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Reality killed the video store

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

By Robert NewtonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 22, 2003

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.

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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.

"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.

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"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.")

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