Unique gift store offers river of possibilities

Ray and Terri Riojas changed more than locations when they moved their business from 4th Street to Harvard Avenue 3 years ago. They changed directions.

At The Hair Cottage, they spent their time snipping and styling hair, occasionally taking a break to sell something from their growing stock of merchandise. At their new business, Rio de Ojas—which means “river of leaves” and is a play on their last name—the situation is reversed.

The Riojases still trade off doing hair at the single chair in the freestanding building they share with the knitting store Colors 91711, catering to a steady stream of longstanding customers. Their focus, however, has shifted to the vibrant collection of wares they have amassed.

Rio de Ojas is teeming with Mexican folk art, including many pieces featuring religious iconography as well as the skeletons associated with Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Among these are items crafted by their daughter Vanessa, like a life-sized paper mache skull hand-panted with crayon-bright embellishments.

Décor related to the Latin American holiday, which joyfully celebrates the annual return of the beloved dead, is growing in popularity, Ms. Riojas noted.

“It’s really catching on because there’s just such a wonderful spirit and meaning behind it. It can seem a little weird at first, but it’s really easy to embrace,” she said.

The store’s shelves are also filled with dinnerware, home décor, accessories and other products handcrafted by local artisans or sold by businesses with a conscience.

Just how eclectic is this unique gift store?

Where else in Claremont can you buy a paper mache statue of a skeletal, flower-bedecked Frida Kahlo; a serving platter crafted in the 400-year-old tradition of Guanajuato Majolica; ornamental glass hearts hand-blown in San Miguel Allende, Mexico; candles made in Thailand and Christmas ornaments in the shape of a taco or burrito?

When Mr. and Ms. Riojas moved into their current location, it was a requirement of their lease that the space be devoted primarily to retail. They had already begun to grow their selection of gifts at The Hair Cottage and it was a direction they were ready to explore further.

“Life just sort of evolved,” Ms. Riojas said. “Moving here has been a dream come true for us in many ways. It has allowed us to start over, to examine what we care about and love and put it into our business.”

The Riojases—who have been married for 37 years, have 2 children and boast 4 grandchildren—are used to evolving. They met in college, where Mr. Riojas was studying biomed and Ms. Rojas was pursuing nursing. After graduation, Mr. Riojas worked for 3 years at Casa Colina as a physical therapist before realizing he was in the wrong field. He decided to go back to school to become a hairstylist, something he had wanted to do since he was 9. Ms. Riojas was a nurse for 10 years before opting to join Mr. Riojas in his new profession.

In 1981, the couple opened The Hair Cottage, where they worked side-by- side. Thirty-one years later, they’re still joined at the hip. How do they make it work?

“I don’t think there’s a big secret. If you get mad, you just get over it,” Ms. Riojas said.

“We also have real common ground,” Mr. Riojas added. “We both have the same kind of mission.”

That common vision involves bringing a bit of the world to town. Ms. Riojas is originally from Kansas and moved to Claremont in 1962 so her father could attend the Claremont School of Theology. The Mexican and Latin American part of their aesthetic stems from Mr. Riojas’ background. A second-generation southern Californian, he has “colorful family stories from Spain to Texas land grants to Pancho Villa connections.”

The Riojases’ love of Mexican culture deepened during trips taken to Mexico, including a visit to Oaxaca as well as one they undertook for a wedding in Tepotzlan.

“I wanted to create a place you could go and feel like you’re transported to a small town in Italy or Spain, where you can walk down a cobblestone street and buy from various vendors,” Ms. Riojas said.

Rio de Ojas’ vendors are carefully chosen for their sound and philanthropic business ethos.

“It just speaks to how thoughtful they are in buying from companies, asking, ‘What are they doing? What does their money go to?’” sales associate Christy Loun said, gesturing to a rack of jewelry made by an African women’s collective.

“I don’t appreciate what a place like Walmart is doing as a company. I appreciate what Ray and Terri are doing,” she continued. “They’re very sweet and giving.”

This makes for a positive vibe that customers pick up on. It’s one that could only be improved, the Riojases joked, if they could also whip up margaritas in the store.

People come from far and wide to shop at Rio de Ojas, especially near Christmas, when the store stocks a lively mixture of season-appropriate goods like nativity figures from Mexico, South and Latin America and the Philippines, ornaments and organic Mexican vanilla from the Blue Cattle Truck Trading Co. perfect for baking holiday treats.

As the number of shoppers expand, the Riojases become more expert at selecting merchandise. Sometimes they’ll come across an item online and contact the manufacturer, even if they’re in a far-flung foreign locale. Other times, people come into the shop with pieces they’d like Rio de Ojas to carry, including a man who regularly drives up from Mexico, inviting Mr. and Ms. Riojas to browse through a stockpile in the back of his truck. They also head each year for a gift show in Los Angeles and a world import market center in Las Vegas. Ms. Riojas follows a general rule of thumb.

“If you can’t imagine buying an item personally for someone, don’t get it,” she said.

With the gift portion of the business growing, the Riojases aren’t actively seeking hair clients. They take who comes in, ready to have their hair cut in an environment full of light, art and the smell of scented candles. However, longtime clients like Upland resident Kerry Martin, who has been coming to the Riojas for hairstyling since 1991, will be happy to hear that they have no plans to hang up their scissors.

“I will stop cutting hair on the day I fall back and die,” Mr. Riojas said.

As unusual as it sounds, the balance between gift shop and salon is a good mix, Ms. Riojas emphasized. “When the shop is slow, the hair part picks up. And when the hair aspect is slow, the shopping will pick up.”

The store’s split personality really appeals to Ms. Martin, who notes that she and the Riojases have become great friends over the years.

“I do a lot of shopping here,” she said.

Rio de Ojas is located at 2050 N. Harvard Ave. in Claremont. For more information, visit www.riodeojas.com or call 624-4141.

—Sarah Torribio



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