SLO County's video rental stores hang on

Video rental chains gutted the mom-and-pop stores when they came to the Central Coast; now those major players are closing their doors as the industry redefines itself yet again

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMarch 14, 2011 

A couple of years after Kenny Kim bought Studio Video in San Luis Obispo, an unwelcome neighbor opened shop across the street.

When Hollywood Video arrived, Kim could see the chain store’s sign from the front of his Foothill Boulevard store. If he looked hard enough, he could even see some of his old customers stroll into Hollywood’s front doors.

“They took about half the business at that time,” Kim recalled.

Yet, a few years later, the building that once housed Hollywood Video is now an empty shell. And Kim’s independent store, against all odds, still stands, open for business.

“It’s amazing that Hollywood came and went, and that guy is still there,” said Bob Whiteford, whose cult favorite video store, Insomniac Video, wasn’t so victorious, going out of business in 2008.

During the early part of the last decade, thousands of independent videos stores across the country closed permanently, as chain stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video snatched up their business (between 1999 and 2001 alone, 3,000 indie video stores sank amid the pressure). But in a reversal of fortune, the handful of local indies that managed to stick around are now watching those same giants go under, themselves victims of better-equipped new challengers such as Netflix, Redbox, on-demand video and Hulu.

“The world had really changed radically from the time we opened until the time we closed,” said Whiteford, who owned Insomniac with business partner John Jones for more than a decade. “And from the time we closed until right now, it’s changed again.”

That became more apparent recently when it was announced that the Blockbuster store in San Luis Obispo was preparing to shut down and liquidate its stock — five months after Blockbuster declared bankruptcy. Last year, Hollywood Video previewed the chain’s collapse, closing its stores in San Luis Obispo County.

When business was booming, Blockbuster had 5,000 stores nationwide. And the arrival of a chain was the death knell for the independents.

When Hollywood Video arrived in Los Osos in 2001, there were three independent video stores in the town of 14,000. By the time Hollywood Video went under, less than a decade later, there were none. But just as Hollywood Video was closing, a Redbox dispenser appeared at the nearby Ralph’s, signaling the next phase of the home entertainment business.

The Redboxes are like vending machines, which dispense rentals for $1 a night. (There are around 50 Redbox machines in the county.) Other home movie options include Netflix, which offers members a chance to receive DVDs in the mail or stream movies online; Hulu, which offers even more streaming options, and on-demand movies, where subscribers order films through their cable or satellite providers.

Old remains current

Since the technology progresses so quickly, some indie outfits aren’t even trying to keep up with the times.

At All American Video in Cambria, the owners cater to those who still use VCRs.

“We have VHS tapes by the thousands,” said Michelle Rodriguez, who owns the store with her husband, Rudy. “And people still like those here.”

Fortunately for them, All American Video has never faced competition from chain stores. But the indie stores that have confronted competition usually survive by offering something the big guns don’t have.

“We’d get all the foreign stuff, all the cult stuff — all the unusual stuff that they wouldn’t touch,” said Whiteford, who now works in student assessments at Cuesta College.

While the chains carried the latest releases, they never dug deep into cinematic history.

“I have about 20,000 titles now,” Kim said. “Blockbuster used to have about five to six thousand.”

And while the Netflixes and Redboxes represent a new foe, Kim said his store has an edge on them as well. Those who order Netflix DVDs by mail don’t get them for a few days, he said. And Redbox machines only offer 200 titles.

“If you want ‘Casablanca,’ where do you get ‘Casablanca’ today?” he said. “I’ve got three different versions of ‘Hamlet’ here. Maybe they take some business, but I don’t worry about Redbox. Eventually, what I worry about is streaming.”

Even then, there’s something about actually going into a store and browsing the inventory, reading the back of the boxes, Rodriguez said.

“People like to browse,” Rodriguez said. “People always tell us, ‘We have Netflix, but we like to come in and just look.’ ”

Crossroads Video in San Luis Obispo is a typical throwback. In the store, you can find VHS tapes for “Easy Rider,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Casper’s Haunted Christmas.” There are campy horror flicks, like “One Hell of the Christmas,” “Queen of the Damned” and “The Birds II: Lands End.” And various sections are marked with sticky notes, describing sections with key words, like “Mary Kate + Ashley” and “Time Warrior Series.”

“I love foreign movies and things that are strange,” said owner Diane Tompkins.

Her husband, bored in retirement, decided to buy a small business in 2005. But then the former PG&E engineer landed a job with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Diane left her job teaching Spanish at Cal Poly to run the business.

While there are some more modern features at the store — like the computer station customers can use to check inventory and reviews — mostly the business relies on a good deal: five videos for five days for five bucks.

The indie stores also offer a personal touch the chains could not duplicate. Kim, for example, speaks fondly of the copy of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech he taped up in his store.

“I think that’s one of the top 10 speeches in American history,” Kim said.

If he or the staff likes a movie in the store, they place little star stickers on the box. So his copy of “Dead Poets Society,” for example, features a star; “Pootie Tang” does not.

While he has beaten the odds, the clouds didn’t part when Hollywood Video sold its stock. Kim still figures his business is on borrowed time.

“If I’m lucky, I can survive another five, six, seven years,” said Kim, who is also a wholesaler and closeout merchandiser. “Streaming will take over. Even Netflix is trying to get rid of the hard discs.”

While business isn’t what it was during the heyday of video rentals, inclement weather can make it seem like it’s 1988 all over again. “When it rains, it’s incredible,” Tompkins said. “We have lines.”

Ironically, Insomniac — which offered the most drastic alternative to the chains — couldn’t weather the storm like the other survivors. But Whiteford does keep a foot in the movie world by hosting the KCBX radio show “Take Two” with Jim Dee, the owner of the Palm Theater. And this Sunday, he and Dee will introduce “The Night of the Hunter” during the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Still, memories of Insomniac are bittersweet.

“Some days I miss it — I won’t deny it,” he said.

“It was probably the best time in my life. On the other hand, it was too stressful, paddling against the tide when you’ve lost both oars.”

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