“I should be dead.”
That’s how John Taft casually shares the story of the 1986 car crash that sent him careening over a 50-foot cliff in Ojai when he was 18 years old. The impact snapped his back and temporarily paralyzed him from the chest down.
He should be dead, but Taft has a knack for surviving.
When he opened the first John’s Video Palace in 1988, Taft said, there were 10 video rental stores in Atascadero and there was plenty of business to go around. Thirty years later, he’s the “Last Man Standing.”
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“Like Bruce Willis,” Taft said, referencing the 1996 crime thriller.
Miracle on El Camino Real
On July 16, Blockbuster Video made national headlines when it closed two stores in Alaska. Now there is just one Blockbuster store open in the U.S. In 2004, six years before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010, there were around 9,000 in operation.
Movie rental stores, once as ubiquitous as shopping malls and pay phones, are now a rarity around the country.
But as more store closures add up, somehow, a few have managed to stay alive on the Central Coast — including Crossroads Video in San Luis Obispo and Evergreen Video in Orcutt — are the last holdovers from an era.
In a modern world filled with Redbox and Netflix and other mediums that make it easy to watch a movie almost anywhere, John’s Video Palace has survived for three decades by carving out a niche in the North County.
Playing the starring role in keeping the video store going is its quirky owner, a 50-year-old Paso Robles resident known for his low-budget commercials and fake Guy Fieri hair.
Shortly after his 1986 crash, with his mobility limited, Taft started working at his uncle’s video store. He fit right in. Taft loved movies and had been shooting his own since he was 10 years old.
Two years later, with the help of his parents, Taft moved from Ojai to Atascadero to open the first John’s Video Palace next to a Safeway grocery store. He opened a second store in Paso Robles in 1992; it’s located next to Albertsons on Niblick Road.
Taft walks up and down the aisles of his Atascadero store, located on Camino Real right next to Smart and Final, with a pronounced limp. But his love for movies is as healthy as ever.
“Sometimes I like to photoshop myself into the movie covers,” Taft explained as he grabbed a Blu-Ray copy of Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” off the shelf. The glowering green visage of Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Incredible Hulk in the movie, has been replaced by Taft’s grinning face.
One aisle over, Taft’s face has replaced that of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover of “Predator.”
His customers love it.
“John, I couldn’t say a better word about him. He helps you in every way,” customer Marge Ray said. “He’s so cool. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”
Taft, who employs around 10 part-time employees between the two stores, attributes much of his success to one thing: customer service.
“It’s one-on-one here,” Taft said.
He also thinks the rising costs of a trip to the movies — which is $43 for a family of four at the Galaxy Atascadero movie theater down the street — and higher cable costs have helped keep the demand for DVD rentals alive.
In the early days, Taft said, he separated himself from other stores because he refused to sell X-rated movies.
“Everyone carried (X-rated movies) because they were cheap and everyone made money. We said nope. People liked that. Small-town values,” Taft said.
Today, some people are drawn in by the simple nostalgia.
Memories of weekend trips to the video store rush back when they walk into the strip-mall time capsule filled with more than 8,000 movies for rent.
Movies that might never show up on a Netflix playlist sit next to new releases. Renting an old movie for two days will cost you $3, the same price he’s charged for the last 20 years.
Some of his most consistent customers are families that come in on Friday nights to pick out a couple of movies for the weekend.
“People that come in here are really happy. They are like ‘Oh my gosh a video store!’” Taft said. “This morning someone came in from San Diego and said, ‘Wooow.’ I said ‘What, they don’t have those down there?’ Big-city people won’t drive 30 minutes to a video store. But here, in a small town it’s five, 10 minutes away. It’s easy.”
On July 21, John’s Video Palace in Atascadero celebrated its 30th anniversary.
But unlike many of the movies in his store, he knows his store probably isn’t going to have a happy ending.
“I know we won’t be around much longer,” Taft said.
Video streaming services continue to expand and get cheaper. Netflix (130 million subscribers), Amazon Prime Video (26 million customers) and Hulu (17 million customers) have thousands of movies and TV shows, too, and they don’t require you to get off the couch.
“One guy said to me ‘DVDs are coming back.’ Really? Where, Alaska? Didn’t that one just shut down?” Taft said with a wry smile.
And rent isn’t getting any cheaper, either. Taft said he is exploring the possibility of moving into a smaller space sometime in the next year. He just wants to keep surviving.
“I will always keep a small video store,” Taft said. “The world needs entertainment. It’s tough out there and people need a break from reality so that’s what they do. They come here and rent a movie.”
John’s Video Palace
John’s Video Palace has two locations: 8120 El Camino Real in Atascadero, and 124 Niblick Road in Paso Robles. Both locations are open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For more information, call 805-466-5525 or 805-238-5525, or visit JohnsVideoPalace.com.