Business is booming. Limelight Video owner Donald Newton hasn’t seen crowds like this in his video-rental store for a long time. Unfortunately for Donald, these browsers have no intention of returning his rentals.
If you are surprised that Vancouver has any video-rental stores left, you can be forgiven. Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2011 and, increasingly, folks have been avoiding late fees by turning to streaming services like Netflix, which has slowly diminished the number of independents over the years.
Now, after 33 years in the business, Limelight Video at Alma and Broadway is closing for good on March 31, leaving a single independent owner in Vancouver.
The 74-year-old Newton has been an institution in the community since 1983 when he opened his first video-rental shop on Robson Street. This was back in the days when he stocked VHS and BETA and attended lavish video conventions in Las Vegas with the other store owners.
Today he is selling off his collection of more than 28,000 DVDs and 10,000 VHS cassettes.
“A part of this culture is dying. In some ways, it is convenient for people to sit at home and click their remote. And I understand that, but on the other hand there is a large group of people that prefer to interact with other people.”
He hopes that there is a revitalization movement coming but knows that if it comes, it will come too late for him.
Reflecting on his decades in the business, Newton remembers the crowd of people watching Michael Jackson: Thriller on the small cathode-ray tube television setup outside of his newly opened shop. He reminisces about the many young movie fans he’s hired over the years, including seven children from the same family. The familiar neon sign in front of the store will be shipped to an American exchange student that met his wife while working at Limelight.
Newton has been in his current location since 2001 where business was good until about five years ago, when he noticed a steady decline because of digital downloads and streaming. He attributes staying above water to his loyal customers, unique selection of films not available on the Internet, and knowledgeable staff. But it wasn’t enough.
Newton managed to outlast Blockbuster and Rogers (a point of pride for the otherwise humble shopkeeper), and just about everyone else in town but estimates that he needs to rent 4,000 to 5,000 movies a month to break even.
“You just can’t make it otherwise because five dollars a rental isn’t going to go very far when you are paying $8,000 a month in rent plus wages and all the other expenses running a store.”
Newton has sold more than 11,000 movies since putting up the going-out-of-business sign on February 7. He was surprised by the surge in business.
“It far exceeded my expectations. I thought we would just have to … throw them in the dumpster. So it has been kind of a pleasant surprise that there has been so much interest in movies.”
But he can’t help but wonder where these customers have been hiding.
“It is funny that people would come in and say ‘So sorry you are leaving.’ And then you would look in their file and they hadn’t been in in a year or two. And so, yeah. They finally discovered us.”
Newton’s store will be replaced by an upscale coffee shop in April. He hasn’t resigned himself to signing up for a Netflix account.
Last Man Standing
Darren Gay, owner of Black Dog Video, is the one man in town that Newton wasn’t able to outlast. Business is steady for Gay but he has no illusions about the direction he’s headed.
He confessed to having a Netflix account.
“I think there is room for everybody. I mean we have got the best collection of movies that you are going to find, you aren’t going to find on Netflix or anywhere else on the Internet. But they provide the convenience.”
Gay said he plans to keep going even though so many other shops went under.
“With everybody closed, we have seen an increase in business. There is enough people out there that still see the value in what we do and what we have. My goal is usually just to make it through the summer to make it to the fall. And that is just what I am trying to do this year.”
Gay has mixed emotions about the formerly active video-rental scene disappearing. “Being the last video store left in town is kind of bittersweet. I am very happy we are still here but there has been a lot of great stores that have closed. Employees that have been put out of work. There was a community.”
Part of Gay’s success may come from his unorthodox approach. He remembers making house calls to collect overdue movies. “I was mad that they didn’t return my movies. So I showed up at their house.”Gone but not forgotten:
While Black Dog’s video collection is precariously intact and Limelight’s selection is being sold off piece-by-piece, Vancouver’s legendary rental shop Videomatica preserved its collection after closing its rental business in 2011. Simon Fraser University received Videomatica’s documentaries and the University of British Columbia received the company’s 26,000 DVDs and Blu-rays, as well as 4,000 VHS cassettes.
UBC librarian Brenda Peterson said that preserving the collection is important because films often go out of print. The collection is also in the process of being digitized, foreshadowing the day when DVD players are extinct. UBC continues to add to the Videomatica collection, purchasing new titles as they are available.
Ironically, Videomatica continues to exist as a shadow of its former self, selling DVDs in a small corner at the back of Zulu Records. Sarah Bakke spends her days behind the counter of the tiny store within a store, willing customers to visit her and help make the $200-ish daily profit target set by store manager B.J. Summers.
Roll the Credits
Gay stopped the practice of making house calls because the creepiness put off customers – but he may have been on the right track.
As of March 17, 2016, Limelight Video’s outstanding late-fee tally was $28,386.02.
But Newton doesn’t have any plans to hire a bounty hunter to recoup his losses.
“We contemplated sending a guy with no neck to go and knock on people’s doors and demand payment. But we just missed that option,” he joked.
It is hard to avoid the what ifs. What if those people had returned their movies on time so that someone else could rent them out on that lonely Friday night? Newton says glumly that Limelight Video may have just been able to make it: for a month or two longer at least.