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Please Rewind

After 20 years and an industry overhaul, the Video Fan is still a defining bit of local color.


The other movies on the Top 10 bespeak the tastes of the patrons. If it is uniform in anything it is unpredictability: "Down by Law," "Caligula," "Clerks," "Reservoir Dogs," "Blood Simple," "Eraserhead" (score two for David Lynch!), "Brazil," "Monty Python's The Holy Grail." Last, and maybe least: "9 1/2 Weeks."

Before the Internet Movie Database and Netflix made everyone a film buff, Richmond's window to the world of obscure movies like the ones above was the Video Fan. For many it still is. "They would have been out of business a long time ago if they didn't carry those films," says former owner Paula Demmert. She opened the Video Fan with partner John Giannini (her cousin) 20 years ago this year. The store recently celebrated with a dinner party at the Italian restaurant Mamma 'Zu, another longtime Richmond business.

Demmert, 44, is an artist by trade, a photographer. She co-owns Art Works Inc., the gallery in Manchester. She sold the Video Fan five years ago to an employee, because, she says, "I was just ready to do other things."

Opening the store was not as big a deal as selling it. Video stores are sort of a family business, Demmert explains. Her father owned a chain of them in New Jersey when Demmert decided to open hers. "He had a formula," she says, "and all the connections to make it easy for us to do it. And it's movies, which both [Giannini and I] loved."

If its Top 10 seems stuck in time, it's because the Video Fan pretty much is, too. A customer from 1986 could walk in and find the store is pretty much the same. It still uses a quirky tag system to keep track of its shelved inventory. (If you are a Richmonder making your first visit, it can be confusing. Customers do not take the box up to the counter to rent, but a small disc with the name of the movie written on it hanging on a hook attached to the box.)

A suggestion box still sits on the counter filled with memorabilia both wondrous and strange. The store still offers a free box of popcorn popped in an antique popper with each rental. The cost per rental, $2.65, is the same as it was the first day. (Rental prices are an economic anomaly in the entertainment business. Though movie tickets have as much as tripled over the past 20 years, their counterparts at the video store haven't gone up very much despite dramatic changes in technology and competition.)

Demmert — and to a slightly lesser extent Giannini, who left after the first seven years to study wine in California — was on hand to battle the new developments in the video-store industry. After DVDs came along, new Internet companies began delivering the discs to customers' doorsteps, with individual rental charges replaced by monthly membership dues. When the superstores arrived they fought back, usually offering longer rental periods.

Before leaving, Demmert saw the business through its only major renovation in the late 1990s, which opened the upper floor to ever-multiplying mazes and towers of shelves bursting the small building's seams. Mega retailers such as Blockbuster have to make room for multiple copies of the latest blockbuster. They neither have the space nor, presumably, the inclination to keep every little title that rents once or twice a year. The Video Fan, on the other hand, hardly ever gets rid of anything.

Space is still an issue to Doug McDonald, the employee who bought the business from Demmert. He and his manager have to dedicate a day every month to pushing titles around and finding new space. The occasional exception, McDonald says, is something that hasn't been rented for about 12 years.

When Demmert announced her decision to sell, McDonald, now 34, spent weeks worrying that his beloved place of employment would fall in the hands of uncaring, profit-first business types. Befitting the nature of the store, he did not summon the courage of an action-movie hero and snatch up the enterprise right away. It happened more like a scene out of "The Squid and the Whale." The idea of buying the store didn't occur to him until his girlfriend got tired of his hand-wringing and suggested it. McDonald bought the business, then bought the building and married the girl.

The VHS tape is going the way of the 8-track, and to the farsighted the DVD already looks as doomed to downloadable digital as the CD. There is no shortage of newspaper and magazine articles wondering about the future of the movie-rental business big and small, and praising the few independent holdouts that carry on, like the Washington D.C. area's Video Americain. The six-store chain, founded in 1988 (two years after Video Fan), and others like it were recently praised by the Washington Post as a cross between the Library at Alexandria and the record store in "High Fidelity," only, the article continued, "with customers arguing about Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino instead of Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel."

Video Americain and Video Fan survived the evolution of giants such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video by offering a broader selection of titles. The Internet has upped the ante, with companies like Netflix promising almost unlimited selections delivered to your mailbox, with no late fees. The result: Independent video stores that once dominated the market now account for just 38 percent of North America's domestic video rental market, according to the Video Software Dealers Association.

There's a special synergy at the Video Fan that has kept it going all these years, say the people who've worked there. Demmert says it mostly has to do with the relationship between customers and the employees who tend to stay on for years. The movie IQ of the employees has become an important part of the store's success, Demmert says. They make recommendations to people who come in to rent, while educated customers, like VCU film instructor Mike Jones, come in to make recommendations for what they should carry.

"We've stayed alive because we cater to an independents sort of person," McDonald says, "people who are looking for foreign films, hard-to-find stuff, gay and lesbian themed films. I guess you can get that stuff now from Netflix and other online services, but you can't walk into a store. We're kind of the last place where you can come and get an educated opinion and walk out with something off the beaten path."

It's the reason for Video Fan's longevity. Video stores such as the Video Fan (or even Hollywood Video) don't make their customers browse for movies on a computer screen, something that would obviously save space, time and overhead. You can't take a date to Netflix. And you can't have a heated discussion over the best Cohen brothers film with your computer. There was a brief period of crisis during the transition between Demmert and McDonald when real estate developers sought to buy the building. (The previous owner had died, and his estate went up for sale.)

McDonald eventually won out. As did the neighborhood. After all, places like the Video Fan are what make neighborhoods neighborhoods. The walk-in video stores that manage to survive will be the ones that keep their sense of community. Video Fan has that stocked floor to ceiling. S

The Video Fan's Most-Rented

(And what section of the store they're in)

1. Blue Velvet (Cult)

2. Down by Law (Cult Director)

3. Caligula (Cult)

4. Clerks (Comedy)

5. Reservoir Dogs (Cult)

6. Blood Simple(Cult Director)

7. Eraserhead (Cult Director)

8. Brazil (Cult)

9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Comedy)

10. 9 1/2 Weeks (Drama)

11. Harold & Maude (Cult)

12. The Usual Suspects (Mystery)

13. Wings of Desire (Foreign)

14. Fargo (Cult Director)

15. Happiness (Cult)

16. Slacker (Cult)

17. Annie Hall (Cult Director)

18. The Silence of the Lambs (Mystery)

19. The Godfather (Drama)

20. Delicatessen (Foreign)

Ask a Film Snob

Name: Doug McDonald, 34 (owner)

Years at Store: 8-9

Favorite Director: Jim Jarmusch/Hal Hartley/Stanley Kubrick

Favorite Genre: Mystery

Most Overrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Jarhead"

Most Underrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "The Aristocrats"

Favorite Fun Movie: "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" (2004)

Farorite Movie Snob's Movie: "The Conversation" (1974)

Name: Dave Laduke, 30

Years At Store: 7

Favorite Director: Jan Svankmajer

Favorite Genre: Comedy

Most Overrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Crash"

Most Underrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Cowards Bend at the Knee"

Favorite Fun Movie: "Me, Myself, and Irene" (2000)

Farorite Movie Snob's Movie: "Underground" (1995)

Name: Mark Hutcherson, 32

Years At Store: 4

Favorite Director: Roman Polanski/Werner Herzog

Favorite Genre: Buddy Films

Most Overrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Crash"

Most Underrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Bubble"

Favorite Fun Movie: "Little Murders" (1971)

Farorite Movie Snob's Movie: "Andrei Rublev" (1969)

Name: Lucy Marion, 21

Years at Store: 1

Favorite Director: Wes Anderson

Favorite Genre: Foreign

Most Overrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Walk The Line"

Most Underrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Me and You And Everyone We Know"

Favorite Fun Movie: "Black Cat/White Cat" (1998)

Farorite Movie Snob's Movie: "Gummo" (1997)

Name: Erin Housholder, 30

Years at Store: 5

Favorite Director: Jan Svankmajer

Favorite Genre: Foreign

Most Overrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Crash"

Most Underrated New Rental (Last 6 Mos.): "Junebug"

Favorite Fun Movie: "Clash of the Titans"

Favorite Movie Snob's Movie: "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover"

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