With the publication of Record Store Days by Gary Calamar & Phil Gallo and the April 17th celebration of Record Store Day, my thoughts have turned once again to my time managing the Rhino Records store in Claremont, California from September 1974 to July 1979. Unlike many pioneering stores profiled in the book, Rhino Claremont is still in business, even though the parent store in Westwood is no more.
I’d graduated from UCLA in June 1974 with a degree in English and moved to the small college town of Claremont (about 40 miles east of downtown L.A.) to live with my girlfriend Linda Powers, who’d just graduated from Pitzer College there and was enrolling in graduate school for the autumn. She found a cheap house to rent (previously occupied by her classmate Jessica Swift, heiress to the Swift’s Premium meatpacking fortune). My plan for the summer was to either write The Great American Novel or get a job at a local newspaper. When both efforts quickly failed, I started applying for work anywhere I could, including a motorcycle parts warehouse (I had experience working in an aircraft parts company during my UCLA breaks). No luck. I was stumped about what to do next.
At Pitzer, Linda knew a guy named Jeff Powers (no relation) who worked for a while at a local place called American Records, but it had closed before I arrived in Claremont. “This is a college town” she said to me. “There’s no record store. Why don’t you start one? Ask Richard Foos if he’ll bankroll it.” I’d been one of the first regular customers at Richard’s store Rhino Records in Westwood near the UCLA campus, normally visiting a store empty of other patrons, Foos sitting rather forlornly behind the counter. It seemed to be doing better lately, but I had no idea if Richard had the money to start another store, especially one outside the metropolitan area, to be run by a business novice.
My fellow UCLA Daily Bruin rock-crit and sometime musical collaborator Harold Bronson had graduated and gone to work for Richard at the Westwood store. They talked about the idea, and Richard quickly agreed to the plan. Harold scouted Claremont with me to find an available space to launch a second Rhino outlet.
By the time the school year started in September, Richard had rented a tiny store in half of an old building on W. 2nd Street in downtown Claremont (it still had a metal ring for tying up horses in the front yard), installed all the fixtures, stocked the albums, printed up flyers (designed by Linda), and paid for local ads in the Claremont Courier announcing the grand opening. We offered free rock t-shirts (cheap items Richard had obtained) to the first hundred people through the door (the store could actually hold about 20 customers at a time, max). As with the Westwood store, the intention was to sell some new releases, which didn’t have much profit margin, but mostly used LPs and “cut-outs” (deleted titles) where Richard might make a dollar or so per sale. We also stocked bootlegs – like Dylan’s The Great White Wonder and The Rolling Stones’ Livr Than You’ll Ever Be – which eventually drew the attention of federal agents (but that’s another story).
“Now, don’t be depressed if business isn’t so great at the start” Richard told me as I nervously awaited opening day. “I spent a lot of time alone in the Westwood store.” The store didn’t have a cash register, just a metal box for bills and a receipt book. There were only a couple decorative posters on the walls, which were primarily covered with wire racks holding LPs. The extra stock was in the back of the store in a small pantry.
On the first day, we gave away those t-shirts in about two minutes. I recall Richard even went to his car to get more he hadn’t unloaded, thinking we wouldn’t need them. The place was mobbed, college students and locals hanging out on the lawn. I couldn’t write receipts fast enough, and we belatedly realized that there was so little space between rows of albums that customers didn’t have room to stand back-to-back and had to organize themselves like, well, sardines. After opening the Westwood store and working the morning shift, Harold had to drive to Claremont with more LPs. When Richard, Linda and I added up the receipts at the end of the day, we’d taken in $1,300, which Richard said was better than the average week in Westwood.
In the subsequent months, Linda (having dropped out of grad. school, before finding another job) sometimes clerked, and I hired a few other friends & customers to help out, but mostly I ran the place as I wished and made it up as I went along. I had to deal with the occasional shoplifter, would go berserk over customers who repeatedly returned albums as “warped” when in reality they couldn’t figure out how to set their phonograph tone-arms properly, and had (I’m ashamed to admit) more than a few incidents where I unreasonably gave some poor customer my laser-stare and suggested with jaw clenched “perhaps you’d be happier taking your business somewhere else.” There were people who argued with me over used record prices (“Man, this isn’t worth $1.49!”), who needed a lay-away plan (“I’ve got to have this but don’t have the money – put it under the counter for me and I’ll come in next week, I swear!”) or just hung around the store all day ignoring my hints that they might want to find something else to do. I also made a lot of new friends and became an upstanding part of the local business community. Sort of. But looking back I wish somebody would have taught me something about how to run a store, deal with customers, and control my temper. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to endure those meaningful looks from Linda when we went to see the film High Fidelity and Jack Black, playing a record store clerk, berates a customer at length.
After surviving the Christmas season in a building without a functioning heating system, and having outgrown the premises from the first day, I found a better, bigger space around the corner on N. Yale Avenue, in which we could stock massive amounts of new albums downstairs and the used records upstairs, in a big loft that dramatically overlooked the main floor. It also gave us room to expand our offerings to include stereo equipment (an experiment that failed) and bongs, rolling papers and roachclips (always steady sellers).
I walked to work, didn’t have to open the store until 11a.m., worked a 5-day week, and listened to music all day. I had it made.
Every day I got a thrill when the delivery guy showed up with my C.O.D. box of new albums, ordered by phone the day before from one of the L.A. “one-stops” that supplied small orders (only bigger stores bought enough to order directly from major distributors). I especially liked unwrapping shipments from import company JEM Records, European-only prog releases by the likes of Camel, Sensation’s Fix, Amon Düül and Faust, pristine ECM releases by Eberhard Weber, Miroslav Vitous etc., and Japanese albums like Santana’s triple-LP Lotus. By 1977 I was stocking hot-off-the-press singles by The Clash, Sex Pistols, Generation X, The Damned et. al. which I displayed in a prominent 45 bin at the front of the store. I didn’t always have total control over inventory. In 1976, Richard refused to carry the #1 album in the country, the soundtrack to A Star is Born, because he thought the record label was ripping off consumers by charging an extra dollar for it. I used to send customers to our newly-opened local competition The Wherehouse in Pomona to buy it, confident they wouldn’t hurt our business (and they didn’t).
I also made good contacts with a number of new independent labels that eventually viewed Rhino Claremont as one of their main outlets. I used to drive into L.A. to meet up with the women’s collective Olivia Records, buying boxes of their first releases by Holly Near and Chris Williamson. Over time, we probably sold most of the copies pressed of Toullusions, a guitar instrumental album by Toulouse Engelhardt with a Rick Griffin cover, on the Briar label. And I remember clearly one day in 1976 when a guy came in the store, telling me he was a carpenter from Northern California who’d pressed his own album of guitar pieces, and would I buy four copies if he gave me one free for in-store airplay? I said sure. After he left, I put it on, and sold the four copies immediately. I ran outside to see if his car was still parked, but he was gone. I got in touch with him when he got back home, and ordered some more, and eventually sold hundreds of copies of that and his next release. Later I realized the carpenter was Will Ackerman and I’d just helped launch the Windham Hill empire!
Claremont was already a great music town, with David Lindley, Guy Carawan, Ry Cooder, Chris Darrow, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen (residing at the nearby Mount Baldy Zen Center) already part of the local story in the sixties. Rhino Claremont became another local hang-out, joining the venerable Folk Music Center across the street. (Originally founded in 1958 and run by Charles and Dorothy Chase, they’d moved to N. Yale Avenue in 1970. They specialized in musical instruments and sold some folk LPs and music books. I used to see the Chases’ toddler grandson Ben Harper excitedly running around the shop. He now owns it.)
At Rhino Claremont, a local cast of characters developed. There were customers who bought literally anything I suggested, like Dave, who loved Pink Floyd and Premiata Forneria Marconi and taped all his albums onto reel-to-reel and then sold them back to the store the next day as used. Teenage customer Paula Pierce, who lated founded the girl-group The Pandoras, told me in the eighties that I’d been the one to turn her on to The Ramones. I became friends with multi-instrumentalist and ex-Kaleidoscope co-leader Chris Darrow, whose family had deep Claremont roots. We sold his 1977 band album Rank Strangers (which included another local sometime-customer Robb Strandlund, who co-wrote The Eagles’ “Already Gone”), and Chris bought Prefab Sprout’s first album when I told him he had to. James Williamson, of the Raw Power Stooges, would come in during breaks from his studies of electrical engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. David Lindley’s wife Joan (Chris’ sister) often came in, but I never saw Lindley himself in the store. The college professor, musician and writer Stanley Crouch often used to browse the jazz bins, and I ended up buying several dozen LPs from him when he moved to New York. And I was thrilled that Norma Tanega – whose 1966 record “Walking My Cat Named Dog” was a reasonably big hit in Southern California – was teaching art in Claremont and used to come in, bemused that I knew about her distant past as a singer.
Meanwhile, the Westwood Rhino became an important and always amusing L.A. institution, pulling regular stunts like sales dedicated to flogging LPs-By-The-Pound and the posting of very large “Most Obnoxious Customers” signs behind the counter. As far as I know, the Claremont store always made more money, but our profile was never as high. I wanted more credit. This attitude got me in trouble when The L.A. Reader ran a cover story about Rhino and didn’t mention Claremont, which ticked me off. My letter to the editor, which I didn’t clear with Richard, imprudently suggested that Westwood could be goofy and fun because their hijinks were funded by the profits of the unrecognized wage-slaves out in Claremont. This sparked at least one feud, between me and a Rhino Westwood clerk, Jeff Gold, who thought I’d insulted the Westwood store’s crew. (Actually, Richard was more than generous with me, instituting a profit-share plan when we met certain goals, which we always did. So I had nothing to complain about. I was just jealous of the good time they were having in Westwood.)
I got a job at Warner Communications’ Special Products division in 1979 and handed the store to someone else. Richard sold it, then bought it back, then sold it again over the years, and at one point there was a third Rhino store in The Inland Empire which didn’t survive. Harold and Richard became partners in the Rhino Records label, which went on to great success, and was eventually sold to Warner Music Group. Rhino and Warner Special Products were merged, and I spent the last part of my career at Warner working at Rhino. Go figure.
Rhino Claremont is still at more-or-less the same location on N. Yale Avenue, although it’s now pushed down a bit, taking over the spot which used to be Bentley’s Supermarket next door. The original sign that hung outside the W. 2nd St. location, which Linda hand-painted that summer of ‘74, is still on the wall.