of it. He spruced the place up and has kept up on his bills, but just recently artists’ renderings were placed inside the windows of the former record store next to the bar. They include a retail element where The Underground was and a café where the Towne Lounge still stands.
“Geographically that particular block is in a really great location—it has a lot of potential as a retail spot,” Tochterman said by phone this week. “But there are five bars on that particular block. Some of the clientele in general that frequent those bars make it less desirable for patrons to go into a retail location.”
Sjostrom isn’t convinced it’s his clientele who are scumming up the street. Sure, they walk outside to smoke—but so do patrons from Duffy’s Tavern, the Crazy Horse Saloon and Lost on Main. It may just be that his clientele are more the working types. They don’t come in wearing suits and ties, but rather boots and overalls after a hard day’s work. In other words, they don’t look “nice.”
When Sjostrom took over the Lounge, the bar didn’t look so nice either. The ceiling was red, which he assumed was paint. But when he went to touch it up he realized it was actually tar from all the cigarette smoke that had accumulated over the years. He cleaned that up. There was also a pervasive stink to the place. When he ripped up the carpet, Sjostrom said there was a layer of liquid underneath—most of it booze. Old booze. He cleaned that up, too.
After paying off the significant debt the former owner had racked up, Sjostrom was able to secure a liquor license and a lease agreement with Tochterman’s father, Mendel (the Tochterman family owns a number of buildings around downtown). Among the terms was that there be no smoking inside the establishment. Sjostrom abided. That lease lasted five years. Two years ago, he went month-to-month. About that time, rumors started stirring that the younger Tochterman wanted him out, and he started to sweat. The Lounge was his livelihood, he said.
So for the past two years he’s been pouring everything he has into improving the place. He tore down two walls to add two more pool tables and revive the shuffleboard table, and spiffed up the front window area. He even has plans to put in a marble bar—since he works at a marble company—that would make the place look significantly nicer.
But he doesn’t expect his clientele to suddenly become suits. That’s never been the character of the Towne Lounge, which is basically a working-man’s (and -woman’s) dive bar, and, in Sjostrom’s words, “I don’t want to be the guy who changes the Towne Lounge.
“The Towne Lounge was one of the first bars I came to when I moved to Chico in 1986,” Sjostrom said, smiling. “It’s an icon.”
“It’s pretty much my life,” echoed Jim Chadwick, who goes by the nickname The Rev. Jim. He’s been working there for 24 years. And he’s seen many changes. “Right now,” he said, “it’s about a 1,000 percent improvement from what it used to be.”
The Towne Lounge was born back in 1966. As the legend goes, it first occupied the building where Duffy’s now resides and operated in conjunction with a Chinese restaurant. After a fight between the two owners, in the middle of the night, Charlie Cuthbertson, who owned the bar, uprooted his business—the whole darn thing—and moved it a few doors down. And that’s where it still stands, no longer owned by Cuthbertson, and much improved from the smoking days.
But if Alan Tochterman has his way, he may be the one who gets rid of the Towne Lounge—though he emphasized that he wishes no ill will toward Sjostrom.
“I would love to change it and get some merchants in there,” Tochterman said.
The former Underground has been vacant more than a year and has become a haven for homeless and vagrants, bumming smokes off people at the bars that line the entire block and sometimes playing their instruments late into the evening hours.
Sjostrom acknowledges that this is a problem. The overhang, he says, has a natural appeal for people to escape the elements. His staff is constantly moving vagrants along. Just a few days ago, even, Chadwick said he spent two hours cleaning graffiti off the windows of the old Underground. They care about the appearance of their bar—and its surroundings.
Sjostrom isn’t too stressed these days about losing his business. He said Tochterman promised him at least 90 days to six months lead time before giving him the boot. And while that may not be enough time to find a new place and start over, he feels secure in the short term, despite those drawings that have been drumming up gossip up and down Main Street.
“Those are nothing more than an artist’s rendition,” Tochterman said. “We have no firm plans. If we can find a tenant we would be more than happy to remodel—we’d rather not leave it the way it is.
“It’s very difficult to change the character of that block, to make it more retail and less bars. It’s a real hard thing. I really don’t want to do anything that would cause Woody harm. For the next two or three years, if no one expressed interest, why would I kick him out and hurt his business?”