How Minder Binders and its 'massive collection of weird junk' defined Tempe culture

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

"It always looked like it was gonna fall on you."

That's how Steve Weiss recalls the sensory overload suspended from the walls and ceiling of Minder Binders Bar and Grill, the big red barn that got him through his freshman year at Arizona State University.

"It was always visually cacophonous, and in 1974, 1975, that fit really well with how everything was going politically, etc.," Weiss recalls of the beloved college hangout at McClintock and University drives in Tempe.

A photography major drawn there like his dorm mates by the bargain-basement pricing— beer for a dime? — Weiss says he's pretty sure they had a submarine from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" amidst all the ... decor, if you will.

"There was no rhyme or reason to it," Weiss recalls, "except somebody saw cool things and thought they'd throw them all together."

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Minder Binders 'is not a junk shop'

In June 1972, the year Minder Binders opened, Maggie Wilson wrote about it for The Arizona Republic Women's Forum. 

"There's a scatter of sawdust on the floor, a train engine and tender crashing through an upstairs wall, a $4 junk yard boiler in a downstairs corner," Wilson wrote. 

Inside The Mission at Minder Binder in 2015.

"And there are scads of deer antlers, a stuffed moose head, the innards of an old Maine post office and church pews from the West and New England."

After noting that "the place is not a junk shop," Wilson went on to describe the walls as "an almost solid collage of old recruiting posters, movie broadsides..., pages from 1920 magazines, sheets from contemporary newspapers, Man Tan ads and all such."

Mostly all such, one assumes.

She wrote of violins and tubaphones, old family photos, a hand-pump vacuum cleaner, turn-of-the-century-sleighs and an 1880 washing machine. 

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A destination bar for college kids

Minder Binders was opened by Al Ehringer and Bob Scura, two pilots who liked to drink and wanted to create a destination bar for college kids, taking the name of First Lt. Milo Minderbinder from Joseph Heller's satirical war novel "Catch-22" (which everyone should read at least twice).

In 2017, the building's original architect Richard Wilken told The Republic the friends used their free-flight perks to scavenge for silly decor, from an Amish community yard sale to an auction at a European castle.

The Tempe of 1972 was nothing like it is today, of course. 

"The population was a lot smaller," says Joshua Roffler, Tempe History Museum's senior curator. "It was maybe about 55,000 people at the time."

That's compared to 180,587 in 2020.

Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms is seated on top of the iconic water wagon outside Minder Binders Bar and Grill in Tempe with a group of employees.

"And when you're going out to the corner of University and McClintock, we're talking edge of town," Roffler says.

"It was kind of an industrial area. The APS power plant was right across the street. Then going back behind it onto Perry Lane, there were just auto body shops, some junkyards. It was not smack in the middle of a developing area necessarily."

It did, however, have one clear advantage — its proximity to ASU students.

"My best memories were hanging out with the people I liked on my dorm floor," Weiss says. 

"We would all go over there en masse and drink hard liquor and insanely cheap beer and eat peanuts. They had some just wonderful deal on a burger for a couple bucks."

Minder Binders and the Tempe music scene

By the early '90s, as the Tempe music scene was beginning to blossom — you see what I did there — Minder Binders emerged as yet another stage for local bands, despite what Roffler calls "the Herculean effort" it took to haul your gear up "a super-weird staircase" to the balcony.

"It's like a rite of passage bands would talk about," Roffler says. "But once you're upstairs, it was really kind of a cool place to see a band."

It doesn't necessarily fit the narrative of Mill Avenue as the center of the Tempe music universe, but it was definitely in the mix. 

The iconic telephone booth from Minder Binders, a longtime Tempe and ASU hangout, along with many other items, were auctioned off in 2017.

"A lot of people remember music on Mill Avenue," Roffler says.

"But there were a lot of non-Mill Avenue venues that were really active, even over in that area. Nita's Hideaway was just around the corner from Minder Binders really. So there was kind of this other music scene."

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'All the popular bands played there'

Jeff Bump of Mill's End played there often in what he calls "the Mill Avenue heyday" with Phineas Gage, a band that also featured Mill's End drummer Mike Eckert.

"There was Long Wong's, Edsel's Attic, Hollywood Alley, and Minder Binders was definitely in that circuit," he says.

"All the popular bands played there. The Zubias. Dead Hot. It was one of the places you wanted to be. A great crowd, very friendly, classic kind of college crowd. People hung out there for happy hour drinks then went upstairs to watch the bands."

Having music upstairs made it more of a unique experience.

"It was almost like an attic," Bump recalls. "And it had a lot of narrow hallways. It almost felt like wandering around somebody's house."

'It was like Sanford and Son in there'

Not everyone who played at Minder Binders was enamored with the place.

Patrick Scott was in a band called Spinning Jenny at the time.

"The place was literally run like their decor — haphazard and random," he says.

"It was like Sanford and Son in there. Stuff everywhere, bolted all over the place. There might be part of a red wagon, a tricycle wheel, a construction sign and then a doll. But it worked for a while."

Spinning Jenny took the gig because at that point they'd have taken any gig.

"It was odd," Scott recalls. "It was off the beaten path. You had to promote the shows much harder to get people to come there as opposed to Long Wong's or Hollywood Alley."

Outdoor shows on the volleyball courts

James Coleman did sound for a lot of outdoor shows at Minder Binders in the early '90s.

The oversized muffler man that once dangled from the ceiling of Minder Binders.

"I did Blossoms out there," he recalls. "I did the Feedbags there a bunch. Dead Hot Workshop. All the local bands that were selling tickets at the time were playing there. We did some national acts. I don't remember who they were."

Hole played a show on the volleyball court with Veruca Salt opening on the 1994 "Live Through This" tour. The following year, Nick Lowe came through.

When Minder Binders started doing outdoor shows, they brought in a stage and set up in the sand on the volleyball court, Coleman says. Eventually, the owners bought a stage and set it up against the south wall in the backyard.

"It was a tiny stage," Coleman says. "It was fairly wide, but super shallow. It was weird. But tons of fun. The place was really popular with college kids for the burgers and the draft beer.

"So we'd get a lot of people that would go for that and come hang out in back. You could drink beer super cheap. And the burgers were greasy as hell, which is what a good burger is supposed to be, I guess."

As for the interior?

"It was a massive collection of weird junk," Coleman says.

"You've seen bars like that before but this one was a little more bizarre than average. There was an old sleigh from a movie set just hanging from the ceiling. Big masks and weird heads from some circus thing that the paint's all chipped off. It was cool."

'The hardest load-in ever'

One of Tempe's most successful bands in recent memory, the Black Moods, played some gigs at Minder Binders in the early 2000s.

"I remember hauling our gear up those steps, man," singer-guitarist Josh Kennedy, who sums up the decor as "the college club version of Applebee's," says with a laugh.

"And nobody gave a (expletive). It was the hardest load-in ever. Then you get up there and nobody cares. Looking back now, it's like, 'Why did we do that?'  But at that point, we would've played anyplace that said, 'Hey, you can set up over there in the corner.'"

They always had a good time hanging out there, though, which happened fairly often with Kennedy working just around the corner at Gin Blossoms studio. 

"I remember it being fun as hell," he says. "But more fun when you weren't hauling gear up those steps."

The wacky, kitschy and sometimes colossal collection of oddities that stuffed Minder Binders, a longtime Tempe and ASU hangout, were auctioned off in 2017.

'It's one of those iconic places'

Minder Binders ended its initial run in 2005, by which point it was something of a local institution cherished for its cheap drinks and burgers, sand volleyball courts, live music and, of course, the visually cacophonous allure awaiting patrons as they passed the bright red water wagon in the parking lot.

That wagon has a new home now — the lobby of the Tempe History Museum.

"There are certain places in Tempe that are just iconic for people who lived here, went to school here, places like Monti's La Casa Vieja or Long Wong's on Mill Avenue," Roffler says. 

"And Minder Binders is amongst that group. It's one of these iconic places that's just synonymous with Tempe. And even though it's been gone for a while, it remains part of the collective memory of the people who live here."

Even if it didn't get you through your freshman year, if you spent any time in Tempe during its initial run, you more than likely have a fairly vivid picture of the building and that wagon in your mind.

"You couldn't miss it," Roffler says.

"A big red barn? And the big red water wagon that sat right on the corner, greeting people as they went by? It was part of the landscape, part of the look and feel of Tempe."

When Minder Binders became the Mission

When the remodeled building reopened under new owners in 2014 as the Mission @ Minder Binder after all those years of lying dormant, the first question everyone seemed to be asking, as Roffler recalls with a laugh, was, "Is all that stuff still in there?"

"When you walked in, you were sort of assaulted by this super weird and eclectic collection of antiques and movie props, pieces of floats from Mardi Gras parades," Roffler says. 

"The architecture was weird. The staircase was strange, the way it went up in the middle of the building and had weird landings. It was sort of overwhelming."

And amazingly enough, when Minder Binders ended its initial run, they closed the doors and everything remained inside. 

"The doors were locked and this crazy collection of memorabilia just stayed, so it was sort of a locked vault of all these weird things inside," Roffler says.

"So there was this sort of collective relief amongst the community, like, 'oh, the stuff is still there.' That was a big part of going back and visiting Minder Binder after it reopened just to see the stuff again."

Restoring the water wagon for Tempe

The one thing something needed to be done with was the water wagon.

"That was the iconic sign for Minder Binders from the beginning and had sat out on the corner for 40 years, greeting people as they came in," Roffler says. 

"And that was not part of the plan going forward for the new owners. So they offered to donate it to the museum."

The interior of The Mission at Minder Binder in Tempe.

It took some effort to restore that wagon to a state resembling its former glory.

"It had sat out there for so long in the weather," Roffler says.

"The wheels were falling apart. The wood was rotting. It was just in horrific condition. And we knew it was important. So we wanted to invest in bringing it back for the community."

The museum raised the money through GoFundMe to restore the tattered wagon and shipped it off to Morgan Carriage Works in Ventura County, California.

"It's hard to find people who know how to work on antique wagons anymore," Roffler says. 

"But we found a guy who had a wagon shop who specialized in this sort of thing. So we had him rebuild the wheels, replace the rotting wood. It's all been repainted. The Minder Binder logo is back on the side. It has a fresh coat of brick red paint. And it looks just spectacular."

What became of all the junk at Minder Binders

As for all that stuff?

It's no longer inside. More than 500 items hit the auction block in 2017 when the building changed owners again and reopened as the Social Hall, a restaurant specializing in Latin American cuisine.

Among the items sold at EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale, with a portion of the proceeds going to the history museum, were a British-style telephone booth (in red, of course), a huge Paul Bunyan head and a Roman gladiator sculpture (a movie prop, of course). 

Arizona music historian John Dixon snagged several items, including the muffler man that now stands guard outside his record barn.

"This place was just gonzo," Dixon says.

"Evidently, the owners had gone to some Hollywood boneyard and bought just a whole bunch of stuff. A stuffed horse was one thing I remember. A horse-drawn sled was hanging. They had these eight-foot battleship reproductions they used in cheap movies. And my muffler man was hanging from the ceiling."

The auction was amazing, Dixon says.

"They had the signage. The posters. All these weird props. Seeing the stuffed horse I remember hanging from the ceiling at the auction house was pretty cool. My muffler man. These things that really added to the funkiness of that whole place."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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