Citizens of Richmond, VA have the opportunity to shop at a true gem of a video store, staffed by passionate employees who believe in the significance of the store they call home. The Video Fan lives up to its name by bringing unbridled enthusiasm for all things cinema to the public. We spoke to Andrew Blossom to get some answers on what keeps this independent business going.
How long has Video Fan been in operation?
The Video Fan opened in 1986. A co-worker and I were recently playing a VHS of One Crazy Summer in the store when it dawned upon us the movie and our store are basically the same age.
Is your ability to survive built around the culture of Richmond or would you be able to operate this same store elsewhere with the same results?
Richmond is essential to the Video Fan and to its continued survival. We’re located in a part of Richmond known as The Fan. From the start, where we are has been a part of who we are. Hopefully, it goes without saying that we’re also big fans of video and video store culture, and so are our customers. But first and foremost, we’re named for our neighborhood.
The Fan is largely residential, which means we’re surrounded by the houses of many of our customers. Of course, customers come from all over Richmond and the surrounding counties. But for a lot of folks, the distance from their living rooms to our front door is pretty short, which I think is part of our appeal.
Plus, Richmonders tend to be great supporters of local business. If you think of the many trends that have threatened to destroy independent video stores over the decades—mom-and-pop-killin’ chains, on-demand cable, DVDs by mail, automated dispensaries, the rise of online content—Video Fan has managed to weather all these forces, even if we’ve ended up a little bruised for it. And that’s largely because our core customers put a value on the experience of coming to see us. Hopefully they do so because we’re doing something right, or because our continued presence means something to them. But the simple fact so many people choose to make the effort says a lot about Richmond’s character, and about its centrality to our survival.
That said, everyone at Video Fan is a firm believer in video stores. We’d all like to think a store with a collection like ours and a loyal clientele could still make a go of it most anywhere. It’s one reason I’m personally heartened by the success of Viva Video in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. But if you were to pick up this particular store and put it anywhere else but Richmond, it wouldn’t be quite the same.
What sort of experience are you trying to create for a customer who enters your store?
Our basic mandate remains the same as in 1986. We want to make the newest releases available to our customers, and beyond that we want to maintain and offer an extensive, diverse catalog of movies, particularly movies the average customer might not be able to find elsewhere—foreign films, documentaries, cult favorites, weirdo titles. Titles that have never been released in any format but VHS. Titles that are no longer available in any format, period. We want people to be able to rent Rubin and Ed or Voyage of the Rock Aliens. Believe me, we want that!
And we want to be a space where customers feel comfortable seeking out movies, talking about them and celebrating them. Where people can spend a couple of hours browsing obscure titles or stop in for a few minutes and watch Deadly Prey or Spooky Buddies or whatever happens to be playing in the store. Lately, that’s meant a lot of the Everything Is Terrible! Holiday Special.
So that’s the day-to-day goal. I think there’s a secondary goal as well. It’s not like we sit around philosophizing about this, but if I can try to express it crudely: everyone who works at Video Fan was a customer before they became an employee. Everyone who works there at this moment also works at one or two other jobs—which makes us not unlike a lot of other people, but still, my point is we all make space in our lives to work at the store and keep it moving forward. And this is because the Video Fan was important to us long before we ever started working there, and because independent video stores have been important, formative spaces for us, period. If you’re a film lover of a certain age, and you think back on the crucial role video stores have played in your lives and in the formation of that love, why wouldn’t you want to share that opportunity with as many people as possible for as long as possible? The most likely answer is because you don’t work at a video store. But we do! We still get to! And so we’re trying.
How has the movement towards online delivery of filmed content effected your business?
It’s had the effect you might expect. As I mentioned above, we have consistently loyal customers, and Richmond has shown a great willingness to support us. That said, it’s just not the same as the 1980s or 1990s or even the early 2000s—you know, when everyone went to video stores, and everyone who cared about film and video and watching as much of it as possible sought out their local independent store. And it will never be that way again. As the options for home viewing have multiplied, and as corporations have become increasingly aggressive about marketing those options to customers—well, it’s certainly impacted our business, and made for some dead nights at the store.
On the other hand, we sign up new accounts every day. In part, this is just a benefit of being located in a city with three universities—new people are coming to town all the time, many of whom are movie lovers.
We’ve also stuck it out long enough to realize that people’s relationship to online media moves in waves. In about 2010, everyone seemed just gaga over the relatively new phenomenon of Netflix’s streaming service, and our business started to get really thin. Then Blockbuster declared bankruptcy, Netflix infamously split their services and raised their prices, and Starz canceled Netflix’s access to their back catalog. And boom, people were back at the Video Fan in numbers that have stayed pretty consistent ever since. I think that was a real moment in which the technology of the future demonstrated the future was not always going to be as cool or as consistent as it promised.
These days, we continue to see new or returning customers who are fed up with Netflix. And it’s not like there have been any crises for Netflix lately. In fact, that company is innovating, in terms of original content. Yet on a weekly basis, we get customers who are frustrated by the limits of the service and who want to have access to a catalog like the Video Fan’s again. For me, this really underscores a problem with the idea of video stores going away for good—when there’s no more physical media being made, and no more venues to access what physical media still exists, where will people go when they’re dissatisfied with online providers? The corporations will be able to do whatever they want in terms of pricing, content and access. And the viewer will be stuck with those decisions.
Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
At the risk of sounding highfalutin’, I really believe video stores act as cultural repositories. And I particularly mean independent stores like the Video Fan and other great locations you’ve interviewed for this column, places that have been open and collecting material for decades. Excepting university libraries and film archives, there’s really not another space in our culture where people can access so much of film and video history so easily. And when that sort of space is gone, it will be gone for good. It’s not like some new form of it is going to come along and fill the void, particularly not after corporations decide to stop manufacturing physical media altogether. (Which they will someday, although I for one don’t think that day is coming as soon as people predict. Hopefully, this means plenty of good years left for video stores who are able to hang in there.)
There will always be options online, but as I said above, I really believe those options are going to prove more limited and ephemeral than people foresee when there aren’t physical spaces to supplement them. Nor do online services allow viewers the basic social benefits of video stores—although it’s funny to put it that way—you know, getting out of the house, seeing other people, discovering new titles while browsing, talking to staff, getting recommendations, recommending movies to others. Online algorithms just can’t provide a substitute for that, as almost anyone who’s tried relying on them can attest.
At the Video Fan, the social aspect of things has always been important to us. There’s always been a feeling to the place that once you stepped through the door, you were among friends. Maybe you’d run into someone you hadn’t seen in ages, someone who was off of your own beaten path. In busier days, the store used to be so crowded that people would literally bump into one another and start talking. We’ve seen friendships begin at the Video Fan, romances and even marriages. I’m sure a few divorces as well. These days, things have thinned out, and everyone seems to be looking at their phones half of the time. But I still think the Video Fan maintains that identity as a social space. Those of us who work there try to make sure it does. It’s a place to find movies, but also a place to see other people. And I wonder how many more of those spaces we really need to lose.
Before I go, I want to say one more thing, slightly off topic. You know what phenomenon I’ve really enjoyed seeing in the last couple of years? A lot of our college-aged customers were born in 1990 or later, which means they’re just young enough they never had VHS while growing up—or if they did, it was only in their very early childhoods. At the same time, these kids have almost always had access to the internet, and therefore to internet piracy. And do you know what they want to rent? VHS tapes! If we have a movie on DVD and VHS, they’ll opt for the VHS. They maintain collections at home and go to thrift stores in search of them. When I’m out trying to find VHS goodies for the store, I’ll often run into Video Fan customers of this age. Maybe I’m grasping at straws here, but for some reason, this gives me hope.