Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Alex Ross Perry
March 31, 2012 12:48 PM
10 Comments
  • |

From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores



ARP: Was this part of your dream of having a store? In the ‘90s, were you excited about being the guy who can provide this to people?

JM: Yes, but a lot of it was just giving myself access to this stuff. Selfishly, I’d be like, I can buy all the stuff I want to see if it’s for a store. But yes, it was also to provide a community because I knew there were other people like me.

ARP: And you knew that Williamsburg was a perfect place to start your first store.

JM: Williamsburg was definitely it. They had two video stores there and they were both really bad. One was nothing but mainstream bootlegs and the other was just not a very well run video store. And I knew that there were a lot of people there who really loved different types of film.

ARP: And you knew that would work here as well. And in the ‘90s, it was not easy to find stuff. Without the internet, you didn’t even knew what there was. So if you’re going to Chiller, or if you are reading the Video Source Miami catalogue and ordering stuff, there’s a chance that people would see it in the store and say that they’d never even heard of it. Now it’s ‘do you have this, I read about it’ or ‘I saw a clip of it.’ But it was important to expose people to those things.

JM: Absolutely. Since we opened the first one in Williamsburg, video stores were going out of business. That was the time that video stores were really going out of business in droves.

ARP: Why was that?

JM: First it was Blockbuster. Just in this neighborhood, there was one on 9th Street called Soundtracks. They had several locations and they all went out of business, right about the same time that we opened this store. I remember going to one store that was going out of business in Brooklyn Heights that had been a video store for something like 20 years. I remember for a used copy of Bob Le Flambeur, I paid I think 60 or 70 dollars because he was going by the Facets catalogue price and he would just seriously knock 10% off of whatever was new. But that was the only way you could find that tape, distributed by CineVista I think it was. And I had never even seen that tape before. I went to this place New York City Liquidators in Manhattan, which would just liquidate video stores from all over the country. And they had these big cardboard boxes that you would pull off shelves and just rifle through. So many of the movies that I opened both stores with came from those sort of sources.

ARP: A lot of my collection is stuff I got from stores that are closing. It’s weird that 12 or 14 years ago, that was already a thing. That was the time where the places that were just rental stores were closing. I feel like even in 2000, a store like this that is just rentals was very uncommon anywhere.

JM: When I opened the first one in Williamsburg, we had posters. Posters, books, and we actually sold stuff. I think we tried to work out with Luminous and a few of the other places that did those sort of grey area bootlegs and stuff. And we tried to sell those. We might have sold some Shock Cinema tapes. Interestingly I had an argument with John Lurie when he found out we had "Fishing With John." It was from a Japanese laser disc and it was released in Japan prior to it being released here. And he called up furious that we had it. And we had no idea that there were plans to release it.

ARP: Selling stuff wasn’t viable?

JM: It became too hard to keep track of. We never had any sort of security situation and stuff just ended up missing and handled poorly. That’s the posters too. The posters were a thing I was really into, and we had a really good poster selection. And we’d come in after a really good Saturday night, when we were open until midnight, and people had been leaning on them. And it became a thing where I didn’t want to be a drag, telling people to get away from them. And then even just rolling them and putting them into a plastic sleeve. Some of the people we had working for us would be a little brutal, and then people would come back saying their poster was creased.
"It took me six months of a layaway at Sears to pay for a laserdisc player, and I spent thousands of dollars to amass even a meager collection of 50 laserdiscs."

ARP: My memory is that DVDs became available everywhere in 1999, 2000. I bought my first DVD player early in 2000 and later in the year I started working at Suncoast Video. And they weren’t very special. Just Warner Brothers or New Line titles with no special features. But then around 2002 to 2004 was the start of when the DVD became a very different commodity for a golden age of product that I believe lasted until 2008. Special editions became the norm. The second disc had 15 hours of stuff on it. This is a lame example, but I remember the first Pirates of the Caribbean DVD weighs about a pound. It has a cardboard sleeve, the second disc has something like three feature-length making ofs, extended scenes, and then the new movie that came out last year, the DVD weighs half an ounce, it has no booklet. There’s not even a single special feature. This decline affected the way people bought, so I’m wondering what affect it had on people’s idea of how much they wanted to rent, or get their hands on one.

JM: I remember it took me six months of a layaway at Sears to pay for a laserdisc player, and I spent thousands of dollars to amass even a meager collection of 50 laserdiscs, I think I had. That was a thing that studios really put into the collectors market. The Criterion laserdiscs, they were very expensive but they had a lot of bells and whistles and stuff. And when DVDs came out, they were pretty barebones. The movie, full-screen, no extras. I think some of the James Bond DVDs are really weird, the interaction and navigation is really weird.

ARP: [at this point I grab a copy of "The Man With The Golden Gun" from a nearby shelf] But it was exciting. This is the edition that I have, and look at all this. Commentary, two documentaries, original TV ads, radio spots, original trailers and a nice booklet. This is a thing that you feel good about.

JM: So then, they start realizing there is a big collectors market for this stuff. Like Anchor Bay is a perfect example of a company that started doing these horror movies that I never thought would ever be released in the United States. I was very excited. Even as a video store owner, I’d go to Suncoast and put my name on a waiting list for various DVDs. It was some obscure horror movie. Everything had an essay. Even the videotapes at the same time had an essay on the backside of the cover. There was that approach of getting some sort of journalist to write some sort of thing for it and really have it be an all-encompassing package. And then the DVDs having whatever sorts of extras they could possibly get. There are some Troma DVDs that have unbelievable amounts of extras. Even shooting new stuff, going back and doing interviews. People were interested in buying those DVDs. Some people would come in and just want to rent something purely for the extras. There was a trade off. People who were hardcore collectors would not want to rent because they want to buy.
You might also like:

10 Comments

  • lexlilexi | April 2, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    This article moved me in ways I can't articulate at the moment but I just wanted to thank Indiewire, Alex Ross Perry, and Joe Martin for having this conversation and publishing it a few times. I've savored every word and am going to keep thinking long and hard about a lot of what you've both said here. Long live film love! It will have to find another way to materialize in the flesh. That's really what its all about.

  • Corey | April 1, 2012 2:35 AMReply

    A good interview about the profound shift. But there are a few questions that should be asked as a follow up. How about the shelf-life of DVDs vs. VHS. DVDs get scratched up so easily since they're not in a protected case like VHS. Seems like most videostores could keep a VHS tape in circulation for over a decade. I'll get a title from Netflix that's been out for 2 months and it's scratched to the point where it's unplayable. Did the stores in Brooklyn have X-rated sections? That was a big revenue source down here for stores. And unlike the new titles that lost their luster after a few weeks, an adult title could steadily rent for years. Seems like when adult videos could be watched via the internet, that revenue vanished when people went from 56K modems to cable. Where is the nearest Redbox to that store?

    The human interaction of the videostore is lacking as people don't really bump into each other at the Redbox. You don't work the aisles looking for that strange Vestron cover that tempts you for months to see if the cover matches the action. Seems most people in line act like they're at a bank ATM. Asking them "what are you thinking of renting" is as evil as saying, "What's your PIN?"

    Pals keep asking my why I don't stash my DVD collection onto a mega-harddrive to watch them "easier." But I adore the packaging. I've created a mini-videostore in my former storage room. Eight shelving units rescued from Border's old video section. I can stare at the spines and covers. I correct pals that it's not a man-cave - it's a Cinema Chapel where I can go to genuflect.

    Far as the Bond DVDs go, call me a sucker for special editions since I've bought the VHS, the original DVDs, the Special Edition DVDs, The Ultimate DVDs and the Blu-rays. There's just something cool about getting the complete context of the movies especially the trailers that included "The Bond Sale Double Features."

  • MDL | March 31, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    Independent video stores [in Los Angeles] are a big part of how I learned cinema history. I watched many older classic films [on film] at retrospectives in places like UCLA, the American Cinematheque and LACMA. But video stores filled in the gaps. And when I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 there were many stores to pick from. It was a fountain of film on VHS and then DVD. So it is very sad to see video stores going away. However, I do not think the death knell of appreciating older, vital cinema is over; it is just changing. I still frequent a couple video stores and also stream Netflix and Hulu, which have a lot of good old titles that I may have missed in the past. Hulu, specifically, has the Criterion collection. And the image quality is better than old VHS or DVD. So I would say these new services are tools that the cinephile can use to expand their horizons. But it is true that young folks who have a love for old classic films or foreign indie titles from decades past will not get as good an experience with streaming titles as they would have with a good strong indie video store that took the time to build a great collection. And especially if you liked hunting for older titles rather than the new mainstream ones. But there is still hope out there for we who love cinema. I wish video stores could still be as vital. Maybe in some cities they still can? Especially when Netflix loses rights to older titles or rare titles completely disappear. There has to be a way to preserve the right to see the thousands of films that are yet to be made available on streaming services - or are only available at $20.00 a pop at place like the WB archive. Cheers to video stores.

  • Dr. Rottwang | March 31, 2012 8:33 PMReply

    There is appreciation and sadness when any film oriented business closes, but for someone who has worked in movie theaters for over three decades, the closing of video stores is a bittersweet irony. It was video stores that hastened the demise of many great, grand theaters. Now we are faced with another bout of theater closings. The digital projection age is once again culling theaters from our cultural landscape. Predictions of 10,000 screens going dark is more chilling than the loss of storefronts.

  • RevGreg | March 31, 2012 8:19 PMReply

    I ran a mom and pop shop in Edinboro, Pa. called Poppa Ropp's Video for 23 years, an amazing run for an indie video store to say the least.

    We were known for our large selection of foreign, horror/sci-fi and cult movies, although we also had the latest box office hits and popular stuff in stock.

    We survived cable, satellite, Blockbusters, Movie Galleries, internet, etc... but the day I saw Netflix I knew it was over.

    While this article brings back those sad final days, I gotta tell ya, I am amazed that ANY video store is still in business (not only due to Netflix but the explosion of internet downloads and streaming sites). Never before has so much been available at your fingertips.

    And guess what? As our doors closed in 2005 for the last time, I was actually sorta happy for the fans of cinema. Seriously. The fact that you can now rent over 80,000 movies (about 75,000 MORE than any video store you have ever walked into in your life) via Netflix alone, the fact that nearly every film imaginable is now available somewhere in some format (sometimes remastered) and Blu-Rays are still affordable (trust me, they wouldn't be if video stores were still out there - VHS ended up at something like $110.00 per tape when we went out of business), have made this a very, very good world for film and video fans!

    Change is good. It happens whether we like it or not. And yes, there is a sadness of seeing these old places closed up and gone. There was definitely a magic inside those video stores of yore...

    So, I'm not sure this is much of a story at this point. I feel bad for the owner and may be the only one commenting that knows EXACTLY how he feels, but he should be happy it made it this far, in a world that is now raising the first generation of kids that will never, ever know what it was like to rent a video from an actual store.

  • bguest | March 31, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    Netflix is awesome...Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Godard...American indie classics like Slacker,
    Clerks, El Mariachi, new art cinema like Le Havre, Uncle Boonme...sorry about your store but Netflix rules!

  • Chris | March 31, 2012 5:38 PMReply

    I agree it is sad when any small business that provides a unique service to devoted customers has to close down. It negatively affects both the owner as well as the loyal customers. However, it is profoundly wrong to say that this trend of closing video stores will diminish the choices or sense of discovery of movies of all types. We are at the beginning of huge transition that will place every movie (of any kind) at the beck and call of vast numbers of people around the planet--at a scale that could not have been imagined a mere decade ago. There are also curators of this content emerging (and more will emerge) with better tools of discovery that will widen the field of choice for all of us through digital distribution. These curators are and will be passionate viewers of the obscure as well as the mass media choices who will assist us just as the video store owners did--and some of them will be former video store owners. So mourn the passing but also look eagerly at the present and to the future ways of viewing great movies of all types.

  • Simone | March 31, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    "I am afraid that the next generation of filmmakers, cinephiles and just plain movie nerds will have a pitifully limited understanding of what they might not already want to see."

    Too true. My entire life would be different if I didn't have that little rental store in my hometown to grow up with that introduced me to the amazing spectrum of movies that exist. In hindsight, I wouldn't have chosen my college major, met most of my friends, lived in my city or worked the job I work if it weren't for the people who worked at that store who exposed me to the movies that made me love movies. This was one of the most heartfelt pieces on the subject I've ever read, thanks a lot for posting it.

  • gotnotruck | March 31, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    Forgot to say I Love the Cohen Bros. Especially "A Serious Man", talk about profound, secularly spiritual, and funny. Not even close to an oscar, not that I care. Never have watched. But Up in the Airhead was. Liked Wendy and Lucy and many new directors, but have a hard time remembering their names. Brain cells popping off. If you're wondering all this talk about "spirituality" like a pox these days: I'm an atheist mystic. Raised atheist: always had visions from all religions, then some. But absolutely no belief in god, especially that mean tempered, irrational, two timing, white guy with a beard.

  • gotnotruck | March 31, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    Tell me about it. I still mourn Tower Records. And book stores. There's exactly one left near me. Barnes & Noble, which, when it moved in, closed down Endicott, Shakespeare and Co. Numerous second hand books followed. To read paper books is greener. Take it out of a library and return it. To recycle an e reader or cell phone, (and fashion dictates you need a new one every two years), requires them to be originally shipped here from China, use energy while you use it, shipped back to China, recycled, (theoretically), and shipped back here. Only to end up toxic in a waste dump. Using energy in the process. Last summer a call came forth from Con Ed to "unplug and do not use electronic devices". I LOVE good movies. Was glad to read in the Slimes today that other countries do "action films" better than we. Animated schlock with beefed up guys in stupid costumes make me puke. New York is great for movies. But I wanted to be able to go to Tower Records, and buy or rent music and DVDs. Now most kulchah goes through Amazon. bleeping. com. Progressives are anti Walmart. Ignoring the fact that, as The Economist says, approvingly, "Amazon is Walmart online." Look at what it's done with books and book stores, music, movies. And to movie makers, musicians, artists. Out of luck. The record companies of the old days were bad, but not as bad as being gobbled up by Amazon. An Amazon guy on late night NPR said "It's a great business model. Many fewer employees." To find out just how much fun it is to work there, check out the latest Mother Jones for "The Secret Hell of Online Shopping", by a journalist who did a "Nickled and Dimed" as did B. Ehrenreich. I've always suspected that the internet cost jobs. A woman economist on Charlie Rose a few nights ago said unemployment wouldn't get that much better here because of " globalization and the internet". I have this computer, a TV, and a DVD player, radio. Used to have a video/dvd player which seem to no longer exist. 5th Ave when I moved here permanently in '70 below Tiffany and Bergdorf's was publishing house book stores. I bought post cards, which I collect, on Prince St, before Soho became a glitzy mall. Manhattan is a series of strip malls called avenues, lined with the same boring chain stores you see in 'burbs anywhere. Except Madison Ave for the .001%. Fashion is an art. Coffee shops like Cafe Romana, where John and Yoko hung out undisturbed, opera playing and a garden in the back. Gone. Other independents: gone. If anyone tries to close Cafe Reggio, I'll chain myself to it. Perhaps it's better in other boroughs. What I want from films: anything by Tarkovsky. Love films with philosophical and/or spiritual content with profundity. Another example, "Ward Six", a new Russian woman director version of the Chekov play at Walter Reade a few years ago. About a psychiatrist who ended up a patient having a long conversations with another patient, not caring about his change in status. Shot in gorgeous color on the original ward. I'm 66. Young love in its four or five permutations and combinations bore me to tears. So predictable. A woman in her twenties agreed recently. When I was young, I learned a few things from them. Now blissfuly beyond that. Love documentaries. I was in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, along with many other white Southerners. No one even wants to write an article about us. One reason is Bob Moser of The Nation's observation that "Talking about race in the South is a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country". Although PBS suggested I pitch something to American Experience. We're dying off. Another idea is to do a documentary of the Village in the sixties, not folk music scene, acid scene. 1,000 mics of Sandoz LSD stamped as such. For some reason the New York Hyterical Society isn't interested, any more they are on racism in NYC. Yes, I miss DVD stores, record stores, and book stores. Thank god for all our fine movie theatres! On TV, most of the good stuff is on Sundance in the morning or early afternoon. The later, the stupider.