Watching a movie in your home has never been easier. Find something you want to see on Netflix or Hulu or YouTube or some other site, and moments later, it’s time to sit back, stare at the screen and enjoy
Ah, but where’s the fun in that? The human interaction, the friendly voice suggesting a movie you never heard of before, the chance for a little pre-film conversation to heighten the experience. Back in the day, you had to go to a store, pore over the shelves, maybe even ask a cinephile clerk for some help.
Are people yearning to revisit that? A group of area movie lovers believe many are, enough to support a video-rental store they’re planning to open within the next few months on Howard Street in Remington.
“What we’re banking on is that people want that experience,” says filmmaker Joe Tropea, one of about a dozen volunteers who hope to open Beyond Video sometime in the early spring. “Do they want to be able to come in, see stuff and be able to have conversations with living humans about what they might be interested in? That’s stuff that the online experience just can’t provide.”
Baltimore’s return to the video rental business comes in the midst of something of a revival of old-fashioned, hold-it-in-your-hand media. Vinyl records, for instance, which long ago seem to have been relegated to the dustbins of consumerism, are coming back in force; 2017 marked the 12th straight year sales of vinyl LPs have risen, with 14.32 million sold, according to Nielsen Music, up from 13.1 million in 2016.
Certainly, few people are ready to throw away their iPhones or tablets yet. But people are realizing the advantage of actually having something you can hold in your hand, as well as the pleasures of interacting with actual humans and not just their digital avatars.
“People still like to buy things, own things, go places,” says David Sax, author of the book “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.” In a sense, he says, it’s the digital technology that is becoming passe, and its analog forebears that younger people are discovering.
“They have grown up with technology. To them, it’s nothing new,” Sax says. “For them, what’s new and exciting is these analog things.”
People who can remember their Blockbuster days, or who shed a tear when Video Americain, Baltimore’s longest-surviving video rental store, shut its doors for good in March 2014, should find Beyond Video comfortingly familiar.
So far, they’ve collected about 7,000 DVDs, Blu-Rays and even the occasional VHS tape; they hope to have a library of 10,000 titles before opening. Inside a rowhouse two doors down from the Ottobar, reconstruction of what could be Baltimore’s first video rental store after almost three years without continues. Shelves are still being constructed and painted, a tile floor is still being laid. To pay for it all, they raised $32,250 through Kickstarter, including $10,000 from an anonymous donor.
Eric Allen Hatch, who recently left his job as programmer for the Maryland Film Festival, has been hoping for years to put Baltimore back into the video rental store business. “The experience that you get from a specialty video store, with directors’ walls and films from all over the world and from every era on film history, is a really special and specific one, both for browsing and interacting — on both sides of the counter,” says Hatch, recalling the days when browsers could find multiple shelves filled with the works of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino or John Waters,
Waters, a devoted customer of Video Americain who shot a scene for his movie "Serial Mom” there, would love to see Baltimore back in the video rental game.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea. I hope it works,” Waters says. “It will be a great place to meet people. I was hoping they were already open. I was looking for an obscure art film the other day.”
But recognizing that it could be hard to make a serious profit from a type of business that’s been pretty much extinct for a decade, the people behind Beyond Video are planning to run it as as a nonprofit, volunteering their time and sinking every dollar possible into such things as rent, utilities, upkeep and — most important — acquiring tapes and discs to loan out.
True, online services can be quicker, and easier; after all, you never have to leave your chair. And you don't have to worry that someone else may have that one copy of “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies” the store has in stock, leaving you to rent ‘House of Wax,” even though your heart really isn’t in it.
“From the second you open the Netflix app, regardless of the device you are on, everything you see is designed around helping you find something great to watch right away,” Netflix spokesperson Smita Saran writes in an email. “From the order of the rows to the titles you are being recommended, your Netflix experience is unique and designed around one thing — making it easier for you to discover and connect with stories you will love.”
“If it’s done properly, a brick-and-mortar video store could have a deep effect on the community,” says Roberto Buso-Garcia, former director of the Master of Fine Arts in film and media program at the Johns Hopkins University.
“Growing up in Puerto Rico in the late ’70s, early ’80s, my film education was happening upon random films in the video store. It was very important to me growing up.”
“It’s different,” Hatch says of the online vs. the rental store experience. “Both can be special. But this one [the video store] is missing right now. And online experiences are all too overbearingly present.”
The same once could have been said about video rental stores. Once, they were everywhere; Blockbuster, the behemoth of the video-rental world, had more than 9,000 stores at its peak, in 2004. But many were smaller chains, or even individual mom-and-pop stores, serving their immediate neighborhoods’ needs.
“People were just gleeful to get their hands on anything,” says Video Americain owner Barry Solan of those heady days when video stores were at their peak. “There was just a tremendous enthusiasm. People loved to come in and talk to people in the store.”
In 1990, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 19,214 videotape and disc rental stores in the U.S., including 473 in Maryland, 54 in Baltimore alone. By 2001, with the larger chains firmly established and many of the smaller operations squeezed out, the total number had decreased to 16,335, with 252 in Maryland, 19 in Baltimore.
But the rise of services like Netflix, as well as an increase in the number of rental kiosks (like the ubiquitous Redbox machines found outside many convenience stores and at other locations), torpedoed the rental store industry. By the end of 2013, all but a handful of Blockbusters had closed. Three years later, figures showed only 2,154 rental stores remained in the U.S., 12 in Maryland.
Other industries have faced similar problems. Over the past 20 years, the number of record stores — faced with both a decreasing number of people buying records and CDs and the market domination of Amazon — has also dropped dramatically, from 7,798 in 2001 to 3,229 in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. Likewise, the number of bookstores has fallen, from 10,295 in 2007 to 6,935 in 2016.
But such stores are not extinct. The trick, owners who have managed to stay in business agree, is a combination of offering the personal touch that internet-based services lack and fostering a sense of community, offering their customers a chance not only to buy things, but to hang out with people of similar interests.
“It isn’t always easy, but we’re still here,” says Bryan Burkert, owner of Sound Garden in Fells Point, which has been rated one of the country’s top record stores by Rolling Stone magazine, thanks to an extensive stock of new and used CDs, DVDs and blu-rays, a convivial atmosphere where a knowledgeable staff is eager to help and a civic presence that includes free waterfront movie screenings during the summer. “We’ve been around for 25 years, and there's always some crisis for all of those 25 years. But Baltimore still has a solid customer base, a solid group of people who come to see us.”
Says John "Bumper" Moyer, owner of Twilite Zone comics in Glen Burnie, "The challenge is, you have to give value that they can’t get online.”
That’s what the people behind Beyond Video are counting on. “There’s definitely a feeling, among my group of friends, of wanting to have more real experiences,” says Meredith Moore, 32, who works as a curator and archivist at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Decker Library when she’s not pushing to get Beyond Video off the ground. “You’re building community with those conversations, camaraderie. … I don’t see how you get that online.”
Hatch, a former manager at Video American’s Charles Village store, says the enthusiasm sometimes catches him unawares.
“I did a class visit at the School for the Arts recently,” he says. “The professor there asked me to introduce an animated film and, introducing me, she mentioned my work with the film festival, and people kind of nodded. Then she asked if they remembered video stores, and the students said yes, but barely.