Claremont: That rare travel gem in SoCal, a real college town

People stroll and socialize along Yale Avenue in Claremont Village earlier this month.
People stroll and socialize along Yale Avenue in Claremont Village earlier this month.

Scoff if you must, but Southern California – land of strip malls and suburban sprawl, populated with hipsters and Beautiful People either in “The Business” or hoping for that big break – is also home to maybe the state’s coziest, quaintest college town, incongruously nestled under the scrim of smog obscuring the San Gabriel Mountains.

Before you invoke the names Berkeley, Davis, San Luis Obispo and Chico in rebuttal, hear me out: I lived, in my peripatetic years, in Athens, Ga., and Ithaca, N.Y., two quintessential college towns; two of my kids were born in the People’s Republic of Berkeley; and I currently pay an outrageous mortgage on the smallest money pit in Yolo County. So, yeah, I know college towns.

Trust me, then, when I rate Claremont as worthy of true college-town status. Oh, excuse me, their preferred appellation is Claremont Village. And while we’re being nitpicky, we really should use the plural and call it a colleges town.

Maybe because this is SoCal, where they do everything to excess, no fewer than seven colleges (five undergrad and two graduate schools) mold young minds in this sleepy town. But, really, most outsiders tend to meld this consortium together into something approximating Claremont-Mudd-Scripps-McKenna-Pomona-Pitzer-Keck. Try fitting all that on a sweat shirt. In any event, if you wander a few blocks north of the retail hub of the village, you’ll see that one campus seamlessly bleeds into another, anchored by an imposing gateway on Foothill Boulevard proclaiming it “The Claremont Colleges.”

Back down the hill – OK, a tiny elevation rise – you’ll encounter all the markers of a college-town milieu, from the grossly disproportionate number of frozen yogurt establishments to the cadre of crunchy, burned-out locals who lounge outside coffee shops all day. Tasteful high-end chain stores rub retail shoulders with aggressively quirky, locally sourced, shade-grown, fair-trade, gluten-free, artisan and vegan boutique shops. The array of international restaurants is way too trendy and more haute than any regular municipality of 35,824 residents has a right to host, which makes it a must-stop for people whose college years are decades behind them.

As is customary for college towns, many of Claremont’s streets, which feature arty bike racks, are named after other prestigious colleges – Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Grinnell. (Why not name them after Mississippi State? Just asking.) And Claremont’s even got a snazzy, albeit unofficial, slogan to describe the good life within its 13 square miles: “Land of Trees and Ph.Ds.”

Visitors cannot help but notice the stark difference between Claremont and surrounding areas straddling the border between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. If you mistakenly turn south when exiting Interstate 10 at Indian Hill Road, you hit a prime example of urban blight, also known as Pomona, replete with pay-day loan storefronts, fast-food joints, liquor stores and walk-in clinics.

Make that U-turn and head back north under the freeway and, in a “Wizard of Oz”-like moment, the scenery abruptly changes and teems with verdancy. A granite sign in a wide, grassy median welcomes you to Claremont Village, and those live oaks and sycamores cast a lovely, sedative, sun-dappled tinge for the mile-long drive to the retail hub. Encountering Claremont for the first time is a revelation to many, including parents of college-age kids who come to visit and are as pleasantly surprised with the ambiance as they are shocked at the private-school tuition fees.

Stop any parent roaming downtown – you can always tell parents of college students by their too-formal dress and slow walking pace – and you’ll get the reaction that David Omori of Pasadena gave when visiting his son Matt, a Pitzer College freshman, two months into the fall semester.

“We didn’t know much about this area until (Matt) became interested in the school,” said Omori, sitting at an outside table at Some Crust Bakery. “My wife and I originally were from the Bay Area, so to discover this in Southern California, it’s amazing. It really feels like a college town, which is unexpected since there’s only about 5,500 undergrads to support it.”

Longtime residents, such as native son Bob Fagg, 67, call Claremont an “oasis” and a “hidden gem.” Fagg’s wife, Sonja Stump, who runs the Friday Night Live concerts in three locations in the village, said the city has not explicitly tried to emulate a cohesive college town; it just sort of happened organically and has stayed that way through smart growth that expanded downtown’s commercial reach (but not overly so) while being visitor-friendly with free parking, farmers markets and festivals at least once a month.

Stump doesn’t like to compare Claremont to other college towns in the state, but …

“Our daughter went to (UC) Davis,” she said, “and when we went up there for the first time to visit, we went, ‘Hmm, this reminds me of Claremont.’” She didn’t add, but seemed to imply, the ending of the sentence: but is not as nice.

So what, specifically, makes Claremont a true college town? What say we run down the list of essentials:

The Cultural

There are several venues on campus(es) to visit – the Pomona College Museum of Art’s current eclectic exhibits feature a politically charged AIDS artwork collection, a multi-media examination of “Petrochemical Alley” along the Mississippi River, and a display of ancient Chinese snuff bottles; the Alf Museum of Paleontology recently added a 75 million-year-old alligator skeleton; the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden features 22,000 plants native to California – but the highlight can be found downtown.

It’s the Folk Music Center, a combined museum, music store, instrument repair shop and performance space owned by Grammy Award-winning artist Ben Harper and his mother, Ellen. The center was founded in 1958 by Ellen’s parents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, in collaboration with legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax. From the heady days of the “Great Folk Music Scare” of the ’50s to the singer-songwriter period of the ’70s to today’s Americana roots revival, the store has been a haven for folkies and bluesmen. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry played there. Doc Watson, too.

Harper got his start working behind the counter, while his grandfather both repaired all manner of acoustic instruments and started collecting them. Among the regulars at the store are multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, a Claremont resident, and his collaborator, Jackson Browne. About once a month, a traveling artist will play a concert, and every Sunday is open-mike night.

For the expert, the museum aspect of the store is an encyclopedic trip through centuries of instruments, ranging from African percussion and drums to a surbahar, a bass sitar from Northern India; from a rebab (fiddle) made of goat skin in Afghanistan to an early 19th century Appalachian dulcimer. Guitar slingers will drool over the 1903 Martin, with hand-made ivory pegs and rosewood back.

“Most of this is just stuff that’s come through this town at some point in time,” said Evan Smith, working behind the counter. “(The Chases) really didn’t go traveling around collecting. It just sort of all came to them. Once word got out, people came from far and wide. Charles bought sold, traded and bartered stuff. Most of the instrument (collection) on the top shelf is part of the museum and not for sale. It’s been sitting in the same place for years. There are some people who come in and say they’ve got to have something that’s part of the museum, but they get the idea pretty quickly.”

So renowned is the Folk Music Center that most of the business, Smith said, comes from people outside of Claremont.

“L.A. is close enough (25 miles west) that we get a lot of music-industry types,” he said. “They catch word about the place.”

The Culinary

Nearly half of Claremont’s 80 restaurants are downtown, ranging from traditional college-town fare (pizza, burgers, tacos and frozen yogurt) to international cuisine. There’s Bua Thai; Fattoush, a Lebanese restaurant; upscale Peruvian entrees at Inka Trails; tapas at Viva Madrid; French delicacies at Bardot and the Harvard Square Cafe; and white-table-cloth Italian dining at Tutti Mangia.

But let’s face it, any college town worth its street rep is judged by its bars, beer joints and cantinas. The Friday night crowd at Eureka!, a burger and craft beer emporium anchoring the far west corner of the town’s Packing House District shopping center, was hopping. An erstwhile citrus fruit-packing building that lay mostly dormant since the early 1970s before the city bought the property in 1996 and embarked on development, the Packing House now bustles with nighttime activity.

Those not imbibing at Eureka! can wander to the other side of the Packing House and catch belly dancing while downing ouzu and sucking on a hookah pipe and scarfing fried halloum. Or, they can go next door to the Hip Kitty Jazz and Fondue for cocktails with their dipping while a combo makes like Miles Davis. Or they can get a little rowdy and watch the game at The Back Abbey on Oberlin Avenue, Espiau’s Cantina on Yale Avenue, The Press on Harvard Avenue and Heroes & Legends on Yale.

Whereas Davis is known for its curiously large selection of Thai offerings, Claremont counters with Italian cafes. Each block, it seems, boasts an Italian restaurant. In addition to Tutti Mangia, there is Aruffo’s, Eddie’s, La Piccoletta, La Parolaccia Osteria, Euro Cafe and … well, you get the idea. Add to that the multifarious pizza places, and you get the impression Claremontians have never heard of the Paleo Diet.

Perhaps the most intriguing – certainly the most pungent – offering is the Cheese Cave, the kind of place that seemingly can thrive only in a college town. It’s a purveyor of gourmet cheese, also serving sandwiches and sells craft beers with hip names such as Arrogant Bastard Ale.

But it’s the 125 varieties of cheeses, everything from ripe softened brie from Montreal to the goat’s-milk bloomy rind specimens from Sunset Bay in Oregon, that draw cheese lovers throughout Southern California, as well as students from down the street. Yes, students are into designer cheese; these are, after all, pricey private colleges.

“There are some cheese clubs on campus,” said Cheese Cave worker Milan Dragojlovich. “We’ll go up there, or they’ll come down. We get a lot of professors, too. But cheese is everybody’s best friend. It’s universal. I think anywhere you’re lucky enough to have a cheese shop, people will find you. We get people driving in from Palm Springs. But Claremont is a cheese-loving town.”

The Quirky Retail

American Apparel is in Claremont. So is Chico’s. Birkenstock has an outpost, too. (It certainly knows its customer base.)

But Clarement also is dotted with odd, home-grown shops that reflect its quirky personality. Take The Green Gypsie in the Packing House. It dubs itself an “Eco-Chic Home Décor” boutique whose wares are made with “up-cycled and sustainable” materials. But it doesn’t take itself too seriously, either, what with whimsical creations such as a mounted lion’s head sculpted out of cardboard, antique plates embossed with the image of dogs, racoons and bears in full Victorian dress (work of co-owner Angela Rossi) and iPod-compatible players fashioned to look like old-timey Victrola ear-horn speakers.

“Angela and Amanda (Reifel, the other co-owner) really wanted to create a place for artists to display their work an have a tangible place for people to go to,” said Green Gypsie clerk Leslie Curran. “We really don’t have a lot of chain (stores) in the villages, so people support us.”

So, too, for the local record store, Rhino Records, and independent bookstore, the Claremont Forum.

For such an erudite citizenry with advanced degrees – the late, celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace once called Claremont home –the town comes up short on book-selling. The only place selling new books, but not many, is Huntley’s on campus. However, the nonprofit Claremont Forum Book Shop not only offers quality used books (professors get a lot of free, advanced copies they pawn off) but also has been home base since 1986 for the Prison Library Project, which provides reading material free to the incarcerated, as well as prison librarians and chaplains.

“We get about 300 letters a week (from inmates),” said Daniel Murphy of the project. “Prisoners can request certain titles or genres. By far the most popular is just a simple dictionary. We send out about 15,000 to 20,000 books a year. Half come directly from here. All have been donated to us. We don’t buy any used books. But we sell them to customers to raise money.”

Perhaps only in a college town like Claremont does the bookstore receive more books than it doles out.

“Oftentimes, when a professor retires, we’ll get a substantial portion of their libraries donated to us,” Murphy said. “We had four gifts like that in the last year.”

Rhino Records is an entirely for-profit business. But, given the state of independent record stores, some might think it qualifies as nonprofit as well. But the store has survived selling new and used music, holding low-key concerts in the back corner and stocking lots of LPs. Yes, the hipster fascination with vinyl records is keeping Rhino in business.

Customer Frank Sisto III, a 35-year-old singer-songwriter, makes the 20-minute drive from his Rancho Cucamonga home because “it’s basically the only record store around anymore because all those young kids, they just click on a mouse to get music. The thing about a record store like this is, you have an actual human experience. The clerk knows music and will help you out.”

The Musical

One recent Friday night, music wafted seemingly from all directions downtown. The city’s retail merchants pay bands to play three-hour sets each Friday night (mostly classic rock and blues) to draw people in to dine and shop.

In the sprawling, open-air quad at the Village West shopping center, a Beatles tribute band, the Fab 8, was pounding through “Ticket To Ride” as families with strollers, older people with walkers and even a few college students holding Jamba Juice cups and trying to look ironic nodded their heads to the beat. Across town, in front of the Chamber of Commerce of Yale Avenue, the band Three Hour Tour was offering up “Love Potion No. 9,” and over on the City Hall steps on Second Street, the trio Blues and Fries had the audience swing-dancing.

“Claremont is one of the coolest cities there is,” said Hai Muradian, Fab 8’s leader. “You can’t go anywhere else in Southern California and see live bands every Friday at three different spots. These guys are real discriminating in what they want. Even though they hardly pay anything, it’s got to be good. We’ve played the Monday night concert series; that’s drawn 4,000.”

Stump organized the Friday night concerts six years ago when the controversial West Village shopping center expansion had just been completed. Some anti-growth advocates in town felt more retail would ruin the “Village vibe.” A blogger at the Claremont Insider predicted in 2007 that “by the end of 2008 the Village West will be a ghost town of failed businesses.”

To that, Stump just pointed to the overflow Friday night crowd, then told one of her favorite anecdotes.

“There’s a friend of ours who, when they were building up the West Side here, said, ‘I am not going to step foot on the west side of Indian Hill (Road),’” Stump said. “A year or so later, I ran into her here in the plaza and I said, ‘Thought you weren’t going to come here?’ She said, ‘I did a 180.’”

The Controversial

What’s any college town without its gadflies and protesters?

I was beginning to think Claremont failed miserably in this area, until I drove down Indian Hill Boulevard early Friday evening and was stopped at a red light at Arrow Highway intersection.

There, on each corner, was a senior citizen holding and twirling signs like teens do to promote a pizza joint. Only on their signs were anti-war slogans. One woman held a sign reading, “Corporate Greed Promotes War,” and she shook her fist when someone honked in solidarity. Across the street, a grandfatherly type held up this sign: “Wars Busted U.S. Budget,” and two others brandished pickets I couldn’t discern.

Thirty feet south of the intersection, another elderly man, wheelchair-bound, gave a rebuttal. His sign read: “Proud Veteran.”

Democracy in action in a true college town. Berkeley’s got nothing on Claremont.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.