Reality killed the video store

Or How I Learned To Stop Idealizing (and sell out to a corporate chain)

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After 18 years in the video business, Robert Newton found himself faced with two alternatives: bankruptcy or a check from one of the chains he'd been competing against.

In 1977, nearly everything this towheaded overachiever knew about movies was from watching "The Wizard of Oz" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" every year on TV. My grandmother was the town librarian - something playground bullies didn't find as cool as I did - and my life was primarily public television and the bookmobile. But with the May release of a little space opera called "Star Wars" my life forever changed. I began shooting movies in my backyard, and eventually, started using actual film in the camera.

Taking an after-school job in the first video store that opened in my sleepy Boston suburb seemed a natural next step. By the time I was old enough to work without a permit in 1985, I had become a fixture at that "mom-and-pop," demonstrating a savant-like knack for the ephemeral details of all the movies to come out since Hollywood began producing them, which, to me, was 1977.

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"Mom and pop" described nearly every video store in operation in those golden days, as Blockbuster had just opened its first store in Dallas. These were the days when $30 a year memberships were commonplace and 1,000 titles was considered a vast library. The concept of pricing a movie low enough to sell to a fan had not yet caught on (the $40 price tag on 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was considered "bargain basement"). Given the right location, the video business seemed as if it could provide a healthy slice of American pie for entrepreneurs all over the US.

I worked that 700-square-foot Hobbit hole all through high school, writing screenplays and watching every film I could get my hands on.

Unable to find my place among the collegiate Sturm und Drang (or "the four-year ostrich hole" as I called it), I went back to what I knew best. With a down payment borrowed from my folks, grandparents, aunt and uncles, I bought my old stomping grounds.

During the next 2-1/2 years, I got more valuable real-world experience than any professor could have taught. Then I decided to close the store in an attempt to make it as a filmmaker in Hollywood.

* * *

"And thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject. While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?"

- Miracle Max, "The Princess Bride"

My plan was to liquidate my inventory, pay all my debts, and bank the surplus, which would buy me four years at UCLA's film school. This was 1992, mind you, when $10 for used VHS copies was considered a great deal, unlike today, when someone will try to haggle you down from $3. In the fall of 1992, I went to Los Angeles to find a place to live. After a shifty sub-lettor made off with my space and and wares, I cut my losses ($12,000 in stock and $17,000 in legal bills). But after three months of eating nothing but 99-cent Big Macs and Ramen Pride noodles, I returned home, pride crushed and dreams dashed. Living with my Dad and getting to know him all over again later proved priceless. He gave me a place to nurse my wounds and recover financially. And a stint managing a Suncoast retail store gave me needed management training.

Still, the timing of my return to the video business could have been more auspicious. Corporations had begun their march on the little hole-in-the-corner stores, and even supermarkets had gotten in on the act, using their video departments to sell bread and milk.

In short, the video market was flooded, and it was the independent owners who got washed away. As much as your most loyal customers say they support you, they will often choose Super Stop & Shop's 20 copies of "Navy SEALS" over your two.

A friend of mine, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, once rationalized his deteriorating health as "just a flu." This is the way many independents treated the encroachment of the corporate gorilla. Even in the face of shrinking profits, longer shifts, and the embarrassment of the daily apologies to our migrating customer bases, many owners held out until after their beloved Titanic split in two and sank into the sea.

Some would warehouse their inventories in their basements "just in case," rather than admitting defeat with a fire sale. (Explaining the joys of self-employment to anyone who has not experienced it is difficult, so I, to this day, simply let the placard on the wall near the door do the talking: "There's No Business Like Your Business.")

* * *

"Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in!"

- Michael Corleone, "The Godfather, Part III"

Starship Video was literally 10 times the size of my first store. I started at Starship as manager in 1995. Starship was part of a chain of about a dozen stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and its look was imitative of Blockbuster (or "Lackluster" as we came to call it). I immediately began to make the store my own, both figuratively, by pouring myself into the place with 70-hour weeks, and literally. In lieu of a bonus, I began taking ownership shares until the fall of 2000, when I officially bought the 7,000-square-foot, 20,000-plus title megastore, which was the only remnant of the chain, as the owners had sold off all their other stores and parted ways. (Cue the ominous organ music.)

Still, with annual sales projected at nearly $1 million and my first film finally in production, I was sitting pretty. Then my father, my best friend and business partner, took ill.

After his passing in 2001, I buried myself so thoroughly in my work that I could barely function at anything not related to staying busy. I even opened a second store in his hometown as a sort of 12-hour-a-day memorial.

But I began to realize that my dream of being the next franchise commodity was beginning to wither. Sure, I knew everything about film and every customer who rented from me, but I just didn't have the knack for the business end that Dad, with his 35 years' experience, did. The "brave face" I put on as the oldest of three boys and the new "head of the family" began to weaken, and I eventually had a nervous breakdown.

As the owner of any business knows, a career change is not as easy as giving two weeks' notice. But after a run-in with one of my landlords last August, in which he mumbled something about the favor that his attorney owed him, I decided to sell within a year's time, telling only my manager and immediate family. My wife was fine with my decision, especially because she had taken on a lot of the duties that I had become unable to perform, all the while still teaching in Boston and working on her doctoral dissertation.

I fixed on finding someone who would continue to run my stores as independent entities. Imagine my dismay when I learned that for the kind of money I was asking, I was going to have to throw the second store in for free if I was to avoid doing the corporate two-step.

* * *

"And in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night!"

- Truman Burbank, "The Truman Show"

Finally, in an effort to prove the stores were viable, I solicited Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Imagine my surprise when both chains called me back in about a week, and when Hollywood shortly made an offer on one store equal to the previous offer for both.

At the same time, it was becoming evident that I needed to sell for top dollar. If not, I would be forced to sell my father's house, in which I planned to raise his grandchildren, as I could not get a mortgage because of my store-related debt. With the prospect looming of declaring bankruptcy and moving back into an apartment, I swallowed my pride. With a purchase and sale agreement that seemed to indemnify Hollywood Video until the very second before signing, I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers.

The sale went through Aug. 4. In kind of the same way I felt when I first saw my father's life summed up in terms of when he lived, the epitaph "1995-2003" is still a bit haunting. It is like saying goodbye to an old friend who was so much a part of you, and just like the money Dad bequeathed, the bounty of the sale is not a magic wand that makes everything right.

I will miss the daily contact with the folks who brought me dinner when I was stuck working a 16-hour shift. I will miss welcoming the annual autumn parade of college freshmen convinced they know everything, and the spring farewell to the seniors, so terrified they don't. And in a way I will miss being that reluctant retail celebrity who cannot spend even a week in Florida without seeing someone he's recommended a movie to.

But just as Chaplin grew weary of donning the bowler and greasepaint moustache, this little tramp is nonetheless eager to bid farewell to the job that until now has defined him, as bittersweet as this introspective Onward and Upward might be.

Robert Newton is the film writer for Worcester Magazine. Currently in production are two feature films, his second novelty record, a film festival, and, with his wife, a 'little' project tentatively titled 'Robert Newton II: The Next Generation.' He still owns Starship Video in Auburn, Mass., which he will make you a 'wicked good' deal on.

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