Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Movie Madness (version 2.0)

As I was out to-ing and fro-ing a week or so ago, I ran into one of my old customers. That isn't so unusual for me. I've worked with the public in one way or another in every job I've had and when you live in such a small town in such a small county as I, you sort of get to know everyone after a while. This was a customer from a video store I owned a few years ago. It was called Movie Madness. It operated for three years before bowing to the inevitable. Before opening it, I'd worked for four years at another video store in town, so I'd put in quite a few years in movie rentals before I had to pack up my ruck and call it a day. When I closed, a lot of my younger customers had been renting from me since they were kids.

The fellow I saw on the day in question was among them. I hadn't seen him since I'd closed up my shop three years ago. I remembered him well. I just couldn't remember his name! He remembered me and my name very well, and you'd have thought, from his reaction upon seeing me, that he was some crazed fan who'd just randomly encountered whatever rock star to whom he secretly built shrines in between stays at the local mental health facility. He was very pleased to see me.

I was pleased to see him. I run into my old customers all the time--practically any time I'm out in public. I'm always particularly glad to see the old customers from my Movie Madness though. The store was an impossibility. I opened it in a rundown old building with $2,600, and ran it on a shoestring from opening to closing. Ultimately, it failed but I did give it a sweet try for a few years there and my customers were the ones who made it possible. There are a lot of good people among them. I'm grateful to all of them.

Well, all but the ones who stole my movies. Not so big on those.

Thankfully, this old customer wasn't among that mercifully small group. He was a diehard loyalists and he wanted me to know how much he missed me and my Movie Madness. Expression of this heartache was practically the first things out of his mouth. The next was about how there's no cool place like Movie Madness to go to anymore.

I'd tried to make my Movie Madness a place that would provoke that sort of reaction. Not just a sterile, impersonal rental house but a sort of shrine to cinema, the way video stores had been when I was younger and they first began popping up. When I was a child, access to movies was very limited--you saw them when they were making the theaters, caught whatever ran on television and that was about it. And then came VHS. In the Dark Age days before cable had penetrated my neck of the rural outback and satellite dishes were exotic structures the size of small autos (and just as expensive), a trip to the video store was a special thing indeed for a young cinephile. The stores were all independently owned and featured a remarkable diversity of films, much more so than in the years that would follow. You got to know whoever ran the place and they were usually movie lovers, too--it's why they were in the business. As they learned your tastes, they could point you to a dazzling array of fine films you'd never seen and often, of which you'd never even heard. Vigorous movie-watching became part of the culture (a change that is little appreciated today) and browsing the aisles, you ran into other people from around town and you'd kick recommendations back and forth between you. Sometimes, you'd just pull odd items off the shelf that looked interesting and even if you were burned by them two times out of three, the one that clicked made it seem worth the dig. When I built my Movie Madness, I think I wanted to make a place that was sort of like that, a place that would build a loyal base, and that would advertise itself.[1]

Because of money--more particularly, because of my lack of it--my Movie Madness was necessarily limited, to a significant degree, by the bounds of popular taste. A big part of its budget was consumed, every week, by whatever the new, popular material was at the time. That's what pays the bills at any video store. Still, I tried to make of it something different and special, even working within those limitations.

One of the ways I made the place my own was through my selection of older films. I'd been assembling Movie Madness in my basement for years before there was ever any store or even the name.[2] When I first hung out my shingle, video libraries had all but disappeared. When everything went from VHS to DVD (a process still underway at the time I opened), those older movies--all on VHS--were bundled up and sold for whatever they'd bring, with no effort to convert popular older titles to disc. It wasn't uncommon to go into a video store and discover it didn't carry a single title that was over three or four years old, with most being of much more recent vintage. Older movies are lower return items but they're also cheaper. I wanted my library to be part of my hook, a thing that marked my store as different and that drew people in. With no real libraries around, my thinking went, I could fill a vacuum. Much of my library of older films was carefully chosen. I went for cult films [3], classics, movies that were good but little known, those kind of movies about which people have always heard but haven't gotten around to watching and, encompassing all of these concerns, I wanted quality movies to which I, personally, could mate viewers. For the longest time (before I'd opened), I wanted to call my store "Video Eclectica," but there was no way that would fly in a small town in Georgia. Even if people could pronounce "eclectica"--which they couldn't--they'd have no idea what it meant (Yeah, I made up the word but I insist its meaning is plain).

Throughout my Madness years, I always sought out new old stuff whenever I was making a little money. Film cultists swoon over the things I'd dig up but odd items caught the attention of Joe Average renter too. I had the old original NOSFERATU, magnificent silent German Expressionist fare from 1922. Conventional wisdom says you can't pay people to take silent films, especially in the culturally desolate environs in which Movie Madness stood, but this particular version was the Arrow release scored by the music of Type-O Negative. I rented it like gangbusters! One guy even gave me a $20 tip after seeing it, just, he said, for having such a cool store.[4] I had REEFER MADNESS and THE COCAINE FIENDS, infamous, unintentionally hilarious anti-drug films from the 1930s--I stocked them in the comedy section. People loved them. I had PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Ed Wood's wonderfully incompetent anti-epic. It was in comedy too and it was so popular it was stolen. Not once, but twice. As much as it made for me, I didn't mind buying it three times.

Many of the sections in which I divided my library reflected its eccentricity.

I had a section devoted entirely to ancient world "Epics"--nothing but sword-and-sandal flicks and Roman empire-related titles. I had a great (and extensive) section devoted to films based on comic books. My section marker was a great collage of comic characters (I designed all of the section markers, and my pal John printed them up). I had a "Film Noir" section, one of my personal favorite genres, and quite a nice selection of films, many of them from my personal collection. My marker for it was the cover of a Raymond Chandler anthology. I had sections devoted to the old cliffhanger serials (which I've always loved) and to Japanese anime. Never had much of either but they weren't that popular. I had an extraordinary "War Movies" section. No exaggeration, it would be easier to name the great war movies I didn't have than the ones I did. And where do you ever see a war movie section in a video store anyway? I had mine by way of my friend Darren, who made a deal with me to use his collection in return for half of whatever they made in rentals (he provided me with several other good flicks too).

Even the "normal" sections of the store were marked by eclectic selections. My Western section was made up of things like spaghetti westerns, the complete KUNG FU series (GREAT show from my youth, released to DVD in the years I was in business), Sam Peckinpah's blood-drenched sagebrush sagas and so on. My tips of the hat to "normal" were things like the YOUNG GUNS flicks (very popular), and even a copy of HIGH NOON (a great movie no one ever rented). My section-marker was a black-and-white Clint Eastwood from THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES with "Western" written over him in red Marlboro font. Over the rack on which they stood, I had a reproduction of a great poster from Enzo Castellari's KEOMA (also available to rent). My children's movies were marked "Kids' Stuff," and, again, odd choices. The animated LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, the Betty Boop collection and so on.The section-marker for "Sci-Fi" had a then-new image of the surface of Mars taken by a Russian craft--I downloaded it, made the marker out of it and had it on foam-board over my sci-fi films within three days of it being taken. I had a "Fantasy" section too, where roamed Ray Harryhausen, THE ODYSSEY, CONAN THE BARBARIAN. My collection of softcore "Skinemax" type movies and most of the films that ended up being "unrated" or NC-17ed for sex were posted under a section labeled "Lovin'." I had a great section marker featuring a cut-away of Shannon Whirry obviously enjoying the attentions of some beefy fellow and the words "Lovin'", in a very ornate font to the side. I put up my section devoted to wrestling and Ultimate Fighting events on a large rack beneath the "Lovin'" films, in a section marked "Fightin'," which had, as a marker, Popeye, fresh from eating a bait of spinach and charging into action. Lovin' and fightin' in the same place. The stuff of life![5] My "Horror" section was to die for. There was quite a bit of good horror being released when I was open. DOG SOLDIERS, WRONG TURN, the GINGER SNAPS trilogy, 28 DAYS LATER, CABIN FEVER. I had Jesus Franco flicks, Jean Rollin, when a lot of it was out of print[6], and lots of Italians, alongside Roger Cormans and Herschell Gordon Lewises and George Romeros and John Carpenters, among a plethora of great, obscurities I'd found.

DVD brought forth the proliferation of "special editions" and "director's cuts" and "unrated" or "expanded" versions of movies. When there was one available, I always tried to get the nice edition. Most people didn't care but my core clientele of cinephiles certainly appreciated it. I wanted them to have the longer editions of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies, not just the radically shortened theatrical releases all the other stores had. A new, much revised release gave people who has already seen the films a reason to rent the new version. I made a fortune on UNDERWORLD in its original version; when the unrated, extended edition was released, I got it too and made another fortune.[7]

When people rented my movies, I stuck the boxes back on the shelf with a rubber band on them and a big tag with some silly, irreverent message indicating their absence, most of them reflecting periods of boredom when no one is coming in and one has a little time to concoct silly, irreverent messages. If a Schwarzenegger movie was rented, the tag indicating it read--what else--"Ah'll be back!" If it's a sad movie, it will be something like...

A Western or other guy picture might get this...

A more generalized one...

Most were general, and could be stuck on anything. "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I've been rented/ But not by you"; "Already gone"; "I ain't here"; "Gadzooks! I've been drafted!"; and so on. Better, more clever ones too, but I don't, off the top of my head, remember them. I'd suggested doing something like this at a previous store at which I'd worked and the idea had been vetoed on the grounds that people might be offended. No one ever expressed offense at my tags. A lot of people laughed at them though. A few customers even provided new ones. I kept a pile of blank tags on the counter where they checked out so they could add to the pile if they came up with a good one.

I had lots of great posters and other images all over the store. I had a reproduction of a German poster for James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, a reproduction of an old 1933 KING KONG poster and the long one-sheets of CASABLANCA, OUT OF THE PAST, and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Contemporary posters for new movies as they came out as well but not so many of those. In my horror section, I had a Gil Elvgren print of a witch--actually, one of Elvgren's typical smiling beauties in witch duds riding a broom that is visibly tied up with a string. Once, a customer who turned out to be a fellow fan of the old pin-up artists decided he simply had to have it. I sold it to him and had another copy of it in its place within a few days.

I had lots of other things hanging around the store, as well. A poster recounting the Golden Age origin of the Batman. Another doing the same for the Golden Age Superman. Plenty of things like this, too...

And many iterations on my logo. The logo was designed by a very old friend of mine (thanks, Allen). It was going to be a character I'd just called "the Doc" and I told him to make it a mad scientist in a Peter Lorre/Dexter's Laboratory vein. It was great:

I had a more-than-life-size Doc on the front of the store and those coming in the back--most people, because that's where the parking-lot was--were greeted by a 4-foot stand-up Doc, mounted on coreplast, again by my friend John, who, after a while, did all of my printing, including banners, flyers, business cards, and my little newsletters I'd write and put in various locales around town. He only ever got, for his troubles, whatever movies he wanted. And he didn't even want a lot of those.

My first location (and the one where I spent all but the last year of the store's run) was an old house. There was  a small porch off the back door, which, as I said, is where most people entered. It had a huge cherry tree growing beside it. When they were in season, this meant all the cherries one wanted. It also meant a mess, though, when they ripened and dropped off on to the porch--I had to keep them swept off so they weren't crushed and tracked in. I had my punk-rock night-drop box on that same door--a milk crate with a pillow on it, nailed to the door under a mail-drop slot. For some reason, people found this endlessly amusing. The place had a bricked-up former fireplace with a mantle off to the side of where I'd put my long counter. I turned it into a shrine to Dr. Shock, a local late-night horror host in Chattanooga who had delighted me as a child:

Early in putting together the store, I tried to track down Dr. Shock (whose real name was Tommy Reynolds), in the hopes of arranging a personal appearance at the store. Never could find him though. He was apparently in Alabama at the time and he died a few years later. I never got to meet him.

I also sold comics out of a back room; they're another passion of mine. I had an old-fashioned spinner-rack up front, stocked, perhaps appropriately, with older books. The comics didn't sell very well in the store but I sold a ton of them on ebay. They were, in fact, what helped get the store through its first summer. Movie rentals wither in the heat of the summer and while the comics didn't bring in a lot, they added enough that it was like getting an extra week out of  each month.

The blood that kept afloat my cash-anemic project flowed from my customers and I loved them.[8] I ran the store myself, and made it a point to interact with everyone who came in. They became like friends and family. I always kept a cooler of drinks in the front for anyone who wanted one. I had a small dinner-table in the front room; sometimes I'd feed folks who were a little down on their luck and maybe couldn't feed themselves and sometimes food was for people who had done me a favor, ran an errand for me when I couldn't get away and so on.[9] I got to know a fellow named Dmitri who had opened a pizza shop a short walk from me. The location was new to him but he'd been in business for a while and was sympathetic to the new kid on the entrepreneur's block. One day, I told him the tale of who gets fed and he told his people to give me a 2-liter Coke any time I bought pizza, free of charge! I never got to do anything to repay him (except, of course, buy his pizzas and say "thank you" in a blog post years later).

The real cheese-and-pepperoni of my Movie Madness though, was always movies. I love movies. At Movie Madness, I got to talk about them all day and get paid for it. Paid a little, anyway. Some of my customers would stick around for hours yakking about them. A large part of my solid customer base was younger people and because I was knowledgeable and passionate about movies, many of them came to regard me as some sort of film guru, which, for whatever reason, always seemed to amuse me. People would pick a movie from my store, ask me if it was any good, then find it hilarious if I told them it sucked. I never misled anyone for the sake of a rental. They often rented the ones I dissed anyway. Sometimes they didn't come back with sour "you told me so" looks. A lot of times, they did.

People would sometimes come by and talk about problems they were having with a DVD player or VCR or movie and I'd tell them to bring it over. I installed some DVD players and explained their workings to those who found them mysterious and I got to be pretty good at fixing things. The town mayor was my neighbor, and his wife once brought over a pair of movies on VHS, one of which had broken free of one of its reels and one of which had been left in the car in the sun and had melted into something that barely resembled its previous form. I gave the latter a full body transplant from an identical tape I had laying around and patched up the former. She was so pleased she gave me $20, which I did my best to refuse. In the end, she insisted, and I needed the money at the time too much to fight it to the last man.[10] That was the only time I ever accepted any payment for such business though. A friend once told me I was crazy to do those things free of charge. My view was that it made for better advertising than you could possibly buy and if I could install or fix someone's machine, they'd rent my movies. Whenever I would order things for people (which was pretty regularly), I always took a pretty small cut.

There are a lot of funny Movie Madness stories. My original location featured an ever-collapsing toilet. The floor was progressively falling in on one side of it but it was situated in such a way that fixing it would have been a major hassle. It still worked and didn't get much use, so I just let it be. Eventually, the best you could do, if you had to go, is one-cheek it and hope. The building was rigged for gas heat but I couldn't afford to have the town gas-line connected, which meant a constant struggle to keep the drafty old place warm in the winter. My best solution was kerosene but there was never a good solution. It was always a lot warmer inside than out but in the colder parts of winter--the prime movie rental season--the warmer-blooded of my customers became fond of my big heater. There was also the underhanded hijinks of the competition, who, at one point, launched a whisper-campaign aimed at suggesting I was running a porn shop! I thought this quite amusing at first. When skeptical parents kept their teens away while a lot of the new customers were shady guys in metaphorical raincoats looking for porn that wasn't there, not so much. Well, the guys in raincoats were funny. Not what the rumors did to my bank account though. In a sense, I got the last laugh--I outlasted those who started that bit of trouble.

Some years ago, a Movie Gallery had moved into town and helped kill off the local independents. I was the only one to open my doors after they arrived on the scene, and the last holdout to fall after they'd finished off everyone else. Mine is a small town but it used to support five video stores. Now, there's only Movie Gallery.

And, as my old customer I saw a few days ago put it, "Movie Gallery sucks."

In a very real sense (and to borrow the old cliche'), an era ended with my Movie Madness. I put up the best fight I could with what I had.

I sometimes doubted myself on that point though. Was I really putting up the best fight? I would often walk the length of my store and wonder if I'd made it too eclectic. Too much like me. Was I hurting business by making a trip through my library too much like a trip through a corner of my own mind? I could never entirely convince myself it didn't hurt me but I did lean that way. Being so different probably helped me hold out as long as I did. It was an unique place. My customers seemed to find my enthusiasm infectious. I developed a strong cadre of clients to prove it, many of whom even followed me when I had to move the store out to the styx for its last year of business,[11] and when I run into them today, they're still going on about the place. There just weren't enough of them. And, really, who cares if I did do any harm by making the store my own? I ran into another of my old customers online last week and, talking with her, I came to realize something about my Movie Madness that should have been obvious to me all along:[12] It was more than just a store. It was art. I've always been an artist, not a businessman. Movie Madness was, in a very real sense, one of my works. A personal one.

Well, this has been a bit of a rant and on what must seem a bit of a strange subject. I started my Movie Madness because I thought it would make the money I needed to fund things I really wanted to do. This is hilarious in retrospect--I barely made anything at it. I do think I created something unique and worthwhile. And if my own film projects ever get off the ground, it will be through the efforts of people I met through my Movie Madness, so in a sense, it helped "pay" for those projects after all. I don't think I'd ever want to go back and do it again. Well, that isn't exactly true. I'd love to do it again. One of these days, maybe someone will come up with a way to run a business like that without the incredible amount of stress my Movie Madness involved.[13] If that ever happened, I'd jump back into it in a second. Seems pretty unlikely though. The age of the independent video store is, unfortunately, over, now. It really was a lot of fun while it lasted.

And I did finally remember your name, George. Don't hold it against me that I forgot.

Forgive me if this has been boring. It's just something I did with my life for a while.



[1] Word-of-mouth really is the most valuable advertising. When I opened, I had a massive box of flyers printed. I don't remember how many--probably a thousand or two. They acted as a coupon on a rental. I, my friends, my family, and whatever other poor souls I could rope in handed out flyers. We put flyers in the local businesses. We hung flyers. We taped flyers to mailboxes. We coated the world in flyers. In all the years I was in business, I got exactly one customer from all of those flyers and all that effort. There was, on the other hand, one guy who lived not far from my store. He was a real movie buff--came in with his girlfriend, fell in love with the place, told all his friends. I probably got a dozen regular customers from him. Thanks, Jerry.

[2] I'd put in four years working at a place called Dynamite Video, right next door to where I'd ultimately open my own. At one point toward the end of that job, one of my customers approached me about teaming with him to open a new video store in town; I'd run it and he'd be the bank. I did some initial work toward this end, putting together some numbers and so on, but he ultimately had to pull out over money--his wife, pregnant with twins, had just been put to bed by her doctors a few months before her due date. But I kept working on the project from time to time anyway, thinking maybe I'd take it up myself at some point. When Dynamite closed its doors, I went for it, with a little borrowed money and my income-tax refund for that year.

[3] Film cultists are choice customers. They want to see BLAZING SADDLES or MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL for the 10,000th time. They're predictable and profitable, so I tried to find and stock as many Blazing Saddles and Holy Grails as I could (and to spend as little on them as possible). These renters also multiply well; they talk up these movies so much that they make people who have never seen them want to see them, and I got their business too.

[4] Thanks, Jason.

[5] Those softcore flicks were the most popular item with thieves--during my years in business, I lost more from that section than all other sections of the store combined.

[6] My preference for obscurities meant I had a lot of movies on the shelf that, over time, went out of print. Incredibly stupid--setting myself up for theft--but I was fortunate enough to never lose one of them, and cinephiles certainly appreciated me for having them. The closest I ever came to losing one was the 1980 version of FLASH GORDON. It had run out of print for a time, and one day, a fellow called rather desperately searching for it. He turned up at my door, near orgasmic over the fact that I had it. He kept it a lot longer then he was supposed to have. I had to call him a few times. He did finally--maybe reluctantly but at least graciously--bring it back.

[7] I also had it in the back of my mind that having all these nicer editions would make the library worth more, if I ever wanted to sell it. I never got to sell it.

[8] And I still do, Adrian, Melanie, Bryan, the Jerrys, Jason, Deforest, Christy, Gerard, Mike who helped me through an inventory crisis, among a great many other things, Darren who delivered my movies every week, sometimes fed me and was always there when I needed help, my cousin Julie who made some "Movie Madness" t-shirts, my aunt Sherry who helped me out of a money jam with my early taxes and more others than I can fairly list, so don't even think about taking it as a sleight if I fail to mention you. You all made it happen. You're the greatest.

[9] And sometimes, they'd bring me food and other goodies. Once, one of my regulars brought me some exceptionally good barbecued pork, right off the grill--thanks Bryan.

[10] Later, whenever the mayor and his wife would leave town, they'd get me to come over and feed their cat in their absence.

[11] That's what killed me off. I had to move because I could no longer afford my place in town. I moved into the back of a convenience store, an isolated commercial property in a remote area. Should have been a good move, but the new owners of the convenience store systematically ran it into the ground, thus running me into the ground.

[12] Thanks, Melanie.

[13] The part I definitely don't miss is the stress. There was never money for anything, and, for most of my time in business, I lived on stress sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, to the point that my health was adversely affected (I'm still living with the legacy of THAT). It became so ridiculous that the mere appearance of the mailman was enough to make my acid reflux kick in--the mailman meant bills I couldn't pay.

1 comment:

  1. This was a fun read. My favorite of your writings because with the Walking Dead, there were many times I felt they were written as an obligation instead of through a joy or passion, but this one was a nice look back at a time you'll never forget. It is too bad you could never quite escape the stress and thrive successfully from a financial standpoint. Still, I could tell, despite the stress and having to wing it when there was no cash supply on hand through creativity and ingenuity (and help from others), this time left some great memories.