Video Americain is, hands-down, Baltimore's best video store - really the only place, outside of maybe the Enoch Pratt Library, likely to have for rent copies of both The Dark Knight and the complete works of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.
It is also, as owners Barry Solan and Michael Bradley soberly acknowledge, a dinosaur racing toward extinction. At a time when even the mighty Blockbuster seems teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, when Netflix and PC downloads are making video-rental stores seem like quaint relics of a bygone era, that Video Americain is even around to celebrate its 20th anniversary is something of a miracle.
"It'll kill us, it's going to kill us," Solan says of the home-delivery business model that is threatening to supplant stores like his, where customers have to actually venture outside their homes to rent a movie. "It's a miracle these businesses [like ours] have lasted as long as they have lasted."
But don't look for any funeral dirges at the former gas station on Cold Spring Lane, just a few blocks west of Loyola College in Maryland. Named as an homage to Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca, Video Americain opened its doors 20 years ago today with 1,400 VHS tapes, most bought secondhand from other stores that were either closing or culling their stock (a second store, in Charles Village, opened five years later). There's still a steady stream of customers, and Solan and Bradley aren't planning on shuttering the place any time soon. Even when they do, they promise, the emphasis will be on celebrating the run they had, not lamenting the end of it.
"When we finally succumb to the pressures of a changing technological world, I'll say 'mazel tov,' " Solan says. "Whatever town I've been in, I've always wanted to be one of the best things in the town. I've accomplished that. We were around for a long time. We did what we wanted to do."
Until that end comes - and no one's announcing a date - Baltimore's movie lovers will continue to seek out Video Americain's unrivaled collection (some 20,000 VHS tapes and 12,000 DVDs) and passionate staff. Just about anyone who is anybody on Baltimore's movie scene has spent time working at the store, including former Cinema Sundays presenter Gabe Wardell (now head of the Atlanta Film Festival) and Maryland Film Festival programmer Eric Allen Hatch.
"You go in, and it just makes you want to watch movies," says director John Waters, who shot scenes for his 1994 film Serial Mom at the store. "It's much more fun to go there than Netflix. You can just go and look at all the boxes, maybe pick up someone who's in there just looking around."
Adds local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield, whose movie Hamilton enjoyed a brief and critically lauded run in New York two years ago, "You gotta do your time there if you're an artist in Baltimore."
Solan and Bradley, the two men who created Video Americain 20 years ago (along with a third, David Ostheimer, who no longer plays an active role in the store), smile at such compliments. Confirmed movie lovers from way back, they revel in their reputation as the go-to destination for Baltimore's movie lovers. The two met while Solan was running a repertory cinema in Newark, N.J., and Bradley came to work for him.
"When you have somebody who comes in and their jaw drops because there's just so much ... to me, that's a great source of pride," says Bradley, 46, who lives near Hamilton with his wife, Joanna Crosby. "This is a special place."
Everything about the cluttered store caters to the cinephile. Movies are grouped not alphabetically, but by director, or theme, or star, or even genre (newly arrived foreign films occupy a place of honor near the front counter). Brief written blurbs from the staff are sometimes found on the boxes. And talk among the staff and customers is more likely to center on Jane Campion, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or John Cassavetes than Steven Spielberg, Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.
Not that Video Americain doesn't carry the latest blockbusters: When Slumdog Millionaire is released on DVD this month, it'll be in stock. Solan, in fact, cringes at the elitist reputation his store has acquired. He embraces the mass market no less enthusiastically, he insists.
"That's what we always wanted to do, to provide a repertory video-store format," says Solan, 57, who still lives in Newark with his wife, Anne. "That always meant a lot to me, going in all directions at once; as much as money allows, you want to move in every direction simultaneously. ... From day one, we wanted to have cult, we wanted to have sex, we wanted to have foreign, we wanted to have obscure, all at once. That's always been the idea in my mind. You never want to be typecast."