It’s hard to imagine Claremont’s downtown Village without Rhino Records, one of its oldest retailers and an anchor of the busy corner of Bonita and Yale.
For its legion of fans, and I’m one, Rhino was a must-stop. The store might be our sole destination or a casual element of a visit to the Village: OK, let’s meet for food, but let’s pop into Rhino. Music will be playing, a favorite band might have a new record out and we might bump into someone we know.
Well, soon we’re not going to have to imagine Claremont with Rhino, because the store is packing up and moving to Montclair. But first, there’s a blow-out sale all week before the final day, which is Sunday.
Jokes owner Chuck Oken Jr.: “We’re giving the people what they want: discounts.”
Through Thursday, it’s 15% off everything. Friday it’s 20%. Saturday is the same, with loads of $1 items in the parking lot. Sunday is 25% off, with rare merchandise in the parking lot as well, like old promotional items the store doesn’t want to move.
“You accumulate a lot of stuff in 30 years,” Oken says wryly.
That’s how long the store has occupied the former Bentley’s Market building at 235 Yale. Rhino was founded a couple blocks away in 1974 as an offshoot of Westwood’s Rhino Records store, the one that later launched a record label. Claremont’s store has been independent since 1976.
I’ve been a customer for 25 years. (Tragically, I will miss all these farewell discounts due to vacation — sob!) My cumulative spending has, I suspect, paid at least one month’s rent for the store.
Oken tends to keep a low profile in his own shop, but he agreed to talk with me because he’s been shaking his head at the way Rhino’s move has been skewed or construed.
It started with a headline in the local weekly that said the store was “closing for good.” That’s still causing repercussions.
Then TV stations wanted to turn the story into a David vs. Goliath cry against gentrification or evil landlords, which is not how Oken sees his situation. He appreciates the Bentley family’s decades of support.
“I’ve had a great corner. Now that Claremont has grown, I can’t afford it,” Oken says matter-of-factly. “Why am I leaving? Claremont is turning into a giant food court. It was just time to go.”
His new store, at 5458 Moreno St., will be one-third larger and rent will be 50% less. That will mean more merchandise on the floor and less overhead, a combination that may allow Rhino to keep on truckin’ in perpetuity.
“It’s going to be a good move, and it’s not far from this town,” Oken observes. “It’s got wonderful parking and lots of people driving by. We draw from Redlands to Orange County to Covina.”
Oken doesn’t have any experience moving his store, but he expects to be in full operation in Montclair by Labor Day, with a ramp-up during August.
This is a slightly unsettling period if you love Claremont. Barbara Cheatley retired and closed her gift shop after 45 years. The Laemmle Claremont 5 is likely to close by year’s end. Up on Foothill Boulevard, the Candlelight Pavilion dinner theater rang down the curtain this spring.
The Press, a restaurant and bar that was about the only regular spot for live music, closed at the start of the pandemic. Its windows are still covered in butcher paper, its future unknown.
What will replace Rhino? A restaurant.
“The town is changing,” Oken reflects. “There’s no other way to put it.”
Oken, 62, started at Rhino as a clerk in 1981 and soon became manager, then co-owner and eventually sole owner. Pulling out of his familiar confines won’t be easy. And he’ll miss the benefits of the Village: foot traffic, the presence of the colleges, being part of the community.
He has lots of good memories. Celebrity customers have included John Cleese, Tom Waits, Bill Pullman, Leonard Cohen and David Foster Wallace. Among the memorable in-store performers on the small stage were Yo La Tengo, Dengue Fever, Berlin and Queens of the Stone Age.
Then there were the midnight events in the ’80s and ’90s to put a hot new record into customers’ hands the moment it was released. Fans would line up outside in the dark. The store might sell 500 copies. “It was magical, that excitement about music,” Oken says.
Rather than sing the blues about Rhino’s departure, let’s celebrate that it’s still in business. So many record shops, indies and chains alike, have folded the past two decades as downloads and streaming have replaced physical product.
The resurgence of vinyl records has lured customers through the doors. Like me, Oken prefers CDs, and Rhino is among the few places left that carries them. Then there’s its deep, encyclopedic stock — “everything from punk to Keely Smith to the ‘Big Night’ soundtrack,” as Oken puts it — and decades of customer loyalty.
The pandemic was hard. Rhino was closed for four months. Oken cut his staff from 28 to eight. His adjoining video store, Video Paradiso, is folding. He closed his second store, Mad Platter in Riverside, after 36 years. But Rhino came out the other side.
“People valued this place when we reopened. There was a tremendous amount of support. That has helped too,” Oken says. “Rhino isn’t just me. It’s everyone who’s been through. It’s been the people who’ve supported us.”
If, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, then Rhino Records’ moving van will be full. No matter how steep the discounts.
I’ll be away from these pages on a Midwest sojourn before returning to print July 3. It’s my first absence from your newspaper since June 2021. Which didn’t stop someone at an event recently in Pomona from attempting to josh with me that he likes reading my columns but I’m “always on vacation.” Really? I haven’t even missed holidays. He’s either thinking of some other columnist or he’s looking for me Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, as loyal readers know. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.