When Bill Sassenberger locks the doors to Toxic Ranch Records on Dec. 31, he won't be coming to unlock them again. After 25 years in Tucson, 22 of them at its current location on Sixth Street, Toxic Ranch Records as a physical store will likely be a thing of the past (though a new location is being scouted and considered). This is a story of two people and how they, through independent means and sheer will, solidified a community and changed our city for the better.
Toxic Ranch Records started out as a mail order business for independent punk music in the early '80s, in Pomona, California. "We had a record label (Toxic Shock) and a store out there," Sassenberger says, about the business he and his wife, Julianna Towns, built from the ground up. "We liked Tucson ... it wasn't paved over and made into parking lots like Phoenix. It was a mid-sized city that we thought could support what we were doing, which was selling independent music."
By the mid-'90s, the store and label were thriving. "There were other record shops in town, but they weren't doing the underground stuff that we were focused on," explains Sassenberger. "At one point we had five employees on the payroll. We had a pretty exciting label at the time and a lot of our bands were touring. We were wholesaling labels to other stores. So we were pretty hopping for a while." But Sassenberger and Towns never lost sight of their original intentions: "It was an outlet for more obscure and lesser-known acts that weren't really being covered by the bigger media. Later on, we really started focusing on local stuff.
"There were a lot of people who'd come up from Sierra Vista, Nogales—all parts of Southern Arizona looked to our place as a unique place to buy and sell their own music and buy stuff they couldn't get elsewhere," he says. And that was the moment when Toxic Ranch ceased to be just a record store and became the center of the local underground rock music community. Kids would come in and find a record or a book that altered their lives; bands would get started from conversations between customers.
By the turn of the century, Toxic Ranch's first great era was winding down. Sassenberger remembers that "vinyl sales were dropping off—CDs were dominating the market and the music itself was not quite as exciting in the underground. There were a lot of cookie-cutter ska bands and NOFX-wannabe bands. It wasn't as fun.
"A lot of our employees moved on to other things and we couldn't support the payroll. I had to get another job just to make ends meet, and my wife was keeping things running. A lot of times, during the summers especially, (there were instances where) my wife and I would say to ourselves, 'Why are we even doing this, because our business is so poor? We're really hustling just to pay rent to Caruso's (the owners of Toxic Ranch's retail space). Maybe we should just think about doing this from our house. It would be a lot simpler and the overhead would be a lot less,'" he remembers, referring to making the store an online/mail-order only business. "But then September and October would roll around, business would be better again, and we'd forget about those thoughts and concentrate on a lot of tourists that would come to town (with Toxic Ranch being among their planned destinations) and make us feel good about our business again, where people would come out of their way from different cities and different countries to come to our shop. ... Gradually, things started turning around a little bit when vinyl (sales) started perking up and we started to get better business in the last five years."
Now, the bad news: A few months ago, Sassenberger "got the notice from Caruso's that they wanted to do something different with the space we were renting, and that forced me to really consider what I was doing. A big factor was my wife having a stroke in December of 2011. That really took a lot of my time away from the store, and I was real lucky to have a few volunteers to keep the place open when I wasn't there—Shane Muldowney is the most responsible person to keep this thing going in the last couple of years, with Al Perry, Nick Cashman, and a couple of others.
"Caruso's really made me make a decision: I gotta do something. We gotta get out and I gotta figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life with regards to the store." There's no trace of anger or negativity in Sassenberger's voice when he talks about the end of his store as a physical entity. When he announced that Toxic Ranch would be closing at the end of the year, he decided to have weekly in-store live shows for the remainder of the year.
In the '90s, quite a few bands played at the shop, and one closely associated with Toxic Ranch was called Jesus Chrysler. Among the voracious outpour of support and respect for Sassenberger and Towns' contributions came a call from this long-defunct band.
"These guys haven't been together in the same state for 20 years," Sassenberger says. "They were on our label when things were better. They heard about the store closing and their drummer said, 'Hey, Bill, are you gonna have one of the old Toxic bands come and send you off in style?' One of (the band members) lives in Tennessee—that's where they're originally from. Another one's in Colorado, one lives in Berkeley, one lives in Kansas City, and they're all gonna come for this one-off reunion show just to play our shop. It was like, 'You gotta be kidding me. You're not really gonna do this.'"
Jesus Chrysler played Toxic Ranch on Saturday, Dec. 14, with Texas Trash and the Trainwrecks and The Pork Torta. Sassenberger and Towns were visibly moved at the event. "There's some sentimentality there, but this is ridiculous. That really makes me feel proud of my accomplishments and what I've done," he said before the performance.
"We're just grateful, and if it is the end, it's been a long and bumpy road, but we'd be glad to do it again if we had the chance," he adds. "The fact that we're able to get people to think outside of the normal popular culture stream and get them to think for themselves and challenge preconceived notions and ideas of what music is limited to and what you can do with your life—all those things are important to us."
But all of those things are more important to us, the community, for Sassenberger and Towns really did change, shape, and alter the course of many of our lives. Or, as a friend of mine whose life was greatly impacted by Toxic Ranch put it, "Tucson could really benefit from having more people like Bill Sassenberger around."