Netflix hasn’t killed the video store
“Dude, Video World on Bessemer has a whole wall of Jet Li!”
It was 1994. Chris and I had discovered the Hong Kong superstar at a packed screening of Once Upon a Time in China 2 in Durham. We wanted to see more of our new favorite action hero, whose movies had no United States distribution outside of festivals and Chinese-language theaters. Jackie Chan’s American breakthrough was a year away. His hometown rivals wouldn’t happen until 1998.
I met Chris through his girlfriend Kelly Link, years before she was known for her beautifully strange award-winning fiction. Kelly, who’d already given me tapes of great Hong Kong fantasy films such as A Chinese Ghost Story, invited me to accompany her and Chris to the festival that introduced us to the man whose elegant ass-kicking contrasted with Jackie Chan’s knockabout comedy.
Chris introduced me to Video World, where it had a whole wall of not only Jet and Jackie but Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Michelle Yeoh, the latter inexplicably credited by British distributors as Michelle Khan.
Notice I wrote “British.” Many of Video World’s Chinese movies were copies of United Kingdom videotapes. Outside of Chinatown stores and cinemas, that was how U.S. fans discovered the 1983-1995 Golden Age of Hong Kong action movies. Unlike their ‘70s predecessors, these films weren’t given national distribution or sold to T.V. One might charitably call the Video World tapes “grey market” rather than “bootleg,” as some dealers claimed they were legal under the Berne Convention on international copyright.
I’d been renting and occasionally buying videos throughout the ‘80s, and at the end of that decade worked for Action Video and Video Review, where I watched everything from Old Yeller to Yojimbo to Jules et Jim on slow weekday afternoons. Here was a whole new world.
Exposing viewers to new (at least to them), cinematic horizons is something that Turner Classic Movies still does but Netflix and Redbox don’t. Back then, recommendations from video store staffers spread the cinematic gospel.
Others heard the call to worship.
“It was not just a video store to me, but a hang-out,” wrote singer, musician and Carolina Theater directors’ board member Jessica Mashburn on Facebook recently. Mashburn was describing Video Review (larger, cleaner and more mainstream than Video World), but packed with vintage Hollywood and international favorites. Mashburn’s love for classic cinema was nurtured there.
“They always had a stellar classic movie section, and the staff and owner were always well-versed in speaking about those films,” she wrote in a Facebook message.
You don’t get that with Netflix or Redbox, but it still exists in the Triad. Maybe not in Greensboro (where the site of Video Review now houses IHOP and Video World became Miranda’s Erotic Boutique), but nearby.
Blockbuster, the corporate giant that crushed many independents before Redbox could, once had 17 stores in Guilford and Forsyth counties. Now, seven years after Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy, its store in Bend, Oregon, is the only one left in the nation(they still have stores in the Australian towns Greensborough, Morley and Toowoomba).
However, the Triad has Family Video, which after Blockbuster’s collapse, became the only remaining video rental chain in the U.S.
Based in Glenview, Illinois, Family Video is owned by the Hoogland family. In 1977, Charles Hoogland’s Midstates Appliance & Supply became a distributor for Magnetic Video, the first company to release movies on Betamax and VHS. Stuck with an extensive inventory, Hoogland opened the Video Movie Club in Springfield in 1978. Initially charging a $25 membership fee and $5 per rental, the club evolved into Family Video. As Blockbuster seemed focused on larger cities, Hoogland began with smaller ones, as well as towns, suburbs and rural areas.
The densest concentration of its 703 locations is in the Midwest, but eight of the chain’s 21 North Carolina locations are in the Triad. Winston-Salem has stores at 4908 Reynolda Rd. and 2105 Old Salisbury Rd. High Point has the second oldest Family Video in the state, which opened in 2004 at 2101 N. Main St. Burlington, Eden, Thomasville, Archdale and Lexington also each have one.
The two Winston locations, along with those in Burlington and Lexington, are among the chain’s 10 largest and busiest in the Carolinas, according to an email from district manager Dan Bovenzi, who wrote that these branches rent 2,000-2,500 movies and games a week and carry between 15,000-20,000 films and games.
Bovenzi described his Lexington store as the Triad’s largest location, at around 4,800 square feet, and as having the most extensive collection of pre-1970 films, with some 250 titles in its Classics section. This suggests that Lexington may be the classic movie rental as well as barbecue capital of the state.
When I visited the High Point location, I asked assistant manager Emma Miller, who said she was filling in from the Lexington, to estimate how many titles the store has in stock. “Probably about a thousand,” she said, “and this is one of our smaller ones. My home store is over twice this size.”
New manager Jason Lee, (whom I did not ask if he was a fan of the actor of the same name), agreed with that number, and with Miller’s estimate that his store sees around 250 customers each Friday and Saturday.
“I did 98 tickets last Friday,” said Lee, looking at the monitor of his POS. “Counting kids and family members, we probably had 225 people come through the door.”
When I asked the secret of their success, Miller immediately said “real estate.” She explained that Family Video’s strategy was to purchase rather than lease the property occupied by a store. “We remodel and sometimes expand, then lease space to the businesses that go in beside it, like Starbucks and FastMed here.” She said that other locations often have a Marco’s Pizza and/or a Fitness Center bundled with them. “A couple are opening Total Wireless, which is a phone provider, and they’re actually really focusing on that right now.”
In an email, district manager Bovenzi wrote that Family Video owns all its locations in the Carolinas except for those in Archdale and Lincolnton. While the High Point one shares its building with Starbuck’s and FastMed Urgent Care, the Winston, Burlington, Thomasville and Lexington ones are all bundled with Marco’s Pizza, giving their shared customers delivery service on rental DVDs and Blu-rays as well as pie.
Any Marco’s Pizza attached to a Family Video offers that option, wrote Bovenzi. “You can order your pizza and movies online and get them all delivered to your house!” He added that the driver will take Family Video returns and that every Marco’s order over $10 earns a free five-night new release rental, which can also be delivered with a pizza.
Despite the chain’s local success, both Miller and Bovenzi stated there are presently no plans to open more Family Video locations in the Triad.
The area’s only remaining independent video store began in one local small town before moving to another. In 1986, Dale Ward opened Showtime Video in Walkertown. Now his son Wesley Ward owns and runs it as Showtime Video and Tanning at 1072 Main St. in Walnut Cove, where it’s in a shopping center with Food Lion and Hicks Pharmacy. Don’t’ let the “and Tanning” suggest that this is some small and ramshackle establishment. Two Fridays ago, I walked into a clean, attractive and well-organized store that seemed larger than Action Video had been when I worked there, and maybe as large and well-stocked as Video Review in its first Greensboro location.
Assistant manager Tori Everly told me that she knows her customers very well. “We’re like family here. It’s a small town thing.”
She also immediately demonstrated one advantage of a brick-and-mortar with a friendly staff, even if it wasn’t directly related to renting videos. My friend Tim and I were hungry after driving around three counties, and we asked about a restaurant we’d seen a couple of miles away.
Everly told us that if we wanted both terrific food and an old-fashioned lunch counter experience, we should try someplace even closer; suggesting that we step into the drugstore next door and see what was hidden in the back. (The results of that Wayback Machine surprise are described in another article in this issue.)
Several tanning booth customers came in while we there, but Everly explained that Tuesdays and weekends saw a lot more people renting videos. “Tuesdays are our half-price days and Saturday brings in the families, and they can keep them all weekend, so everybody likes to roll in then.”
Everly said their new releases were $2.99 for the first night, with each subsequent night 50 cents extra. She estimated that the store stocks around 30,000 titles. Besides the new releases, I immediately noted sections devoted to horror, sci-fi, comedy, westerns, superheroes and Shark Week. She also said something that would be echoed later that day by Emma Miller at Family Video: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given a significant shot in the arm to video stores, suggesting that, if the Avengers had assembled sooner, there might be more such establishments around. I found myself wondering if that could have saved Video Review.
The store’s owner Wesley Ward wasn’t back from vacation, but I spoke to him on the phone a week later, and he backed up Everly’s claim of 30,000 titles, a figure which included DVDs, Blu-Rays (of which I saw a lot on the shelves) and video games. He said that the total varied, as they sold surplus copies of popular new releases. “We sell them for $6 after the demand has played out, so it varies.”
He admitted that the store’s 10 tanning beds had helped his business a lot. “From January to June, we rock and roll on tanning, keeping them full from opening to closing.” He also mentioned the store’s small ice cream parlor. “Sixteen flavors, hand-scooped. We don’t sell a lot, but every little bit helps.”
As Everly had done, he stressed the friendliness of his store, as opposed to the impersonality of Redbox. “You can come in here and talk to a person and ask if a movie was good or not and have a people connection. In the winter when it’s 15 degrees, you can browse in a comfortable setting, rather than freezing your tush off on a sidewalk looking at a computer screen with just a few titles on it.”
And not just new ones. “We’ve got classics like The Graduate, one of my favorites. We’ve got films from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.” Also, he emphasized, any of those titles could be added to the rental of a new release at no extra charge.
“This keeps those older titles from collecting dust on the shelf, and makes the customer happy by giving them something for free.” He also said that anyone renting four new releases got the fifth one for free and that all new releases were $1.50 on Tuesdays.
Both Ward and Everly also emphasized that Showtime gets its movies earlier than Redbox does. “It varies depending upon what company they’re from, with some coming as much as three weeks before Redbox, but we always get them at least a week before they do.”
Don’t get him started on Netflix. “Do they have any major new releases at all? I sometimes watch it with my kids who like their T.V. shows, and I don’t see anything but B-listed films No classics, either.”
Ward emphasized the nostalgic appeal of his store, something which, as I’ve already hinted, is also true of what’s hidden in the pharmacy next door.
“Bring your kids; rent a movie, get free candy, it’s like stepping back in time,” he said. “The future’s going a different direction, but we’re hanging on to that personal connection.”
As far as I’ve been able to tell, Showtime is the only remaining independent video store in the Triad. If you know of one or more that I’ve missed, hidden away like a surviving thylacine in the Tasmanian bush, let YES! Weekly know, and this article might get a sequel.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.