Behind Bars: Soulmates Donya and Randall Stockton have hiphounds on their trail

Randall and Donya Stockton behind the bar at Beerland

Randall and Donya Stockton behind the bar at Beerland

If I was a younger writer, more prone to tidy hyperbole, I would open this profile with something about how if the 2000 Presidential election was decided the night it was supposed to, Beerland might’ve never opened and East Sixth Street on the “other” side of I-35 would still be East Secret Street.

That’s an attention-getting intro for sure, drawing the reader into the story of a young couple who were so broke, so desperate to open their first nightclub that they scooped up early-run newspapers at the Austin American Statesman press plant in November 2000 and sold them on eBay to raise money for rent and other expenses on a Red River Street building in permit hell for over a year.

Beerland could’ve very well been named “GORE WINS.”

It’s a cool story, though not wholly indicative of the unflashy, steady-building career of Donya and Randall Stockton, the middle-school sweethearts who have opened seven clubs or restaurants in town since the first one didn’t traumatize them out of the business entirely. They are workers, not talkers, and their concepts are usually dictated by the existing space, not the other way around. But if there’s anything they’ve learned since signing their first business lease 15 years ago, you do whatever it takes to stay alive in the volatile business of selling booze to clubhoppers.

Every entrepreneur wishes they could be two people and that’s an advantage the Stocktons have. They complement each other like oil and vinegar- with strengths and weaknesses interlocking like the clasp of two hands. “Before we got married (in ’98), we had to take a compatibility test,” says Randall, who got his degree in philosophy at UT, while Donya got hers in anthropology. “I was kinda insulted because we’d lived together for about six years and never had a problem.” After the results were compiled, the man who was to officiate at the wedding said he had a bit of bad news. The couple had tested higher than anyone ever, so much so that they might have co-dependency issues. “No shit,” Randall laughs. “But there’s no way either of us could’ve done any of this without the other.” Donya’s business card says “numbers guy” and she handles payroll, taxes, accounting, like that. Randall is the “cat herder and plate juggler” and he spends his days ordering beer, fixing toilets and whatever else needs to be done.

This is a couple so committed to building a life together through club ownership that they slept on the stage at Beerland for the first two months it was operational because they didn’t have money to rent a place of their own. Beerland opened the day they got the OK from the TABC. The Stocktons bought a case of Lone Star and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon and they were in business. The next day they used the proceeds to buy bottles of whiskey, vodka and tequila.

From small things, mama. The Stocktons followed that garage punk haven six years later with Rio Rita- a coffee shop/cocktail bar on East Sixth Street. Then came Shangri-La, the Good Knight (now Sputnik hamburgers), Liberty, Grackle and Live Oak Barbecue, most of those with partners.

While waiting for Beerland to open, Randall had a job servicing jukeboxes and pool tables for a vending machine company, which ended up being the lucky turn on which the mini-empire was built. Most of the old man bars on East Sixth, the ones the Stocktons and other gentry have moved into, were owned by two vending companies in town. If they didn’t own the building, they controlled a master lease. So after he left the vending biz to run Beerland, his old boss would tip him off about spaces that would soon be available. One of Randall’s favorite stops on his vending route was Rio Rita, a Tejano dive with character, which had just gone out of business. The Stocktons moved slow, thought hard, then took over the Rio Rita space, keeping the name. The deciding factor was a huge patio, as the smoking ban had just been voted in.

“The first few months we were open, nobody came in. I mean literally nobody,” says Donya. Randall opened at 7 a.m. every morning and Donya closed at 2 a.m. and they weren’t taking in enough money to pay the electric bill. “People were afraid to go to the East Side in 2007,” Randall says. But that would soon change, as the word got out that East East Sixth was where you went for more parking, less knuckleheads.

“Live music is not always your friend,” says Donya, who worked at the LOUD Beerland for six years before running Rio Rita. “I’m a basket weaver and when I meet other basket weavers I tell them I own a coffee shop, not seven bars.”

Merchandise performs at Beerland during SXSW 2013. Photo by Adam Kissick.

Merchandise performs at Beerland during SXSW 2013. Photo by Adam Kissick.

Another recalled headline: “The Myth of the Soulmate”

Though in their early 40s, the Stocktons have been together almost 30 years. They started dating when she was in the seventh grade and he was in the eighth. Randall had a shy friend who asked him to talk to Donya Vinson, the new pretty girl in school, for him. “But I told him ‘I’d rather go out with you,’” Donya recalls. (How much adorable can you stand?) They were the smart, arty kids at Elgin High (a small group), who listened to Daniel Johnston instead of Metallica or Tupac. On weekends, they’d come to Austin to see Glass Eye, Shoulders, Ten Hands and other norm-challenging rock bands.

They spent a couple years apart in high school when D’s stepfather’s tech job took the family to Virginia. But they moved in together during Donya’s freshman year at UT. Their first apartment was at a complex called the Argosy on Justin Lane.

Donya nd Randall at the 1990 Elgin High senior prom.

Donya nd Randall at the 1990 Elgin High senior prom.

Though Randall’s funny personality was the same, his interests had changed during college. He’d become a harmonica obsessive, in more of a “Rock the Casbah” way than Chicago blues, until a chance meeting on the Drag flipped the switch. Randall was blowing some harp, waiting for a bus to Allandale, where he lived with his grandparents freshman year, when his long-haired guy came by and listened. “Cool man,” he said. “I play some, too.” Then the guy pulled a harp out of a knapsack and blew Randall away. “Go out and buy two albums- The Best of Little Walter and Real Folk Blues by Sonny Boy Williamson,” recommended the guy, who Randall realized, years later, was Guy Forsyth. “They’ll teach you everything you need to know about playing the harmonica.”

Stockton got off the bus near Sound Exchange on Burnet Road and was thrilled that both LPs were in stock. The great Chicago bluesmen took over his life for the next couple years. Then a record he heard by obscure Austin band Jack O’ Fire, featuring Walter Daniels and Tim Kerr (Big Boys), gave him an example of how to infuse blues with punk, which led to the formation of the Headhunters.

OK, this is boring musician stuff, but it leads to the Stocktons entrée into the club world. After playing Joe’s Generic Bar on Sixth Street a couple times with the Headhunters, Randall got a job at Aaron’s Rock N’ Roll t-shirt and souvenir shop, which was also owned by Joe Bates of Joe’s Generic. Bates had opened an Aaron’s in Northcross Mall and when Randall pulled shift duty there the eccentric low-rent entrepreneur would call him from his home in North Austin and talk for hours. Since Randall was a musician, Bates asked his opinions on players around town. When the kid seemed to know what he was talking about, Bates hired him to book edgier bands than the usual blues fare at Bates Motel, a Sixth Street dive that cleaned up later as Blind Pig Pub. Randall’s popular weekly show, featuring garage punks like the Chumps, Lower Class Brats, Kiss-Offs and Sons of Hercules, packed the joint, so Bates eventually gave him the full-time booking job. Blue Flamingo had just closed on Red River, so Bates Motel was the new favorite downtown rock dive.

Thanks to Joe Bates

“Yeah, I got hooked,” says Randall. “On a good night, when the band’s great and the folks are totally into it, you feel like, ‘wow, I’m the nerd from high school and I did this.’”

In three years at the Bates, Randall saw the owner only one time. “I used to drop off the money through his mail shot, but one night some of the money fell out and I had to go back and that’s when I saw him opening the door,” Randall says. The pair had an awkward exchange and that was it. “Joe told me once that someone took a shot at him on Sixth Street and he was laying low for awhile.” Bates spent his time designing strange web sites, like a Bettie Page fan page before such things were normal, while listening in at Joe’s Generic through a wire he’d had installed.

Bates was murdered in October 2004. The case is still open and no one has been charged.

Rio Rita started a flurry of hip new bars east of I-35 in 2007.

Rio Rita started a flurry of hip new bars east of I-35 in 2007.

The Stocktons were married in ’98, the same year the Bates Motel closed, and so they went looking together for their own place. In early 2000 they found 711 ½ Red River Street, formerly the site of the Hurt’s Hunting Ground junk store annex, and started paying $1,500 a month rent. They expected to open in two months, but the bureaucratic bullshit drove them crazy. “One guy (from the city permitting office) would tell us we had to do this or that. Then the next guy would say, ‘who said you could do that?’ and we’d have to start over.” Money was going out, but none was coming in for 18 months on Red River, so the Stocktons took every publication delivery shift they could to supplement their full-time day jobs. Donya ran the office for a chiropractor and taught basket weaving at UT, while Randall had the vending route.

The delivery job took the Stocktons to the Statesman the night of November 7, 2000. They were there to pick up one of their publications when they heard the order to recall some of the bundles that had already been delivered when it was determined that it was too early to call it for Gore. “We figured we’d help them get back those papers,” Randall says with a smile. The Statesman had printed three different front pages- Gore Wins, Bush Wins and Too Close To Call and the Stocktons packaged all three in a set that sold to collectors for a couple hundred dollars each. They had bundles of them and during the next month of recounts and court rulings the Stocktons made a bundle.

Extremely cautious at the start of their run, the Stocktons, who’ve never had time to have children, started feeling so bulletproof after their East Side success story that they even opened a club at 12th and Chicon, the corner as close to The Wire that Austin gets. But the Legendary White Swan didn’t draw and the Stocktons recently sold the bar to Randall’s half-brother Billy Hankey, who will rename it the King Bee and refashion the joint into a pizza restaurant with fabulous cocktails.

Next up for the Incredible Flying Stocktons LLC is the Aristocrat, at the former Poodle Dog Lounge on Burnet Road. It’s supposed to open in July. “’Poodle Dog’ is such a great name, but that place carries a lot of baggage,” says Randall. “We learned that lesson from the White Swan. We loved the name, but it kept that reputation as a rough joint that you might be wary of.” The knock on the Poodle Dog, which I’ve witnessed first hand on the only time I’d been inside, is that it’s not the greatest environment for attractive women.

But in the club business you live and learn and spin the wheel one more time. The Aristocrat could end up doing for Burnet nightlife what Rio Rita and Shangri-La did for the former Tejano jukebox corridor. Or it could bomb like the Legendary White Swan. There’s a lot of stress in the biz, but you’re too busy to notice.

They’re unlikely impresarios, these incredible down-to-earth Stocktons, but sometimes the heart leads and sometimes it follows. You just have to listen.

Needlepoint message at Beerland.

Stop doing so much blow in the stalls, everybody. Needlepoint message at Beerland.