Part of a series on the past, present and future of America's malls
I'm outside a strip mall in Stockton, Calif. It's got a big Asian grocery store, a pet shop and a secondhand store called D. Thrift. There are about 50 kids my age — all in their late teens and early 20s — talking and smoking in front of an empty storefront. It used to be a cellphone shop and before that a place that sold diet pills, but tonight it's the best underground rock show in town, headlining Stockton's own Satan Wriders.
Now, this vacant retail space is one of the only places for young bands in Stockton to play. So how did this pretty normal strip mall come to be the hub of a blossoming indie scene? Well, it has pretty much everything to do with Frankie Soto and Long Nguyen.
Soto is the frontman for a dream pop band called Surf Club, and Nguyen is the landlord at this strip mall.
You don't often find 20-year-old Latino indie rock kids and 40-something Asian mall owners becoming fast friends, but that's exactly what happened here. Soto and Nguyen's story starts at a music festival in San Francisco, back in 2012. Nguyen was amazed to see a Stockton band, Soto's Surf Club, onstage.
"They just blew me out of the water," Nguyen recalls. "They were really young. I think half of the band was under 21. So after they were playing at the bar, they had to immediately get off the stage and they could only watch from the sidewalk."
Nguyen eagerly introduced himself, saying, "I own the D. Thrift! Just come play in it."
It wasn't until a few months later, with few local music venues left in Stockton, that Soto decided to take him up on the offer.
Once Soto stepped inside the spot, he fell in love with it. "It's like super intimate. I kind of like it. It's, like, perfect. It's kind of small but it's, like, exactly what we need," he says.
For the past two years, the D. Thrift has become a place for young Stockton bands to play their first concert. As word got out, touring acts that might have skipped over the town started to book their shows here. Lately there's been about a show a month.
Besides that, there isn't too much for young people to do in town. "I think that's why a lot of kids come out to our shows every time — it's something to do," Soto says.
Looking at the crowd, you do get the sense that it is for everyone. There's a $5 suggested donation at the entrance, but even if you're broke you're still welcome. All night long, Soto waves in curious people. In one way, it's like every mall you've ever driven by, but on closer inspection, there's something special about this place and these concerts.
Standing proudly in front of his strip mall, Nguyen described the population he serves: "It is a boiling pot of Americans: white Americans, black Americans, Latinos, Cambodians, Vietnamese, all kinds of Middle Eastern, Indian as well."
There's a certain magic about the D. Thrift, especially when you compare it to a lot of other places in Stockton. Kim Eng and Bob Guevara are the performers in tonight's opening act, Kismet Aura. Their families fled violence in Cambodia and Mexico, respectively, only to find more here in Stockton. "It's all right here. ... Honestly, there's parks where you can find guns in," Guevera says, as he points down the street.
But the shows at D. Thrift are one of their favorite things in town.
Guevera says, "It's the only thing giving me hope right now. Where I hope it goes is the direction where we find a new community out here."
"Just some stability, some community," adds Eng, "'cause we never really had that."
Long Nguyen and Frankie Soto's friendship has created a home for a new music scene.
"No one throws shows like us. But no one really can just have access. I consider us super lucky to have Long on our side," Soto says.
And tonight, Long Nguyen is leaning on a back wall near Soto, grinning and proud. He shouts over the music to me: "Can you feel this? This positive energy?"