Video Americain, possibly Baltimore's last, and certainly best, video rental store, is on its way out.
Barring some final-reel reprieve, the filled-to-the-rafters store in Roland Park — where film buffs could find even the most obscure title, where John Waters once suggested the death penalty for failing to rewind a VHS tape, where owner Barry Solan helped nurture a generation of Baltimore cinephiles — will shut its doors for good sometime next year.
"The time has come to make a change," says Solan, 61. Despite remaining much-loved and stunningly comprehensive in its film offerings, Video Americain simply doesn't generate enough business to remain open.
Solan has been renting out movies for 30 years, since opening his first store in 1983 in Philadelphia. Video Americain grew to six stores, but rentals have dropped off and other locations have closed. He has worked hard — bought fewer videos, operated on a leaner budget — yet business at the Cold Spring Lane store has fallen some 40 percent in six years, he says.
Too many people are streaming movies, or using Netflix, or renting from impersonal Redbox machines.
"That part of the public that still loves us is still coming in," he says over lunch at a restaurant just up Cold Spring Lane from the converted gas station that has housed Video Americain since March 1989. "But much of the public has chosen other means of getting their movies. We've finally reached the point where the numbers just don't make sense anymore.
"We've gone as far as we can with it," Solan says as his wife and business partner, Annie, looks on. Unless they can come up with an alternative that would keep the 35,000-film inventory intact under a new owner, the Solans say, they'll start selling off their movies — including scores of rare, out-of-print titles — in a store-closing sale beginning as early as October. The Solans are experienced in the process. Just last year, they shut the doors on their Charles Village location after selling off the stock film by film.
Hard times have hit rental stores all over. The number of independent video outlets nationally has shrunk from 8,500 in 2008 to 4,357 in 2012, according to the Entertainment Merchants Association, an industry trade group. Major chains have fared even worse, falling from more than 9,100 to just over 1,800 in the same period. A search on Blockbuster's website shows no locations left in the Baltimore area. In Charm City, the once-omnipresent chain has joined such contemporaries as Erol's, Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery in extinction.
Most consumers use streaming services, Netflix or rental kiosks, whose numbers have grown from 17,800 in 2008 to over 45,800 in 2012.
"The rental market is still strong," EMA spokesman Sean Bersell says. "It's just that, rather than getting in the car and driving to the store, people are doing it in different ways, and there are different players in the marketplace."
Even when video stores were plentiful, however, Video Americain was special. It operated out of a building used in filming 1988's "The Accidental Tourist," based on a book by Roland Park's own Anne Tyler. It owed its name to the cafe run by Humphrey Bogart's character in "Casablanca." Its staff was as well-versed in the films of D.W. Griffith and Jean-Luc Godard as those of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Video Americain," says Eric Hatch, who spent six years managing the Charles Village store and is now director of programming for the Maryland Film Festival. He credits his time at the store with turning his passion for film into an avocation. "Barry's love of movies was just something else."
But it wasn't just movie nuts who frequented the store. "They are magicians," says Roland Park resident Mohammad Naqibuddin, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He especially praises the selection of foreign films, documentaries and "films you can't get elsewhere" — noting he was astounded to find several films from his native Bangladesh on the shelves.
John Waters once shot a scene for his movie "Serial Mom" at Video Americain — it's the store where Kathleen Turner's character decides that murder is the fitting penalty for failing to rewind a videotape — and has remained a loyal customer.
"I will miss it incredibly," he says. "Whenever I need to find out about a film, I go there. And they always have it. I hope some crazy rich person comes in and opens it as a museum."
In a perfect world, Barry Solan says, some big-pockets local movie lover would come up with enough money — between $70,000 and $90,000 — to buy the entire inventory and keep it in Baltimore, as a publicly accessible video archive. Solan is giving himself until mid-October to find such a buyer, maybe someone with a new business model or plan.
"There are options out there," he says. A store in Northampton, Mass., raised enough money that its owners were able to hand over their archive to the local library (but the Salons don't know fundraising, and Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library doesn't have the money, according to a spokesman). A Greenwich Village store found a city willing to purchase its inventory and run it as a film archive (but the collection ended up in Italy).
Eric Hatch and some friends, under the name Baltimore Video Collective, have been raising money to establish a video archive in Baltimore. But the cost of buying Video Americain's inventory is well outside their price range for the moment, Hatch says.
The Solans acknowledge that a giant "Going Out of Business" sale might be the way the Video Americain story ends. They've seen it coming for a while: Four years ago, even as he celebrated the store's 20th anniversary, Barry Solan was talking about how new marketing and technologies would soon doom his business.
Refusing to get all maudlin or complain about the unfairness of it all, the Solans nevertheless acknowledge that getting out is hard.
"In a lot of ways, it's emotional," says Annie Solan, who spent months last year in the basement that housed their Charles Village store, selling off its contents DVD by DVD, VHS by VHS. "There's a deliberate reason why Baltimore is our last store. …It's always been kind of our heart; we always felt the strongest connection to this community."
But the end, the Solans say, is clearly near. Even if they wanted Video Americain to remain open, it would have to be someplace else. The Cold Spring Lane building needs work, and its owner has told Solan he'd like to sell the property. Solan has told him he'll be out by spring. The store hasn't been an excessive drain on their finances, he says, but that could change as the customer base continues to erode; they've already had to start dipping into their own pockets to pay some bills.
It's time, Barry Solan says.
"I had a very paradigm-shift moment about three weeks ago," he says, "when a lovely 70-year-old woman with gray hair came in and, having told us that she had attempted on several occasions to get a certain film, sheepishly admitted to me that … she went home and downloaded it from Amazon.