Video stores become neighborhood hubs


Shoot My Mom If They Don't Stop!"

"Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot You!"

"Mom, Did You Shoot the Guy?"

Can't remember the name of that Stallone flick? No need to hum a few bars, the folks at the local video store will set you straight: It's "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot."

Decoding garbled requests ("Cooked Green Tomatoes," "Harley Davidson and the Lawnmower Man"), offering cinematic advice, dispensing popcorn, candy and perhaps a little neighborhood gossip, is all part of the package: Video stores have become more than just a place to rent a movie before --ing home to burrow.

Whether chain outfits like Blockbuster Video or tiny mom and pop shops, video stores have joined the corner bar and the local diner as a community hub -- you can even register to vote at a number of video stores.

"That's what separates us from theaters. . . . It's almost like an English pub where [people] go and talk about movies," says Phil Pascoe, owner of Act I in Reisterstown and two other area video stores.

In the cozy realm of a video store, movie talk often gives way to more personal matters. "I feel like a bartender sometimes because [customers] unload on me. Sometimes you can hear real nitty gritty in here," says Murray Summers of the patrons who frequent Video Tonite, his rural Woodbine shop. "I hear everything that's going on in the neighbor hood," Mr. Murray says.

"Especially on Saturday nights, there's a lot of interaction between customers. It's much more of a carnival atmosphere," says Dave Ostheimer, who owns Video Americain in Baltimore with Michael Bradley and Barry Solan. Mr. Ostheimer likens his business to "a funky bookstore, where everything is a little bit off center."

There are approximately 28,000 video stores in the United States, according to Wendy Schrecengost, market research manager for Video Store magazine. The little video shops, tucked into former businesses and redesigned according to the whims of their owners, can feel as comfortable as home. With its jar of fat pickles on the counter, and a gaggle of kids watching "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" on an old console television set, Hampden Video, nestled in a busy working-class neighborhood, resembles a well-used club room rather than a video store.

In contrast, Video Americain is a yuppie cinema paradise with a community bulletin board, an indoor playground and a tolerance for pets. It's the kind of place where movies like "Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks" are filed in the "Sex/Language/Bad Dialogue" section. And a spray-painted message in the parking lot -- "Parking for Meow-Bow Only" -- reminds patrons that the sight was used in the filming of "The Accidental Tourist," based on Baltimore author Anne Tyler's novel. That movie, of course, is available at Video Americain, as are nearly 5,000 other titles.

Even the larger video chains, though generally bereft of quirky, local touches, absorb the personality of their neighborhoods and the eclectic customers they serve.

While rainy afternoons and weekend evenings are especially busy, Wednesday and Thursday mornings are also challenging times for video store managers. That is when the new releases come in and customers line up to await their arrival. This weekend, the new releases are "Split Second," "The Mambo Kings," "Once Upon a Crime," "American Me" and "Ladybugs."

"The UPS truck comes in around 12," explains Act I's Mr. Pascoe one Wednesday morning. "Soon, we'll get a lot of phone calls. As soon as they know that truck is here, they're going to be down here," he says of his eager customers.

"They're down here waiting for the movie, and we're trying to process the movie, Mr. Pascoe says. "They're standing in line, hollering: 'I wanted it first.' . . . They want a new release now."

With most videos renting at $2.50 to $3, it's cheaper to watch a movie at home rather than see it in the theater for $5.50 to $7. But that doesn't always explain the rush for new releases.

"I sit in the car and wait for them," says Act I customer Bill Bright, a regular on first-release days. If he could wait for the movie to come out on video, why couldn't he wait for the new release?

"I'm retired and just don't have nothing to do," says Mr. Bright, who watches as many as four movies a night, his cocker spaniel and parrot by his side.

Mix-ups, bungled titles and erroneous expectations give video store employees plenty of tales to tell. Mr. Ostheimer remembers an older woman at his Newark, Del., store who checked out what she thought was a family movie, only to find that an X-rated, gay porn movie had been placed mistakenly in the movie case.

... TC "She was just outraged," Mr. Ostheimer says. Later, the woman became "one of our favorite customers."

"This is very, very classic," says Mr. Summers. "Customers come in and ask about the movie in the window display called 'Two Thumbs Up.' " He has to explain that "Two Thumbs Up" is the signature sign of approval used by film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Patrons have also asked to check out "The Best Movie I've Seen in Years," another popular blurb for movie advertising displays.

After being in the video business for more than a decade, Mr. Summers knows his movies. And he knows his customers. "A lot of people have very distinctive tastes," he says. Still, when they come in "they won't have anything in mind. So they ask, 'Murray, what's the next film I need to see?' Because they trust my taste."

Mr. Summers makes one exception: "No matter how good you tell someone a movie is, if the box cover is stupid, and they think it's stupid, you could even pay them $5 to watch the movie and they'll go, 'No.' "

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