Richmond’s Blue Valentine

It’s one of the last remaining video stores in the city. One of the oldest in the country. But now Video Fan must find a way to surmount a crumbling business model, brought on by a cultural shift in how we consume entertainment. Richmonders, and even Hollywood celebrities, have long-appreciated this rare and unique store. What does it say about us if we let it die?

The door is wide open for me as I step in from Strawberry Street to hear Matt and Mark laughing. They are the two clerks working the counter tonight, Sunday, at The Video Fan, one of the country’s oldest (in the running for the oldest) continually-run video rental stores, located in the Fan. And now that Blockbuster in Carytown has closed, they are one of the last remaining video stores in Richmond. Matt and Mark have propped the door open to cool the store, allowing a May breeze to waltz into the store as it pleases.

The reason Matt, long brown hair and black t-shirt, and Mark, slender and tall and wearing an old baseball cap, are laughing is because flickering on the old, and definitely not high-def, television is the film House of D starring Robin Williams and directed by current Californication star David Duchovny. The scene that they, or rather we, as I am now staring at the screen along with them, are watching is one in which Robin Williams character hits a ball through a New York City apartment window while playing stick ball with a group of neighborhood kids in what seems to be the 1970’s. Atop the action of the scene, which involves an angry tenant vocalizing his displeasure and scattering children, is the director’s placid and drab voice. Matt and Mark have turned on the director’s commentary, and are in near hysterics at the mundane reflection on what they consider to be an already bad movie. A pause in Matt’s comical exploits allows him to fetch an item stored underneath the counter, what seems to be a piece of paper. It causes Matt to uproar in more infectious laughter. I try to glean what it is before he puts it away, but fail to see the inside joke for myself.

There are a handful of other people in the store with us. They, along with me, are browsing The Video Fan’s selection of movies, a collection that currently consists of 13,855 titles. Arrayed across the store’s shelves are empty DVD cases, to which are attached circular tags that renters bring to the counter, and are used to subsequently retrieve the actual movie from the back. As I wait to speak with the owner, Doug, my eyes peer across a section of new releases, a selection that is not as popular as most would think, as I will come to find out. After I’m done scanning the A’s, I come across the B’s, specifically the newly released Blue Valentine, a tragic and poignant story of love that whittled away. Attached to the top of the DVD box is a homemade sign indicating that it’s staff-recommended, one of the few to receive the in-house honor. A sense of shame bolts through my chest. I place the case back and deliberately move on to the C’s.

— ∮∮∮ —

After I first moved to Richmond in 2003, and after I discovered The Video Fan from someone who had lived in the city much longer than me, I would visit it with a regularity that rivaled the Sunday service attendance of many church-goers. Displayed along the walls of both its floors were movies, both DVD and VHS, that I had never seen before. Foreign, Comedy, Horror, Cult Classics, you name it. You could find anything at The Video Fan, especially when you, as I often did, ventured into the store blindly to be surprised by what the Gods of Film would decree that I should see.

“When I came in, this place was sort of in its heyday,” says Doug McDonald, owner of The Video Fan, which celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this past February. The heyday to which he refers is 2001, when he assumed ownership from the previous owner, Paula Demmert, who now runs Art Works. Even within the first five minutes of us speaking together I can confidently say he is one of the nicest people that I have ever met. He wears cargo pants, a t-shirt, and a dirty blond goatee that matches the hue of his short, curly hair atop his head. I inquired about speaking with him after realizing, a few nights prior, that I could not think of any competitor to the long-time video store. Any competitor, that is, except the Internet. “In wintertime, we had lines out the door,” he says, reminiscing about the not-so-distant past.

This not-so-distant past is radically different. “The world is changing,” says Doug. Changing in particular is the public consumption of entertainment, now dominated by the convenience of the Internet, and the growing phenomenon of video kiosks. Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and even Google continue to make movies accessible through our broadband connections without us having to leave our homes. When recent movies have yet to find their way into either provider’s collection, Redbox, a full service computer operated kiosk found outside 7-11’s and grocery stores, dispense movies like soda. All of these things have cut down the business that The Video Fan does, so much so that their second floor, once filled with foreign films, has now been cleared away to allow a business to move in so that Doug can subsidize the rent.

While Doug tells me this, I can’t help but gaze around me. I am not in the main room of the store, but in a narrow hallway that connects the front counter to a cramped office beyond the gaze of customers. Surrounding me are upright clear plastic DVD and VHS cases stretching from floor to ceiling. It feels as though I am in an ancient library of sorts. There is barely enough room when Matt briefly interrupts us to retrieve a movie that a customer has selected while Doug and I chat.

“[It] speaks to our culture,” continues Doug, referring to the convenience to which we are growing accustomed. “People don’t get out and do stuff anymore […] Everyday we become a more convenience-based society.” These are not the words of a scorned business owner who is unable to do anything as he watches his business model decay before him. He has accepted the inevitable: that The Video Fan will likely close one day. But that’s not what unsettles him. “I don’t have anything against the convenience of it,” he says. It’s the lack of social connections that concerns him.

It’s the same concern that Randy Thomas has, a current employee of The Video Fan. “If you’re interested in movies, [we] will talk to you.” He tells me that, when he was younger, he got into music by being in a music store. He learned from others. But with increasing frequency, art and entertainment is becoming digital. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we change socially,” says Randy. He’s not referring to the store, but to people at large. But he is not angry at the course that society is on. He’s accepted it. “It’s the inevitability of life.”

“We have a huge library of knowledge,” says Doug, speaking of those who work for him. Even the comedic censure of House of D by Matt and Mark comes from a respect, appreciation, and, indeed, extended knowledge of cinematic celluloid. Netflix and Amazon and iTunes can recommend films to you, and are happy to do so to increase their bottom line. But that is done by a computer-generated algorithm. So mechanical. So impersonal. If, however, you come in and talk to Matt, who is a horror buff (although the Japanese use a far more respectable honorific, otaku), he can ask you about the styles and stories and other cinematic techniques to come to a better understanding of what you may like (even if you didn’t know you would like) in a horror film. Yes, should you rent that movie, it would increase The Video Fan’s business. But that’s not why Matt, or anyone else at The Video Fan, would discuss films with you. It’s because they love film more than any algorithm could. “That’s what embitters me the most,” says Doug, who even in his embittered state, keeps a cool about him that I envy.

“Anything where you go out to absorb something, art or entertainment, is starting to go away,” says Randy. As book stores, music stores, and video stores get phased out, he tells me, we lose a “social aspect.” This social aspect that Randy speaks of is very familiar to me, but yet very foreign. I mean, I rented regularly from The Video Fan, after all!

Years ago.

Perhaps as we become more used to consuming art and entertainment without having to venture into stores that employ people with a heightened expertise beyond our own, we are missing out after all. I think that Randy and Doug are on to something. But not only do we miss out on their insights and perspectives, but they, too lose their relationship with the thing, the very reason, for which they do what they do: us. People. They’ve certainly seen their fair share of us.

— ∮∮∮ —

As a store that proudly caters to all interests, The Video Fan takes in all walks of life. Many years ago there was the guy who would lick the video boxes to satiate his fetish. One day, he upped his sexual predilection. He ventured upstairs where there was a mannequin wearing underwear that the store had displayed solely for a laugh, adding to the many bizarre bric-a-brac that it has accumulated throughout the years. The man removed his clothes, and placed the mannequin’s underwear on his person. After leaving the store, an employee phoned the police to report the unusual pilfering. A short while later the police phoned back. We have your man. How do you know it was him, asked the employee? Because he was the only guy we saw wearing women’s underwear.

There is also the event known as the “Chihuahua Incident.” Since allowing dogs to venture into the store to browse along with their owners, the store has had several instances where man’s best friend has become involved in some sort of bizarre affair. This particular event involved a Greyhound snatching a chihuahua up in his jaws, using the propped-open door to his advantage and escaping with his spoils. Neither dog made it very far, and the Greyhound did not cause injury to its wee catch; it merely assumed it was a toy it could play with.

It’s this type of uniqueness that has attracted Hollywood celebrities to The Video Fan. When actors are in town filming their latest motion picture, or merely visiting the historic city, they’re often recommended to stroll into a store that can only be called a dying breed. There’s been Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. Paul Giamatti was, apparently, quite rude, and has still yet to return the Japanese film he rented (The Video Fan loses roughly two or three films per month due to a renter’s innocent negligence or deliberate filching). Those in the store regard Hillary Swank, however, as one of the most friendly actors to come in. It seems the appreciation for The Video Fan extends far beyond the Fan District to Hollywood.

“A lot of people really care about us,” says Doug, his eyes calmed by the reaffirmation that the remark provides. One of the most frustrating aspects of the store’s gradual decline in business is the inability to support local film festivals, such as the James River Film Festival and the Italian Film Festival. The Video Fan once financially supported their work. “At one point we had charity to give.” They are no longer in a financial position to do so.

Before Doug and I finish chatting, he shows me a piece of memorabilia that hangs in the office. It’s a roughly 11”x14” poster of Back to the Future , the classic movie starring Michael J. Fox. On it are two columns of sequentially-numbered blank lines. In the 1980’s, movie watchers would write in their names to pre-order a copy of a film before its official release. It now hangs in Doug’s office as a relic from a foregone era.

When he walks me out I can still hear Matt and Mark laughing as they watch House of D. I ask Matt to me show me what he was looking at earlier. He’s happy to pull out a photo of Robin Williams, unfortunate star of House of D, as Patch Adams, the famed eccentric doctor who once worked at an adolescent clinic at the MCV campus in the 1970’s, and who Williams portrayed in a film. In the photo, Williams has on a big red nose, gazing upward in a longing sort of way that even the most maudlin of hearts would find a tad over the top. Attached to the photo is Patch Adams’ signature and brief note of gratitude—not that of Robin Williams, but the real Patch Adams. A parade of laughter erupts from Matt.

— ∮∮∮ —

When I say good bye, and shake hands with Doug, I do not tell them what I will be doing later that evening. I am too ashamed to admit it. I undo my bicycle lock and head home. Atop my DVD player is a very recognizable red envelope from Netflix, inside it contains the movie Blue Valentine, which I selected several days ago. I would love to say that I would much rather have rented the movie from The Video Fan, a place that is as unique as Richmond, a place that is, to put it bluntly, dying because of people like me. But I fear that I am now a consumer motivated by convenience. I pedal on the ragged asphalt of the Fan’s roads. It’s quiet on Sunday, save for the occasional car and passing dog owner walking their pet before bed time. I think of something that Doug told me earlier, not so much about The Video Fan itself, but how the store represents us as a social, communicating people, who are often dependent upon others to attain both knowledge and appreciation of the world around us, even the simplest parts, like a good movie:

“It’s going to suck when we’re gone.”


Photos by Mel Kobran

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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