The last days of Rhino Records in Claremont were wild, with old customers thronging inside for one more purchase. On the final day, June 26, a line of 100 people trailed around the block to get in as temperatures likewise hovered near 100.
Some were weekly customers before the pandemic, others hadn’t been seen in a decade, but they felt the urge to breathe the atmosphere and take home a souvenir of a store that had been a touchstone. Grandparents brought in grandkids, who flipped through LPs by vintage bands and asked their elder which album by such-and-such was the one to get.
“There’s something beyond commerce,” Aaron Kenyon, who’s clerked at Rhino for 20 years, mused to me in conversation last week. “Part of it was buying music and part of it was that place to go, that place to commune.”
The new place to commune will be in neighboring Montclair, where Rhino is moving after 48 years in Claremont. It’s two miles distant, across the San Bernardino County line, located in a strip mall at 5458 Moreno St., a couple blocks east of Montclair Place mall.
The opening: Aug. 5, 11 a.m.
“We’re using the phrase ‘soft opening,’” owner Chuck Oken Jr. told me during my private visit to the new space on Thursday. “The grand opening will be Sept. 16-18. But with social media, you can’t keep anything a secret.”
As a music nerd and longtime Rhino customer, I can boast for years to come that I was among the first people inside the new store. I even wore an old Rhino T-shirt for the occasion. Thankfully no one put me to work pricing anything.
Obviously the ambiance of freeway suburb Montclair is quite different from homey college town Claremont, where Rhino occupied an old grocery store on a corner in the walkable downtown. Oken and the staff understand. “Some people will hate it,” Oken admitted.
I’m going to miss walking to the store, which was a half-mile from my house, or popping in casually while on my rounds in the Village.
But Rhino 2.0, as I’m thinking of its latest incarnation, doesn’t seem particularly alien to me.
A record store, a bookstore, a comic shop, these are destination places for whatever sliver of the population is interested. If, like me, you’re the type of person to seek them out, either around Southern California or while traveling, then you’ve visited plenty of strip malls, industrial parks and rundown neighborhoods.
Oken had looked around Claremont and Pomona for a suitable location, with no success, and even checked out Montclair Place mall before the piped-in music chased him out. The strip mall, however, sold him.
The rent is 50% less than he paid in Claremont, and for the money he’s getting one-third more space in a newer building with fewer headaches. Oken’s hope is that without the rent pressure of tony Claremont, his shop can keep running indefinitely.
Kenyon put it this way: “It’s all about survival for brick-and-mortar stores.”
What’s Rhino 2.0 like inside? Bright, clean and carpeted. It doesn’t have the high ceilings and lived-in character of the old store, but the newness is inviting. And there’s more rack space and, potentially, more of everything.
Once Rhino is fully stocked, Oken expects to have 30-40% more products on display than in Claremont. For music fans, who tend to want releases beyond what you would find at Target, a wider selection is a plus.
That said, customers practically cleaned out the Claremont store. That helped lighten the move, but it’s leaving gaps in music dividers even for popular bands.
“If you look at ‘Led Zeppelin,’ we have nothing. If you look at ‘Pink Floyd,’ we have nothing,” Oken said. “We did not expect people to burn out.”
About a dozen staffers on my visit were busy getting the store set up. A new electronic sales system will be more efficient but has meant inputting every item from scratch.
The left half of the store is what Oken calls the digital side: DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs. The right half is the analog side: LPs, books, turntables, cassettes.
Jeremy Oken, Chuck’s son, was organizing the display area for posters, a first for the store. (Before, they were mounted high on the walls, and clerks would have to climb a ladder to fetch one.) Ed Montoya, a mainstay of Rhino’s former Video Paradiso rental shop, was arranging DVDs.
On the other side of the room, Kenyon was behind a counter examining stacks of vintage LPs, including Prince’s “Purple Rain” with the original poster insert, from a customer buy. Nathan Wilson had the store’s sound system up and running to stunning effect.
“I like it because there’s more room for everything,” said Wilson, 55, as Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” soundtrack, then playing, seemed to be enveloping us.
At 6,700 square feet, there’s so much space, “we got here and freaked,” admitted Wilson, the longest-tenured clerk at 33 years. “We’ve got all this space and we need more product.”
That’s why Aug. 5 is a soft opening. The store won’t be perfect. Not all the posters or other decor will be in place.
But among the first items up was the fake rhino head, mounted as if bagged by a big game hunter, that was a kitschy staple of the old store. And a huge, framed David Bowie painting.
Oken told me via email on the store’s last day that he’d rebuffed offers to sell the painting. That’s as it should be. Some things, as Kenyon had said, are beyond commerce.
I’ll be taking most of this week off, but with hopes of filing a column or two before I depart. If I’m not in the paper one or two of my usual days, that’s because I’m living it up, not because I’ve been struck down. Will baseball be involved in my absence? You bet.
You’ve no doubt read about the woman who posed as a nurse to try to steal a baby from a Moreno Valley hospital. The local story went national after the mighty Washington Post wrote about it. (Babygate?) This means Moreno Valley – “about 60 miles east of Los Angeles,” as the East Coast paper helpfully described it – is in the news coast to coast. Said the friend who sent me the story: “Even WaPo thinks it’s crazy.”
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, speaking of crazy. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.