The Rise and Fall of an Independent Video Store

by Christopher Tucker

In May 2011, my wife Laura and I moved from Portland, Ore. to Chicago, Ill. and left behind our friends, our favorite microbreweries, and a field that I had worked in much of my life: video rental.

My video rental store career began in 1999 when I briefly worked in a tiny outlet. It was an awkward experience because I soon discovered that I actually hand’t been hired. Things worked out later after I did get hired at a newly opened Hollywood Video chain, and when I finished college, I snapped up another job at a small town establishment in Western New York run by a wonderful young couple with a baby. I later moved to Portland, where I was hired at a local video store/gym chain called Videorama. Starting as one of the weeknight clerks, I eventually opened a new store and redesigned and managed another in Portland’s hoity-toity Pearl District.

There are no real video stores where Laura and I live in Chicago. There’s a video and lottery seller sharing a storefront with a fried chicken shack near us where posters for Twilight: Eclipse, and season two of True Blood hang in the windows. You can see random VHS tapes on the narrow shelves inside. Needless to say, Laura and I get our media through other means. In fact, I’ve barely set foot in a video store since leaving Portland.

But a Seattle wedding brought us back to the luscious Pacific Northwest, and since I had the spare time, I decided to return to Videorama.

Remember video stores? What a kick they used to be. Sure, there are plenty still in business (in Middle America, Family Video continues unabated, and historic institutions like Seattle’s Scarecrow Video and Facets in Chicago remain), but the industry itself has been crushed. Gone are the days when you wandered into a Blockbuster on a Friday night, seeing what caught your eye, or when you ran to Movie Gallery on a Tuesday morning, hoping to get that new season of The Sopranos before it was out of stock. For two decades, analog VHS empowered these organizations.

And then DVD emerged, with its reasonable day-of-release retail price (as opposed to $100 new VHS tapes of old), removing the rental store’s window of exclusivity. The Digital Dragon soared out of its cave. With Napster, we saw how easy it was to get MP3s for free, and soon movies and shows were being illegally downloaded, too. The tiny size/weight of DVD enabled cheap shipping options and compact storage, i.e. Netflix and Redbox. And then in 2007, Hulu was launched, and your average Joe and Josephine were introduced to Cloud Media.

Videorama started as a single store in 1983. Owned by a Portland family, the profitable enterprise enabled them to start two other businesses: a small fitness chain and a home staging company. Their one location became six, two stores in downtown, four scattered about the greater Portland area.

In March 2008, I was put in charge of opening a shop close to Portland State University. I selected our titles and designed the layout. We had a tasteful adult section behind a big curtain. One day, when I found myself with a bunch of empty adult cases, I cut up the covers and created an explicit laminated collage for our sexy backroom, which spelled out “I Heart Porno!!” Truly, it was my greatest retail achievement.

That winter, I was put in charge of the Pearl District’s Videorama. It was much bigger than my Portland State store and already had a solid customer base. This store opened in 2003, when the Pearl District was being turned from industrial gross to condo fancy. Rent was a couple thousand bucks a month, which was reasonable considering the size and location of the spot.

When I took over, my soul was filled with dreams. Blockbuster and Hollywood were collapsing, so my two Videoramas were the only video stores in downtown Portland. I put together a manifesto for the owners. We needed to create a unique experience, something for folks who preferred browsing through physical movies to getting discs in the mail or from vending machines. I was going to change the store’s layout; among other things, there would be brand new signs and the creation of an outstanding director’s section. Seeing the sort of traffic our sell-thru section received, I was going to keep the used movie racks better stocked than ever before. My inspiration was the legendary Movie Madness, located in Southeast Portland. I knew it was impossible to match what they had, but dammit, I was going to try.

And then came 2009, and the tightening of a million belts. The cheap luxury of video rental was undercut by even cheaper methods of media acquisition. And on top of losing business, the owners watched their investments flounder, just like everybody else. Two stores, including my Portland State location, were closed. At the Pearl, I made all the changes that didn’t cost money (new signs, new arrangements, setting up “Chris Tucker’s The Director’s Section” with pictures of myself all over it), and that’s where my revolution stopped.

The bosses wouldn’t spend the money necessary to bulk up our catalog. My used movie section was gutted, the owners hoping to get better prices online through Amazon Marketplace. Instead of being open from noon to 11 p.m., Videorama was open from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. There were no longer shifts where more than one person worked at a time. I had to let an employee go. Our coverage of big name titles diminished, too, as we ceased working with our long-term distributor, a company called Rentrak. Through Rentrak, we would essentially lease certain titles and split the revenue. After a certain period of time, the DVDs would be fully ours, though we’d have to pay Rentrak if we came up short on guarantees. Videorama started buying movies through more traditional distributors, which cost between $18 and $30 a copy. Gone were the days when you’d see an entire wall filled up with the newest hot title.

Naturally, all of these changes led to customer dissatisfaction. That’s always something, when you work at a store where the bosses are making customers unhappy and all you can do is shrug. Loyal patrons continued trying to utilize us, but we regularly didn’t have what they were looking for, so many sought their media elsewhere.

With the exception of my used movie section, I really couldn’t fault the owners for any of their decisions. In my mind, the solutions always involved spending more money. Advertisements, a good web presence, a thicker catalog, participation in the local moviemaking community. But would it have been wise to throw a bunch of money at a dying industry, at a store that stayed open only because of its ironclad lease? Certainly not.

In 2011, I left the world of video rental, and I look back on Videorama quite fondly. There was so much moviemaking in those stores, both as a shooting location and a meeting place. Videorama was responsible for a significant chunk of the friends I made, many of whom I’m still in touch with. And though I certainly don’t miss the general public or working nights and weekends, there was something deeply satisfying about making a customer happy, about whipping out one of my favorite movies and engaging in a spirited discussion about it afterwards. I am responsible for getting a great many people into both Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Surely St. Peter will mark those in the “plus” column when we finally face each other.

It’s September 2013. Laura and I had a tiny window of Portland time, so we decided to revisit this place that had been such an important part of my life for two and a half years. I wondered how the store would look, and how I would feel upon walking inside. Would my signs still be hanging? Would I encounter any of my regulars, either good or bad?

This is what we saw.

I’d missed it by a single day. At long last, the unbreakable lease had run out. Between me and my past was a door I no longer had the key for.

Peering through dark windows, I saw the store was a giant mess. Most of my signs were indeed taken down, replaced with black text on white paper. Still, the “Chris Tucker’s The Director’s Section” signs remained, with those various pictures of me. Chris Tucker looking befuddled at a Scrabble board. Chris Tucker with his cat perched on his back. At the very least, in a fashion, I was able to keep an eye on the shop for its final two years.

So instead of catching up with that grand old lady of home entertainment, I inadvertently swung by her quiet corpse.

“Goodbye, Videorama” I said, touching the cold glass. “You’re renting videos to the angels now. I hope they aren’t jerks about their late fees.”

Christopher Tucker lives and schemes in Chicago.

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