Seven years ago, erstwhile CP editor Lee Gardner posed the question "Will the internet kill the local video store?" ("Rental Hygiene," Feature, March 7, 2007). This week, the Video Americain on Cold Spring Lane closes its doors for the last time. It is the last video store of its kind* in Baltimore. The Roland Park location, opened in March of 1989 in a ramshackle converted gas station, was one in a constellation of six stores originally started in Newark, Del., by Barry Solan, Michael Bradley, and David Ostheimer, three men united in their love of repertory cinema. Though it dealt in mainstream releases, Video Americain quickly became an institution, beloved by Baltimore's cineaste community, offering Bertolucci and Buñuel alongside Uwe Boll, period pieces beside pornos (the Roland Park store was the only store never to carry porn). For its clerks-who acquired reputations for film snobbery-the store served as an informal film school, and many employees went on to have professional careers in the film industry.
Then came the internet. As pirated movies proliferated and Netflix reared up from the web, Video Americain suffered the same loss of customer base as the mom-and-pop stores, the Hollywood Videos, and the Blockbusters did; students were among the first to desert the video store, and its Charles Village shop shuttered in 2012. Before that, two of the original partners, Bradley and Ostheimer, left the business to allow for it to continue under the management of Solan and his wife, Annie, a fellow film lover and a longtime fixture in the stores. After closing down the second-to-last store, in Takoma Park, the Solans focused on the Roland Park outpost, but in August of last year, they announced its imminent closure. It rented its last video in December, before commencing a sale of its inventory.
Here, 18 people, including the Solans, Bradley, Ostheimer, and a number of store managers, employees, and longstanding customers, recall the history of Video Americain, remembering its origins, its moments of greatness, its quirks, and its mournful demise.
*A mom-and-pop store, Powerhouse Video, remains in the Lakeland neighborhood.
Annie Solan, co-owner: This all came out of a love of movies and kind of walking into Barry being able to operate a movie theater in a college town-Newark-where we both had gone to school. [When we first met,] Barry had just starting running midnight movies with the guy who was the manager of a 1929 vaudeville house, a 600-seat movie theater which was in bad condition but was still fully showing.
Barry Solan, co-founder: What repertory [cinema] represented to me as a concept, first for theaters and then for video stores, [was] going in all directions at once, not being pigeonholed. You'd have a serious film and you'd have silly films and the occasional porno-chic fare and Rocky [Horror Picture Show] on Saturday nights-doing everything. I had my theater in Newark from '79 to '86. In the early '80s, because I wasn't making a living at my theater, I went to work for . . . the TLA in Philly.
Annie: They were the repertory cinema up there.
Barry: In about '84, one of the TLA associates said, "You know, you guys really have to open up a video store. Locust Street Video is already open and they're doing gangbusters business." And me and Ray Murray, who was really the person in charge there, neither one of us wanted to do it. But we finally were convinced to do it. And I put up a third of the money to start TLA Video. But by the time I got fired in '86, it was time. So I left there and went back to school to teach high school, and then the guys [Michael Bradley and David Ostheimer] came to me about, "Let's do this in Newark." They worked for me cleaning up after Rocky Horror when I had the theater, and then they grew to be sort of like something other than my kids, and then they became my partners in the video store.
David Ostheimer, co-founder: [Barry] ran the theater, Michael and I were ushers and managers and, you know, just did everything. And then I graduated from college-I had a degree in history, which means I didn't have a job. I went to work in a factory, and Michael was a shift manager at the factory and I was a quality-control guy, and we worked, like, 9 at night till 7 in the morning, and we would just sit there and talk about, "What are we gonna do?" We thought, Why don't we open a video store?
Michael Bradley, co-founder: [David and I] would go up to Philadelphia to the TLA, where Barry was working-that's like an hour from Newark, where we lived-and we would rent more movies than we had time to watch because there was such a revelation in the films available and things that we'd only ever read about, let alone had opportunity to watch. So one day he and I are talking about what the possibilities of us doing the same thing that the TLA does. We started running numbers and had to sort of cobble together everything in our heads, including the original investment, like where would we get $17,000 or whatever the number was. We called Barry up. . . and he said, "Hey, we could do this, you know. I have a little bit of money, we can borrow a little bit of money, and we can throw this thing together on a shoestring."
Ostheimer: Things just worked out, it was a good time for him, and we opened up our store in Newark.
Annie: We had three Newark stores [over the years]. They never did enough business to justify them, and they kind of limped along and then you'd have to close them, but I hated it because I was the one in Newark with the kids and I hated not having a video store in my own town, it would drive me crazy, 'cause you could never bring movies home-
Barry: Not a video store in your town, your own video store.
Annie: Well, a Video Americain. And there was not a Video Americain, or a store that would have movies I'd wanted to see. So I kept making him open stores [laughing] because he wouldn't bring movies home from Baltimore. I would say, "Bring me home movies! he would say, "I can't! Because the customers have them-I can't take them home."
Bradley: [Newark]'s a wonderful little town but it didn't have the variety or sensibilities broad enough for what we were doing.
Annie: We always knew that we wanted to expand, and we weren't going to go compete with Philly, so the natural thing was to move south.
Ostheimer: A year later, Barry was driving around in Baltimore and found the Roland Park location.
Annie: We had contacted a realtor and he was sending us to a few places and I think one of them was over by the Rotunda . . .
Barry: The bookstores on 25th Street.
Annie: We weren't too excited. So just [as we were] ready to go back home, we happened to turn on Cold Spring from Roland, and as we were passing this location, literally, there's this little hardware store for-rent sign and the number, and I said, "Ugh, stop!" I said "Look at it, it's got a parking lot!"
Barry: It's the perfect neighborhood.
Annie: I said, "Oh my God." Literally, we both exclaimed.
Barry: So I jumped out of the car. In homage to The Producers [the original, naturally,] I started jumping up and saying, "That's our Hitler! That's our Hitler!" We opened up in November of '88, but then it turned out this location wasn't zoned for video stores; it was zoned for a chicken-killing establishment, which was the most picante of all the things it was zoned for. So we didn't open up till March of '89.
Bradley: I pretty much built every shelf in the place, every counter. I did all the wiring. And believe me, I didn't know a darn thing about any of that stuff when we opened the store, I didn't know any woodworking whatsoever. But I learned quickly. I don't think the Cold Spring store was more than 1,100 square feet. [When we opened] there was actually a video store where the bagel place is now. And they were gone within the year and we ended up buying a lot of their movies because we only started with about 1,200 movies, 1,400 movies-all VHS, of course.
Barry: There was plenty of empty space.
Ostheimer: In the beginning, we were working 12-hour days. So I would drive down open the store at 11 a.m., close the store at 11 p.m. We were there all day by ourselves. Frank, our UPS guy, used to come in and eat lunch with us, and that's when I went to the bathroom.
Barry: It's just coming to work every day, that's what ends up making you great. You just come to work every day, and you keep on growing it. Some business owners would look at [their inventory] and say, "Oh, this title we've had for four months, it's only brought in $10, we should get rid of it." Well, those three rentals from that one movie could be the three proudest rentals that I've had in a year because it was a film that deserved to be seen. We always stuck with the idea that it would become a film archive, 'cause repertory cinemas used to be that.
Bradley: In the early days it wasn't even a huge collection, but none of these films had been available to a lot of people for years and years, and basically would only come onscreen for a week or so. The stuff was just not available. And it built quickly. We'd have guys in vans driving up, and basically they were just buying movies from these other video stores to resell them, and some of them were new releases, but then we would go through the collection and start picking out movies that we had the knowledge for.
Ostheimer: We'd go to these warehouses, we'd go to other video stores and buy their used videos. Up until probably five years ago I would imagine that's the way it was, we'd go and look through the used bins in other places. Most people who owned a video store, the year before they were in the cement business and they decided, Oh, I'm going into the video business. But they had no idea about movies.
Annie: Every strip mall had a video store.
Gabe Wardell, former employee, co-founder of the Atlanta Film Forum: When I was really young and we first got our VCR, we used to go to Erol's [Inc.], which was like the first big video store, they even predated Blockbuster. It was within walking distance of my house and then there was a little neighborhood store called Belvedere Video, where Café Zen now sits. A lot of the early video stores didn't survive, they were just poorly run and not very special.
Joe Tropea, former employee, filmmaker: I grew up out in the county and [went to] Hereford Video, which was a totally uninviting, mean store. I mean, they did not give a shit about you. That must have been the '80s, when video was really poppin' and they just had more customers than they knew what to do with. And you know, I rented every film in their horror section in no time. But you couldn't get any kind of attention or ask a movie question, whereas in Video Americain, if you asked a question, be careful of the answer-you may be there for an hour hearing the answer. Depending on who you ask, you may be there two hours.
Doc Hersperger, longtime customer: Barry and Annie had something very special because, after a while, you realized that Blockbuster and the chains, they have all these dozens of copies of the popular things. But over there, you could always get almost anything that was around, anything that was years old, like I particularly have always been interested in the foreign and independent films right up through the '80s or '90s. So it was just great to go and have something like that.
Barry: There was actually an art video store in town, the Cinematheque, which had a Charles Village location.
Annie: But the difference was she had no new releases. She was only Home Vision and fancy, you know, really hoity-toity stuff.
Barry: Sylvia, her name was. Not only was she nasty to all the major film people in town-and I'm never nasty to anybody, I've always been appreciative of people coming and wanting to spend a few dollars in my store-but if you are going to be nasty to anybody, don't be nasty to the film people in town. But Sylvia always fashioned herself as more of an educator than being entertainment. So, a lot of times, if you were the second in town doing something, the air's already been sucked out of the room, but luckily, people's dislike for Sylvia was so great that when we came into town here, it was like a new thing.
Annie: Certain people came to us [who] also had associations around repertory, maybe just making popcorn or whatever. They were coming to us with this love of movies. It was already there because of the things that are going around in Baltimore that had to do with that. We just were kind of a thing from the get-go.
Barry: A lot of the arty people sought us out. Clearly people who worked with us part-time, they wouldn't come to work for us unless they had the interest in movies to begin with.
Eric Hatch, former manager, Maryland Film Fest employee: The people who worked there were almost always people who aspired to some sort of career in the arts eventually, so you had musicians, filmmakers, writers, critics, that was sort of the milieu there. But whether it was the person you were working with or the person on the other end of the counter, you were just constantly bumping up against interesting people.
Rahne Alexander, former manager, Maryland Film Fest employee: I loved when it was rock-star night at the store, when Victoria from Beach House would come in, and then Drew from Matmos and then there's Dan Deacon, and then suddenly there's John Astin or one of the people from The Wire. It would just be this endless stream of amazing people.
Skizz Cyzyk, former manager, filmmaker: I started working there in April of 1994. I had worked at another video store in Lutherville while I was still a film student at Towson. It wasn't until I started working at Video Americain that I realized how limited my resource in Lutherville had been. The collection was so vast and organized. I found out about entire areas of the film world that had been unknown to me, and this was after having already exhausted the collection at another video store and taking years of film classes.
Wardell: I think a lot of the employees did start out as customers because they liked movies and if they had enough interest in it, they would start working there.
Kevin Coelho, former manager: I grew up in the county. When I came to the city, when I first got my license, it was like a trek out there, and I basically would drive to the Cold Spring store, I remember that I signed up once. I was looking for a copy of Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert movie. They were the only video store to have it. I begged my mom to let me use her credit card to run the authorization.
Hatch: When I moved to the city proper in 1996, I had a job at a nonprofit that was keeping me busy literally every weekday and every weekend day. I didn't really know many people in town and I'd go to Video Americain and spend an hour, carefully selecting what the next movie I was going to watch was and meeting the people who worked and shopped there, it was a really key place in my life.
Annie: Another video kid who used to come in-Sean Williams-his mom would drop him off in our Newark store and he would just start going through movies and spend the afternoon.
Sean Price Williams, former employee, cinematographer: I became completely possessed by European cinema at 14 when I saw Day for Night and A Man and a Woman on PBS. It wasn't the craft that excited my imagination; it was the beautiful women. But Elkton, Md., had even fewer extensive video stores than it had pretty girls. A friend of my mother's hipped her to a video store that had a broader collection. In April 1993, when I was 15, I walked into the oasis. It was one of the most amazing feelings. It was all there, everything I would read about-whole shelves of films by all the unpronounceable names. For the rest of my high school days, my mom would drive me every Saturday. To be a teenager in a rural place without weekend trips to the world that Barry and Annie opened to me would have been a grim existence. I would have probably become a drug addict. I would likely still live with my dad.
Trin Intra, former employee, wife of Gabe Wardell: I had just dropped out of Saint Mary's College-your typical slacker-and my ex-boyfriend was working at the video store and got me a job there because I didn't really know what to do. I just felt immediately at home with all the other slackers there. They were like a family to me, and even when I wasn't working, I would show up there-I didn't live close by, I lived in Catonsville-and just hang out with everyone. I started out at the Cold Spring store, and we had tried to open up a store in Towson, and I worked there a lot.
Annie: We decided to do a second store and we opened up in Towson, and that was a disaster.
Intra: The Towson one was a little boring, and for me, it was a little scary. In the back it was next to a SuperFresh and a record place. It was kind of isolated.
Barry: Seventy-five percent of the people who opened up the door of our store in the back of Dulaney Plaza only opened it up far enough to get a City Paper, which was on a ledge right inside the door. That is a factual figure.
Around 1993, the Towson store was closed and its inventory was transferred to a space on St. Paul Street in Charles Village.
Barry: There used to be this lovely woman who ran a little bakery shop where you'd go down that step.
Annie: Down in Charles Village.
Barry: Right in the next building, you'd go down the little step, and it was this older lady, just a lovely, lovely woman, and when Sylvia [of the Cinematheque video store] was leaving, she-independent of talking to us-[the older lady] talked to the landlord and said, "Here, hold this place for two weeks while I get in touch with the Video Americain people. I think they're going to want this location." And just partly through the good efforts, loving efforts of that woman did we end up with the Charles Village store.
Annie: It was the basement, so you had literally 50 years of dust permanently falling down into the lowest level. But in terms of the floor of the store, it was the best-kept of any store.
Rupert Wondolowski, longtime customer, Normal's co-founder: I started going to the Charles Village Video Americain regularly in the mid-'90s, when I lived five blocks away. Not only did I rent many films that were to become lifelong favorites and rewatch already-loved obscurities- films I may have never found otherwise, like Eric Hatch['s recommendations] the eerie 1964 British obscurity Seance on a Wet Afternoon and the enigmatic French drama Lemming or Rahne Alexander tipping me off to the low-budget mind-blower Pontypool-[but] I got to meet great people who worked there and were plugged into the arts community-either through them or the many flyers and posters posted on the counter or outside on their billboard.
Barry: That was a rockin' store. One year [in 1996] the City Paper gave it . . . "Best Place to Cruise Lesbians." And then another year [in 2002] they gave it to us for "Best Bulletin Board."
Alexander: The Charles Village store had a tendency to be a little more arts community-oriented, whereas the Cold Spring store tended to be a little more family-oriented. There was a tendency at the Cold Spring store for people to be more interested in British television shows and the veneer that came along with that.
Annie: Certainly the cult section [at Charles Village] was larger, more extensive there, partly because the managers liked cult and crazy stuff better. But also, those generally were of interest to the customer base. Every store was more new release-based than maybe somebody would have thought coming from the outside. You had to have new releases in. If you had people stop coming in to get new releases, that's when you saw that there was a downturn.
Barry: And you never quite know what's going to be the most popular film in the store. For as much art as we had in [our] Takoma Park [store, opened in '94], the most popular film in the store was, for the first year or two, Baby's Day Out. So there's always been this difference between the image-'cause you need the image, you need the cult-but even though that was your image, you still made your money to pay the bills off of the regular stuff. But the point was not to have just the regular stuff. I said one time that people like to be surrounded by the most wildly esoteric films in the world while renting Nutty Professor II.
Hatch: Video Americain would function both as a neighborhood shop where people would go because it was the closest place where they could rent Avengers and also as a destination shop where people would drive from Pennsylvania or Virginia because this was the place they heard had a rare movie of whatever their interest was, whether it was a Godard film or a gay/lesbian title that wasn't available in their video store, whatever it was.
Bradley: I was in our Charles Village store, and two young women had come in. One of the women came up to me, and she's looking at the new releases, and she asks, "Is this all the gay and lesbian films you have?" And what she was looking at was the new-release section, so I said, "No, no." I took them over to the wall that we had, which was about an 8 or 10-foot-long wall with gay and lesbian works-which is a pretty huge section for any city and any store-and I'm kind of proud, you know, I say, "Here you go." One of the girls kind of started tearing up.
Alexander: When I first started, there was a manager named Kelly [Hurst], who was pretty out and clear about his depth of knowledge in the gay and avant-garde film world, and after he left there was definitely a little while where I was the only queer employee in the midst of it. It was always a mystery why he was so deeply involved with the organization, because he was very dapper, [and] I was like, "Why are you working in this dusty, dusty store? Do you just have to go home and shower for an hour? It's great that you want to walk amongst us plebeians, but come on now." It was really revealed after he went that [our personal strengths are] an aspect of the Video Americain experience that we're really fortunate to be able to put forward. Amidst all this other stuff, the Tarkovskys and the Nick Zedds, we're able to do the Bruce LaBruces and Cheryl Dunyes of the world and make sure they've got a place here as well.
Hatch: Someone who had only gone to Blockbuster would instantly sense the difference when they came into a Video Americain because, just here, we're talking about a store that would offer 10 times as many titles.
Annie: When Blockbuster would have exclusives [that] drove us nuts, because their exclusives were totally movies that would have been our audience, like indie movies. I remember the Clive Owen film Croupier was an exclusive to Hollywood [Video], because all they cared about was, "How can we compete with Blockbuster?" Meanwhile, that was totally our audience and it totally would have been a movie we would have had. So we had to lurk around Hollywood Video until it went on sale. [Barry] would go around to all the movie outlets and he'd buy up all the indies, which of course did not rent at their stores, so within a month they were on their sale shelf. And we'd go around to every one in the tri-state area to collect them. Blockbuster killed all the mom-and-pops but it didn't kill us. But when a Blockbuster opened in Hampden, over on 40th Street . . . it hit us about 10 percent.
Barry: Statistically it was hard to figure what the damage of it was, because simultaneous with that, we opened up the Charles Village store. But we survived that because Blockbuster was so bad at their task. Some stores did more business than others. I used the good stores to subsidize the bad stores. We lost about $25,000 opening briefly a store in Lauraville [for six months]. We were supposed to be the beginning of the Lauraville renaissance.
Tropea: I started at the Lauraville store, which was a funny store, and in a way, for a movie lover, it was the best store to work at and the best shift you could get, because there were so few customers. I could watch two movies a night uninterrupted. I would just sit at the counter, and I would watch both movies, and be like, "That was awesome, now it's time to go home."
Lori McBee, former employee: I really liked that you could put on music and a DVD at the same time and mute the sound of the DVD. You could pick out a Buster Keaton film and put on Led Zeppelin and see how they match up.
Hatch: Some of the most memorable shifts were the snow-day shifts. We would do six or seven times our normal business sometimes on a snow day. Whoever was scheduled to work was irrelevant-it was just sort of whoever lived the closest would be at the door like zombies and just respond to the call and work a shift until we were starting to worry about our own health and safety, and then we would go home. People would just be ripping videos off the shelf at random and renting them without taking a close look at what they were taking home with them. People were so desperate for entertainment back in that era.
Alexander: The need that we were able to serve by being open in these kinds of times, especially when people just needed to get out of the house and see other people for a minute rather than just being cooped up and going all Jack Torrance crazy, that's something we were able to provide.
Scott Wallace Brown, manager: Fundamentally, it's a customer service business. There are a lot of misconceptions about this store. It's perceived as being an arts job, which it kind of really isn't.
Annie: I think some people who applied to work thought it would just be about talking about great movies all day. When they actually realized that much of it had to do with alphabetizing and putting away movies-
Barry: A skill that not every one of our employees has always had. Films have been lost for decades over someone not knowing what letters follow others in the alphabet. That's always the funny thing about these type of jobs: They're partly banal and they're partly at the highest end of cultural literacy.
McBee: It's very little of the work I actually remember. It was incidental that we had to, like, pick up the tape, get it, and put it in a box or find the DVD-except for when there was like three remakes and you know somebody would get the wrong remake. They would be really pissed, of course. Once I had somebody ask for their money back because they didn't like the movie. It might've been Before Sunrise.
Coelho: The customers that I had a history with, that would be more regular, I kind of knew what their tastes were and could recommend things off the bat to them. "I think you might enjoy this." It was kind of this relationship, and they'd recommend things to me too. Just having a relationship of trust, where the trust is two hours of your life or an hour and a half; do I trust this person to recommend this weird Hungarian movie and take 90 minutes of my day? Usually the more regular customers would trust me, whereas I'd recommend this great movie to these students and they'd be like, "Nah, that's dumb, I don't want to read a movie"-that's what they'd say to me. It was very rewarding when it worked, and it was very frustrating when it didn't' work. One of my favorite types of customers in the store would be within the ranges of like 14 and 16, when they're just developing their palate for good taste, and they come in and they're picking your brain about weird stuff or art stuff, and you recommend, like, Eraserhead. And then, when they return it to you, you can see it in their eyes, their mind's been blown, and you know that from that point on, their entire life is going to be changed. It's kind of like a gateway drug, and they're asking you about more stuff, and then you recommend Holy Mountain and Zardoz.
Anne Haddad, longtime customer: When my son was about 8, I let him and a friend choose some big movie to rent, but I also rented Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. I told them I wanted to watch at least 20 minutes of that first, and if they still wanted to switch, we would. Of course, they wanted to keep watching the Kurosawa, even though it was black-and-white-and subtitled to boot.
Brown: It's always kinds of obvious when people are starting their film education 'cause they'll pick out one of the most famous Kurosawa films, one of the most famous Fassbinder films, one of the most famous Truffaut films, one of the most famous Orson Welles films.
Cyzyk: If someone told me they liked Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida, then I would recommend Jacob Young's Dancing Outlaw. That would continue until I eventually recommended something they didn't like, at which point they would start to ask one of the other employees.
Barry: At certain points, City Paper would highlight that people were afraid the unusualness or the judgmental or-that the people behind the counter were going to dismiss their choices. I had a woman one time call, and she'd never been in the store before, so she called and she's already apologizing for wanting Must Love Dogs, and she'd never even been in the store before. And that was because she had heard from the drum-we call it the drum, an old Putney Swope reference-that that's how the clerks treat you here.
Tropea: I always felt like people did a performance thing when they would come into the video store. As afraid as they were that, I guess-maybe we were judging them. But when couples would come into the store sometimes and just do this performance, that would just be really aggravating, [I'd] say, "God, I have to watch them pick out a movie again." She doesn't want this, he doesn't want this, and they're going to fight for 45 minutes.
Alexander: There would be people who very sheepishly would come up either renting something they felt a little bit ashamed about or they were saying, "I haven't seen X, Y, or Z." And they had already built up all this shame before they came to the counter. And as I thought through it, I realized what's actually kind of cool about this moment is you're coming up and, "OK, I'm finally getting around to seeing The Rules of the Game, or Citizen Kane, or something." This is actually kind of a great moment 'cause you get to go home now and you get to watch this film for the first time.
Coelho: I really went out of my way to make an environment at the Charles Village store that was like, leave your pretensions at the door, it's cool whatever you rent, we don't care. I don't know if we were 100 percent successful, because it seemed like every article that was written about us always mentioned the snarky art-school clerk behind the counter, which is something I tried to steer away from, but it's impossible to remove yourself completely.
Barry: Charles Village was a hipper store, and then frankly it also had the X movies-although X was never a large part of what we did, you can't help but mention it when you talk about a differentiation.
Tropea: I started working sort of behind the scenes, I was doing ordering, I was the X-buyer. There are umpteen billion X-vendors out there that will cold-call you or hound you on the phone constantly. And because [Barry] doesn't like to do things conventionally, he had these guys who would just drive around with vans full of porno. He had a soft spot for that kind of independent operator.
John Waters, filmmaker: I remember asking [Tropea] about 3-D porn because I got a certificate for a flat-screen 3-D TV when I was a presenter at the Spirit Awards, so I thought, Well, you've got to have porn if I'm going to watch 3-D. But there hardly is any! So he was helpful in finding-I think [the] one or two they had.
Tropea: When John Waters was researching I guess different types of porn for this movie he was making about sex addicts who lived in Hamilton [A Dirty Shame], he came in and asked me, "Can you recommend the nastiest thing you have?" Some friends of mine recommended something called Gag Factor, and this is really nasty stuff, it's an oral thing and it's about gagging and it's just horrible, and my mind immediately went to a title that we recently purchased called Slap Happy.
Waters: So he's the one that told me about Slap Happy! Well, tell him thank you, I've exploited that, I've written about it. I made an illegal copy. It was when we were making A Dirty Shame, and one of the main people who had a very high-up job was a lesbian and had a girlfriend, and I told them, "Watch this if you want to see something that you will so hate as a lesbian!"
Tropea: So he took it home and when he brought it back, he-I can't remember his exact quote but it was something like, "I watched this with some lesbian friends of mine and it literally made them [vomit]."
Waters: They never let me forget. But they were looking for it. They knew what they were getting themselves into. You know, they weren't being prudish. I wasn't giving it to them to horrify a feminist-except in a way that they wanted to see.
Tropea: That story got back to Barry or maybe it was Michael, and they asked that I remove the title from the collection, which had never really been done. I mean, we don't really make judgment calls like that.
Waters: Oh, the owners made an unwise decision. That's a classic in blow-job cinema. I only went to [the Charles Village store] when I wanted porn, because the other one was closer to my house, but they were both incredibly knowledgeable. No matter if you had gone into either store, if you would have asked for the most obscure Bresson movie or "what's the most hideous porn you got?" they knew equally-their knowledge was equal no matter what the field was.
Haddad: The staff was like a living search engine. I had forgotten the name of a film and said, "It was directed by Leo McCarey, about an elderly couple." And that's all it took to get the title: Make Way for Tomorrow. And, of course, they had it in the Criterion Collection. [You can] search it that way with Google and it works, but there's nothing like having a human complete the circuit.
Barry: You reach into people's hearts with films. Like a guy at traffic court, [he's] seeing one of the worst days of [someone's] life, you know; we're seeing people during some of the better moments of their life. Films often reach to that person, the best person inside them, the thing that they want to cultivate in themselves.
Cyzyk: There were a few instances when customers came to my rescue after overhearing me telling co-workers about predicaments I had found myself in. One time resulted in a customer handing me a grocery bag full of unexposed 16mm film stock to put toward the film I had been working on. Another customer provided me with some much-needed legal council. Another hooked me up with a temporary teaching position at JHU.
Hatch: The first time I ever went to a major film festival was Barry taking us to the Toronto International Film Festival in 1998, which he did as a bonus to some of his key employees at the time. So my addiction to film-festival culture stems quite literally from my working at VA, not just the environment of the video store, but [Barry and Annie] specifically taking me, Sean Williams, and a few other people on trips.
Barry: I had a certain model in my mind of sort of enlightened capitalism. So any business that I was going to run, the people had to be very well-treated. And that meant, during the flush years, vacations for staff, film festivals, Utah, California, Las Vegas for film conventions. A week's pay for everybody at Christmas, this is how I wanted to run a business.
Intra: I had never been to [a video convention] before, and I was in Catholic school for 12 years and I lived a very sheltered life, and I went to Atlantic City with the three owners and Kelly, the manager, and we all slept in the same hotel room. I don't know if I would allow my own daughter to do something like this, I don't think I told my mother. It was probably the first time that I met a celebrity; I got an autograph from Ron Perlman.
Bradley: We would do different trips, sometimes Los Angeles to San Francisco. It was like a party on wheels-this was when we could justify taking a bunch of our people to the festivals.
Annie: That exposure changed people's lives. It's like five, six days of intensive movie-going. And we were usually good for like four [movies] for two days in a row, and then we started petering off the third day or two, and by the fifth day, we were like, "yeah, whatever." But the young ones, they would get in five a day constantly, just for the sheer fun of it and for the things they wanted to see and be on top of.
Barry: Those were the fun years. I had twin goals: to run a certain type of business and to keep it stocked with movies. I think we accomplished both. But there was so much fat in our organization that, until the last couple years, there was always something to cut. And I was always a bad businessman. I mean, I owned ice cream trucks from '75 to '79, and I was a good ice cream man. But businessman-like, my mom had to run the whole thing. I'm glad I had the ice cream truck before the modern weather technologies, because if it happened now, I would say, "The information's out there." If it had been raining anywhere east of the Mississippi, I would say, "Nah, nah, can't go out today." And when business is good, you can cover up a lot of shortfalls just with cash flow, because you lose on this, but the next day you bring in twice as much anyway. It's a pity that it took the lean years later to make us run a business.
Annie: It's amazing that we stayed open actually. Because, seriously, neither of us knew. Neither did Michael or Dave. It was really the blind leading the blind.
Barry: My accountant would scream till he was blue in the face. It was like a Woody Allen [movie], "Well, I got a new accountant." He said it about his shrink. But business was really good, it was like when business was good at the theater. I ran concerts that I knew I'd lose money on. The $3,500 I lost on the Muddy Waters concert was the best $3,500 I lost in my entire life. I got to serve Muddy Waters dinner. What kind of price can you put on that?
Ostheimer: We never went in it to make money-never went in it to get rich. Making money was always a great idea, it would be nice, and we made a nice living from it, but that wasn't the whole reason. The whole reason was to do something that you enjoyed doing.
Barry: We had a little subsidiary business, which, in the nicest of terms, is called gray-market stuff, which is stuff that isn't available in the United States on video. It's sort of a gray area, hence the gray market. But we were pretty unscathed by it. We had over 1,000 films that you couldn't get in the United States.
Tropea: I had stacks of VCRs set up in my apartment and I would duplicate and recreate box art for Asian, European films that didn't have U.S. distribution. For every cease and desist letter we got, we'd get, like, a letter from Gaspar Noé thanking [Barry] for making his film available to people in America.
Barry: It was always intended that only under the situation of duplicate copies would we ever get rid of anything, cause that's what made you an archive. Now you can say you're an archive when you have 2,000 movies, but when you hit the big number like we hit, then you can say, "Yes, we are indeed an archive."
Annie: Before we started selling I estimate there was 19,000 DVDs-17,000 unduplicated-and about 15,000 VHS, of which some were duplicates of DVDs, but a pretty large percentage we didn't have on DVD or have never come out. [The Roland Park] store was more a space issue.
Barry: Michael, he's the one who came up with the idea for these crushed cases, which allowed us room for DVDs when DVD was taking over, cause without that we never would have had enough room.
McBee: I remember we had flattened VHS [cases]. And somebody said to me, "How is this going to fit in my VCR?" I mean, I did not know what to say.
Bradley: At some point at VA, we ran out of enough space that, OK, "This isn't going to be easy to shop, but we got to do it." Part of it is you make the compromise-"We're going to need to clutter this up more and more." I would have dreams in which I would wake up the next morning having solved the problem to add another 8 to 12 feet of shelves.
Barry: The records were so poorly maintained, we sent a Maryland [tax] guy out practically in a straightjacket one time 'cause our records were so bad. If they put him out with his arms wrapped behind his back, he couldn't have looked any crazier. Then we got good. Now we're totally clean. When you're young, there's a certain romanticism about not doing things that well, 'cause you're kind of sticking it to the man somehow, but as you get old . . . Any business that closed because of my own personal incompetence, I would have great remorse and a sense of incompetence over it. Luckily, I can say honestly that my theaters that closed and the video stores-it was due to factors out of my control. It was due to macro issues that I couldn't manipulate past a certain point.
Hatch: It was Netflix [which started shipping in 1997 and streaming a decade later] and other internet means that chipped away. [They] cut off some of the interest from those people who were further away geographically to make that drive, when Netflix might deliver that same item to their house or they might find a place legally or illegally where they can double-click and get it.
Coelho: I would say that college-student business from Hopkins or MICA or Loyola at the Charles Village store was probably 50 percent. And then, over the course of nine years, it dwindled down to less than 10.
Barry: The students as a class of people were the first to give up renting. Therefore the decline at Charles Village was more precipitous than others, 'cause [the] Roland Park [clientele] is closer to this store's sensibilities.
Annie: The other thing, of course, is, as options expanded for what to do with your time, you know, you could YouTube for hours, you could go on Hulu; there's all these possibilities for streaming.
Tropea: I was there toward the end, toward the beginning of that. I remember nights at Charles Village where there would be three or four people working, and it was amazing in that small space that we weren't slamming into each other with the constant line of people. And I remember it going from [that to,] "Now we only need two employees on a Friday and Saturday night." And then there was talk of, "We really don't even need two." So I definitely saw the deep freeze happen when streaming and bit-torrenting became more prominent.
Barry: We knew about five or six years ago when I think on The Onion, they had a little video [about] making the visit to a Blockbuster as a visit to the museum-it was treated as a historical tour, and they bring the kids around with the parents. "You mean you had to go back to the store to bring it back?" "You had to go to the store twice?" So when it reached the point where people are joking about it, you know this is a business model that is lost.
Annie: As the business kind of started failing, it was clear that we were going to have to jettison somebody. [David Ostheimer and Michael Bradley] were 10 years younger. They had an opportunity to go make a new life.
Ostheimer: The reason I left [around 2006] was I ended up having children, and you could see that, as this new technology was coming in, the store was not going to be able to support everybody the way that it had. Then I had my two kids, and living in Newark and going down to Baltimore, working weekends or working nights, it was not something I wanted to do with my children.
Bradley: It was five years ago in April that I stepped away from the stores. It was very simple financial math. The stores weren't doing enough to cover my salary and Barry's salary, and he was hitting Social Security a little sooner. Now the stores have lasted five more years, whereas I think we would have had a difficult time lasting a year or so.
Barry: For half a decade at least or more, there was plenty to cut. We had like three owners, district managers, people that weren't really working but I was putting them through school-and that was true of more than one person. So we were able to last so long because we only had to get lean at the very end. And the business has only failed now because there's absolutely nothing left to cut.
Video Americain's Charles Village location closed in 2012; a candlelight vigil was held for it. Its Takoma Park space closed in the start of 2013. In August of 2013, Barry and Annie announced they would close their final store, on Cold Spring Lane.
Annie: I think one of the reasons Charles Village closed first was because it had a larger student population. Roland Park has a deliberately, we say almost technophobic population. More of Roland Park's customer base wouldn't have considered getting Netflix or don't stream or don't have any choices, may not even have TV. They're so loyal-"why would I? You're here."
Hatch: It's a testament to the collection, it's a testament to this city's love of film and love of VA, and it's a testament to Barry and Annie and everyone who worked for them who continued to serve the collection and the community this long.
Brown: The thing that people are really lamenting, I'm finding with customers now, [is] the interaction one-on-one. Sure, the selection too, but the lack of personal contact is the thing people are wringing their hands over the most.
Bradley: There were times when we went over to people's houses, where we'd have to fix their VCR or something, or re-hook up some of the older customers that weren't adapting as fast to the wiring. I remember this one woman, we shared the same birthday-she was like 40 years older than me-and every year, the day before, for about five years, I'd go up to her and say, "Well, happy birthday tomorrow," because I usually took my birthday off, and then she'd give me a big kiss. She came in the store all the time. I went to her funeral when she passed away.
Intra: We had a customer who obviously had mental and substance issues. He would come in shaking a lot, [he'd be] very sweaty. He seemed like a decent guy. One of the other clerks was friends with him, so I knew that he was probably OK. So he started asking me for hugs. And I gave them to him. He passed away and I later found out that he had overdosed on Listerine. He was a poor soul who lived with his parents, I think he was in his late 30's. I'm kind of glad that my 20-year-old self was compassionate.
Alexander: I was working one day alone in the store and it was a very sleepy day. This woman comes in, and she's kind of already beside herself, really ready to fall over and bawl. She's like, "OK, I've got this really, really weird, embarrassing question, but I really want a movie that's going to make me cry." She's like, "I feel weird asking this, but I just want something that's going to help me like flush all this out, right?" and I'm like "OK, let me think about this for a minute." Fortunately, I had just seen the Kelly Reichardt film Wendy and Lucy. Michelle Williams is a girl adrift, on the road with her dog, she's thrown everything away and she's going to go to Alaska to work on a fishing boat, her and her dog. She's young, she's desperate, doesn't have a lot of resources. She stops and she ties her dog to the fence outside a grocery store, she goes inside the grocery store and tries to shoplift some food for the dog. She gets arrested, she goes to jail, she gets out of jail, she comes back, her dog is gone. When I watched it, unbidden I started bawling four times. So I said to her, "How do you feel about dogs?" and she's like, "Oh, I love dogs." And I'm like, "Do you really get a bond between owner and animal kind of thing?" and she's like, "Yes, yes, yes." And I'm like, "I'd see this particular movie because, four times-four times-that got me." She's like [whispers], "That's exactly what I need." It worked. Let's see Netflix do that. No, that's never gonna happen.
Coelho: It's going to be harder, especially that spur-of-the-moment Friday night when you're like, "Man, I want to see this incredible short by Werner Herzog, but it's not available online." You can't be like, "Let's go to Video Americain, they're open." It's going to be more like, "Oh, shit. I don't know, oh well. I guess I'll watch this, whatever's streaming on Netflix, this episode of Wings."
Williams: The physical experience of the video store would lead people to less predictable choices. The associations from one box next to another created intrigue. It was a whole different process of tastemaking. Everyone in my life that has been important to me I have met within two degrees of a video-store connection. I feel sorry for all those that cannot have the experience of working a job like that. It was a service job, it was a social job, it was a library job, it was a cultural job.
Wardell: The video store really was in some respects a little bit like Taxi or one of those classic TV shows, where the entire base of operations, everybody who worked there, it was a gig and a job, we were all there out of our passion for film, but everybody had aspirations to do other things, whether that was making films or going onto academic careers or music performance.
Hatch: If I were to try to itemize the people who'd gone on to careers in film who worked at VA, it would take a long time. Also, meeting so many filmmakers, now, working for the [Maryland Film Festival], there are so many who never went to film school, and video stores were their film school. There really is no comparable place where you're just completely awash in the entire history of film from every sort of era, region, and genre.
Annie: The great thing about video is that if you can buy it, you get it, you have it forever, nobody can take it away from you.
Barry: Thirty-nine years is enough of running the business. We've had our children-our video children-it started with theater kids. We did it to earn a living and express our love for movies, but we've spawned several generations of people who can take our place with it-that's one of the more unexpected joys of it. First we had theater kids. And then we had video kids, and they do all sorts of things in film. That's kind of our legacy. Any smart businessperson would have sold the store five years ago, but because of our love for it-and loathe to change-we've kept it longer than any rational businessman would. We'll keep on selling [videos], one way or the other. Me, essentially, I'm just a carnival barker, so I'll have to continue barking somewhere.
Annie: Look for us at the Charles Village festival next year [laughter].
Barry: There's a scene at the end of Camelot where the battle's kinda been lost, Richard Harris-King Arthur-is a failure, but he's going to battle. The assumption is he's going to die maybe the next day. But he hears some rustling around in the leaves and it's a young child who's heard all the tales and he wants to be a knight even though the Round Table has collapsed, physically and figuratively, and-I'll start crying when I'm telling this-so he says, "No. Grow up and grow old with these tales." [Pauses] This is where it gets tough. "Continue these tales." And that's kind of like how I feel. We've passed on this knowledge to a whole new people, and then they will carry it on. We did our thing, and now the tales will be told of whatever little role in the towns that we've been in. If we've helped articulate a film community in any of these communities, well, isn't that pretty grand? Isn't that really kind of wonderful?
Video Americain on Cold Spring Lane will be open till Sunday, March 16.