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Another cultural blow: Rhino to close its doors

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Claremont continues to shed its cultural touchstones at an alarming rate with the announcement today that Rhino Records, a much-loved Village mainstay since 1974, is closing its doors and relocating. 

Rising rents in the Village are the reason for the city’s loss of the esteemed independent record store. Its beloved in-house video rental store, Video Paradiso, is also moving. Both will be in a  to-be-named Montclair location likely by July 1, according to Rhino product manager Aaron Kenyon.

The new Rhino Records store will be on Moreno Ave., east of Montclair Place Mall. Rhino will announce the address as the closing day for the Claremont store draws near.

Coming on the heels of Candlelight Pavilion’s March 20 final performance after 37 years in Claremont, and just in front of the imminent shuttering of the Laemmle 5 movie theater, the Rhino move feels especially wrenching. 

Rhino, of course, has always been more than a record store; it’s a place for music lovers to meet, argue, rejoice and commune. It has also hosted untold hundreds of national and local musical and spoken-word performances on its tiny in-store stage, though those cherished concerts have been on hold since COVID reared up in March 2020.

Perhaps most importantly, for an astounding 48 years it has also been a place to explore and cement one’s identity, musical and otherwise. 

“There’s always been that thing to me about Rhino, where there was something that transcended commerce,” Kenyon said. “It’s about having a central place where people could meet and talk and share the same experience. Social media and all that will never replace that thing.”

The writing was on the wall months ago for Rhino’s departure from Claremont. The property owner made Rhino management aware it would be raising the rent by double-digits over what it had been paying, an increase that would have put it on par with current per-square-foot commercial rents in Village. The proposed increase was just too much for the business to absorb and remain profitable. 

“Of course, when we knew this thing was going to go down we were trying as hard as we could to stay in this town,” Kenyon said. “We love this town. This is where the business grew and we got love in the community. We hear from so many people, ‘Oh yeah, I bought something there when I was young that just changed my life.’”

Just like the Candlelight, Rhino’s business model is not the problem. It’s doing fine, Kenyon said, in a very competitive market. 

Gentrification is the word on everyone’s lips around town these days. Depending on your outlook, it’s either saved or destroyed Pasadena’s Old Town and Santa Monica’s Third Street. Ventura’s Main Street old town district is in the midst of its own dance with gentrification, with mixed results thus far. 

Claremont, it would appear, is heading in a similar direction.

Nobody can argue with the nice sales tax cushion gentrification can bring to city. Homeowners benefit from increased property values as cities transition from quaint to destination. And of course business is business, and commercial real estate owners have every right seek rental parity with comparable spaces in the area. 

But there is a price to pay. 

“The artists and the freaks can kind of be around as long as the rents are low,” Kenyon said. “But as soon as the artists and the freaks make the place popular, or draw notoriety, then suddenly the rents go up to where those people have to leave. And nobody’s really found a balance in there where you could say, ‘Well hey, can we make some bread here but can we really still make room for artists?’”

The Candlelight Pavilion is gone. Soon we will say goodbye to the Laemmle. After the Hip Kitty closed in 2015, The Press was the only live music venue or late night bar in town. With butcher paper on its windows for more than two years now, it’s unclear whether The Press will ever reopen. And now Rhino is pulling up stakes. And those are just the musical and theatrical casualties of the Village’s newfound commercial exclusivity. 

“We’re really going to miss that thing,” Kenyon said. “I myself probably feel the same way that you do in that all these places — from the [Bamboo Tea House] to Barbara Cheatley’s, and even places that I always associated with old school Claremont, [with] Candlelight Pavilion obviously included — that was that thing that I think gave Claremont so much of its charm, or so much of its core, or so much that was that artistic quality to the town.”

Taylor Kingsbury is one of Rhino’s store managers. He too is a 20-year employee. 

“I will always love this city because I have so many memories here, but for people who are just discovering Claremont, I don’t know what reason there really is to come when all there is do is eat at a restaurant,” he said. “If all the interesting places and the landmarks are gone … you can only eat at so many places. I think you’re losing a lot when you lose the artistic side of things, having the musicians play in the park and on the streets, and things like that, which is something we’ve always had here and you really don’t see much anymore.”

Rhino’s original 1974 location was at 271 W. Second St. (now the home of Jasmine gift shop). It moved to 225 N. Yale Ave. (now Viva Madrid) a couple years later, then in 1991, to its current home at 235 N. Yale. 

Kenyon, 51, has been with Rhino for 20 years. He started out as a fan; scratch that: a super-fan. From the time he was 12 he was there multiple times per week scouring the upstairs used bins at the store’s old location. He was such an obsessive that he was the very first customer at the store’s then new location when it opened in 1991. 

Former longtime Rhino manager Dennis Callaci opened the door for him that day. 

“I just walked in and I’m like, ‘First customer in!’ I was like, what’s the first thing that should be purchased in Rhino Records from the new location?” Kenyon said. “I just looked over thought, ‘Oh, Mötorhead sticker!’ So I went and grabbed [it], slapped it down on the counter, and had Dennis ring me up. I was like, ‘First purchase at the new Rhino!’”

Kingsbury, 43, also started out as a Rhino devotee. He’s been shopping there for 30 years now, the last 20 with an employee discount. He earned his master’s degree at Claremont Graduate University. He has a show on KSPC. He’s Claremont through-and-through, though he doesn’t live in town. 

“With not having the Laemmle here, not having The Press here, I don’t know what it’s going to look like to me, as someone who’s been coming her my whole life, to walk down the street in the Village and not see any of the landmarks that always brought me here,” he said. “The town definitely does lose some of its very special character. And I think that’s a very sad thing.”

Rhino Records is still here. We’ve about three months to soak up its unique vibe, pick up some music, or a cool gift, and chat up one of its longtime employees. Those folks — many of whom have spent decades with the store — are yet another incalculable loss; the value of the music knowledge they each carry in their internal databases is impossible to quantify. 

Wondering about an obscure blues record? An avant-classical piece from Kronos Quartet? Oh, and who did that song in the early-‘80s about the belly of the whale? (answer: Burning Sensations). Asking a fellow music freak (in person!) at Rhino, then spelunking for your particular jam in a store packed with thousands of records of all genres is an experience of ever-increasing rarity. 

We’ve been lucky to have Rhino Records in our town for nearly a half-century. The business has weathered recession, wars, disco, punk rock, another recession or two, 9/11, and even Napster. But it couldn’t hold on against a gentrifying Claremont Village. 

As I wrote just last week, on the occasion of the Candlelight Pavilion’s closure, what’s next, Claremont?

 

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