by Natasha Brennan
photography by Dorothy Gartsman
Nazi Germany 1938. A Jewish family learns soldiers are about to raid their home for not only Jewish people, but also confiscating treasure and destroying anything related to their faith. In the corner of their home is their beloved grandfather clock—hand carved, stained a red-brown, with great brass weights. On the half-hour, it chimes a sweet song; on the hour, it gongs a melancholy tune counting down the time. Quickly, the family rips off the stars of David and silver letters nailed to the clock face: “vulnerant omnea ultima necat,” a Latin proverb translating to “all the hours wound you, the last one kills.” There is a sharp knock at their door.
Nestled between the train tracks on the east side of White Avenue, a former egg farm sits surreptitiously behind jasmine bushes. Motorists zip past Ken’s Olden Oddities, transversing between Bonita Avenue and Arrow Highway. On the outside, it still looks like a farm with tractors, a windmill, a barn, wagons and a few odd surfboards. But inside, the buildings are filled floor to ceiling with dusty antiques. “Oddities,” Ken Ruppert calls them. “You have to have something to be able to sell it. The first time a new person walks in, they always say, ‘I’ve been driving by for months, years, decades, and I’ve never come in.” But Ken’s always been here with his old iron cash register that only counts up to $3. There are many things people get wrong about Ken and his store. He is often referred to as “Ken Olden” on Yelp and Facebook. “People think Olden is my last name. They don’t realize that ‘olden’ is describing the oddities I have here. When I came up with the name, I knew I didn’t want to be just another ‘antique shop,’” Ken says with air-quotes. “I’m Ken, the stuff I sell is old, and it’s odd. That’s where the name comes from.”
Ken, a La Verne native, has seen the town go from orange groves to paved streets in his years. La Verne Orange Company crates and Lordsburg Water Company manhole covers decorate the store walls. He fondly recalls working as an orange picker when he was 15, protecting the oranges from winter frost by staying up lighting smudge pots until the early morning sun warmed the air.
Four generations of the Ruppert family have sold antiques. He first viewed the business by attending the Rose Bowl flea market as a child. Ken opened his first store with his dad Frank on Holt Avenue in Pomona when he was a Mt. San Antonio College student. “He loved the antiques. He was part of the store,” Ken says of his father. But the store was only open for four years as Ken was drafted, sent to Fort Ord and then to Vietnam. When his service was over, he attended California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and studied engineering. He jokes that he did not use the engineering part of his degree much in his antiquing business. “Even if you never use it, I think you come out of college a better person,” Ken says.
With his freshly minted engineering degree in hand, Ken wanted to reopen his business. When the property on White Avenue became available, he snatched it up quickly. It was originally an egg farm he knew well from his orange picking days, but it later became home to a family who made their business buying unsold items from department stores. “When we found the place, it was filled with lots of old junk. We thought maybe we could sell it all,” Ken says. They found multiple refrigerator boxes filled with Nuun Bush shoes. “They were expensive shoes. We thought we were going to make lots of money on them. We took them all outside, laid them out and tried to match all the pairs, but we found out that there weren’t any pairs,” Ken’s son Dusty says. Disappointed with what they thought was the find of the century, the Rupperts tried to come up with a way to get rid of all the pairless shoes. As a veteran, Ken knew the ugly side of war. They boxed up the suede and leather shoes and sent them to an organization in Los Angeles that gives shoes to amputees. “The shoes are so expensive that amputees would not be buying them because they don’t need both shoes.”
Once the buildings were empty, Ken filled them back up again. “There’s nowhere else for the stuff to go anymore,” he says. He made his business attending sales at private homes and making offers on anything he liked. “Most of my business comes from word of mouth,” Ken says. Although he doesn’t have a particular theme to his store, Ken prefers to buy items from the 1930s or older. He especially likes the Victorian and old western items. “Anything newer than that has to be pretty funky,” Ken says. He uses that word a lot—“funky.” Much of his inventory could redecorate Knott’s Berry Farm, Ken says. Hanging along the walls are dozens of convex glass photos and paintings—a creepy collectors item, he says—of family portraits, newborn babies or Civil War soldiers in their formal uniforms. “My Victorian pieces sell fast, especially the ice boxes. A lot of people buy them and turn them into personal bars.” He has old Victorian bed frames, baby buggies and even a coffin with viewing glass. “I have a lot of people interested in the coffin. Someone wants to turn it into a coffee table, another wants to turn it into a bookshelf, and somebody else wants it as is—stains and all,” Ken says. The coffin was never buried, Ken stresses, but was used as a decorative casket for bodies at viewings. The bodies were later buried in cheaper, less ornate caskets. Ken has come across many morbid items in his day.
He’s currently researching a pair of tombstones that came to him from a man he calls a “rock dweller,” or person who enjoys exploring the canyons and deserts in the south western states. “You can see they have little poems on them, just like the ones in the ghost town cemetery at Knott’s. I always thought that was a funky little thing they came up with, but in my research I’ve found it’s real.” His favorite of the two is the more legible tombstone of a sheriff who died in 1870. It reads: “Fred Bass: A real nice guy, but a real bad shot.” He says the finder swears that he found the tombstones washed up in an Arizona river.
Ken’s workshop sets him apart from other antique store owners. It is covered in two kinds of dust: regular dust from antiques and sawdust. The smell of lacquer and jasmine fills the chicken barn shop. With Dusty, Ken refurbishes, restores and repaints his inventory. “What’s helped us survive over the years is that we repair and refinish furniture in the back workshop. Chairs, furniture, antiques—you name it. That’s where half of our business comes from. But only if someone specifically asks for it to be restored,” Dusty adds. “Some people like it all banged up and old looking. Others want it looking like it’s brand new.” The workshop helps Ken to stay competitive with the internet and also convinces his customers to buy. “Say someone sees something they like, but are on the fence about buying. I can take it to the back and touch it up. It’s the icing on the cake to make the sale. A lot of other shops can’t do that.”
Antiquing has come back into style. He credits television shows like “Antique Pickers” for creating the recent trend. “People like to get something old and make it into something new.” With antiques being hip again, Ken finds his newer customers to be under 30. “The antique business has changed. We used to have hundreds of people come in, most of them collectors. But the under 30 crowd—they’re different from the traditional antiquer. They don’t want to just find something that fits in their collection. They want to know how old it is, the history of the piece, previous owners, how rare it is, and they especially want it delivered.”
Despite the “high-maintenance” of the new buyers’ delivery requests, Ken says they’re usually a quick sell. “They’re not price negotiators like the collectors from 20 years ago used to be. They usually pay what I ask because you can come in here, pop a smartphone out and find something online. The internet shows you the high price and the low price, and I think they can tell that I’m pretty fair with what I’m asking for. The traditional antiquer doesn’t want fair; they want a deal.”
Being an antique store owner has changed for Ken and others of his ilk, and not only with TV shows, but with the internet and its accessibility. But Ken stands his ground. “I don’t sell on the internet. If you don’t understand the internet, which I don’t say I do fully, you won’t make it.” Ken leaves the internet and social media side of his business to Dusty and his other son Kenny. “I would say the internet is not all bad, though. People can find me, which I can appreciate since the phone books are gone. It’s a different world for me now. To be in an antique business nowadays you have to use the internet as a price guide. I used to have two big shelves full of price guides with hundreds of items. It’d take me awhile to find the right item and the right price.” Ken often finds himself offering price matching if he doesn’t already have the best price for an item. “The internet rules the antique business now because everyone will come in here with their smartphones, look up the item and search the prices and tell you what’s out there. Fifteen years ago, you’d find an item you’d never seen before, and you thought you were so cool, but now you go on the internet and can see five of them for sale.”
Despite the resurging interest in the old and odd, antique stores are on the decline. And it’s not all just the internet over brick-and-mortar stores, Ken says. “Antiques ain’t a big business. It’s been rougher the last five years. Half the shops in the area have gone out and disappeared. It’s not so much the antiques and the internet, but the rent. You can’t have an antique shop in a commercial building. You have to own your place to survive.” In Ken’s shop, every item has a price sticker with what he feels is a fair price, and it stays that way. Most antique sellers, he says, tell the price of the item only when the buyer asks so they can negotiate based off their appearance. “Prices on good antiques are pretty consistent, but if it’s been here over a year I might go a little lower,” he says. “If you’re in the business, pricing pretty much adjusts itself. You know if you’re selling fair, and your products are moving, you’re doing OK.”
Ken does not buy much from people who walk into the store selling. “I’m not known to buy at the door. If someone walks in, you have to run the thing, get a driver’s license and the license plate; it’s too much work sometimes,” he says. “I prefer going to homes or private sales because then it’s a transaction between two people. A transaction between a person and a business has more red tape.” But Ken follows the rules strictly. “There’s a lot of things that are illegal or a long process to buy and sell, so I don’t mess with them. I don’t buy guns, animals and especially Native American items.”
From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., every day, Ken stands behind his counter, originally part of the extinct La Verne general store in old town. He got it from a plumber who worked at the store. The light brown wood has glass panels in the front, each filled with century old crackers, grain or corn to depict what was for sale that day. “Sometimes, it’s a ghost town on an early Saturday morning. Sometimes, the place is packed on a late Tuesday afternoon,” Dusty says. “People make a day of it, bring the whole family out, and we have a line at the register. Or maybe we don’t see a customer for days. You never know when they come or don’t come.”
Dusty says his dad’s shop is special compared to what’s on TV. “There’s dust on everything. Everyone, when they come in here, says it smells like what an antique shop should smell like. People see the show “Pickers,” but you can’t get that there.”
The store is deeply ingrained in the Rupperts’ lives. Dusty married his wife Jill on the property. The sunflowers they planted for their wedding now grow wild along the fences every spring. Their children Briley, 4, and Cash, 1, are learning the business along with Kenny’s son Gage, 6. This past fall the children made their first sale: a big pumpkin head. Their $2.25 earnings are framed above Ken’s desk. They defy the warning, “You should never work with family.” “I’d say the best part is that we all get along, but we have our days. What other job lets you yell at your boss?” Dusty jokes.
Dusty remembers helping his father very recently bring in a grandfather clock he picked up from a customer for refurbishment. Ken cleaned it, removed the dust in the crevices, then polished the four 28 pound weights and restored the twinkling chimes.
It was when he was turning the clock over to check his work that he saw a small hole in the bottom panel. He looked inside to see the reflection of silver. His close inspection solved a mystery. He found the Latin proverb and stars of David nailed to the bottom of the clock along with a handwritten note removed during Kristallnacht. Written in a thick French cursive it tells the story of the German model clock “Gloria.” The clock was restored by the famous bronze maker Lucien Gau. Ken cannot wait to deliver the clock back to its owner. “There’s always a story to tell with each antique, a history or mystery waiting to be solved.” ■