Two and a half decades ago, you could not drive down a major thoroughfare in Winnipeg without passing a video store every few minutes. They had names like Adi's, Star Time, Bill's Video.
Don't bother with a Google Maps search. The only current address for those places is on memory lane.
In 1985, you could find approximately 100 dedicated video stores in Winnipeg, most of them mom-and-pop operations. By 1990, the number bumped to 120-plus, when adult video cracked the Winnipeg market.
Today, the number is closer to 13 ... or 17 if you count the four still-operating Source Adult Video outlets.
Try to phone many of the stores listed in the 2011 Yellow Pages under Video Movie Rentals -- Blockbuster, Pick-A-Flick, Phat Cat Video -- and more than half of them will tell you: "This number is no longer in service."
Responsible for the demise of many of the local mom-and-pop video stores were larger video store chains, especially Blockbuster Video (with its imposing wall of guaranteed new releases, which changed every week) and Rogers Video (which now rents movies out of only two locations).
John Tropak, 58, is the owner of three Video Cellar stores in Winnipeg, a business he established in 1984. He recalls a pitched business battle a decade ago when Blockbuster lived up to its name and erected a store near the St. Boniface Video Cellar on St. Mary's Road. "When I didn't go away, they dropped the prices of their new releases to 99 cents." Tropak says.
But he persevered, essentially engaging in a price war with the giant chain franchise. Tropak attributes the fact that he owns his store properties, plus aggressively priced retail products, to his eventually prevailing over Blockbuster when many independent stores folded.
In the past two years, those chains were themselves squeezed out by a combo punch of competition: The Internet service Netflix offers up a large selection of movies for a relatively cheap monthly fee. An assortment of Torrent sites offer pirated movies for nothing. Perhaps most devastating of all is the ease of VOD (video on demand) offered by cable companies. Replacing Blockbuster's New Releases wall, VOD offers the same selection without customers having to leave the comfort of their homes.
A few old-school video stores like Video Cellar survive. Video 1001, with its once-proud chain of seven stores, now occupies a modest single shop on the corner of Mountain Ave. and McGregor St.
By outlasting the chains, Tropak says the remaining video stores have a bigger market share. But he and Video 1001 store manager Ken Taylor agree it takes more than video alone to sustain a business. The Video 1001 location has a laundromat in a room once filled with shelves of VHS tapes, and it stocks grocery items and offers key-cutting service to augment the video biz, which represents "about 20 to 30 percent" of the store's income, according to Taylor.
Otherwise, the video store as we know it survives as a niche market.
Ir-Ben Entertainment, on Pembina Ave. in Fort Garry, entered the downward-sliding video business nine years ago and survives on the strength of the city's most extensive collection of animé, which attracts customers from all over the city and beyond.
Winnipeg's best and best known video store, Movie Village on the corner of Osborne Street and River Avenue appeals to hardcore cinephiles and went beyond the rental model with its buy-sell-trade policy. Within its walls, you could find a Blu-ray copy of Drive, but you could also score a Criterion edition of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring for rental or purchase.
But for how much longer? In December, the news that the Shoppers Drug Mart would be expanding into the Movie Village space was met with panic by the store's fans.
"I love Movie Village," says filmmaker and University of Manitoba film instructor Guy Maddin. "One could sift through all my tax receipts for the last quarter century and see the history of my relationship with the place, the history of my movie education."
Movie Village owner David Ringer could not be contacted for this story, but Movie Village clerks have been instructed to tell worried customers that if and when the building is sold, "we will be moving locations rather than closing down."
James Borsa is hopeful. The Movie Village clerk (and one of the city's most passionate cinephiles) says with the closing of all the big chain video stores, the market share has grown for Movie Village, with "about half a dozen" new members signing up for memberships every day.
Borsa says the DVD experience, especially the Blu-ray, makes for a more satisfying movie experience for the true movie nut, especially compared to downloads, illegal or otherwise.
"A lot of our (Movie Village) customers have Netflix or are illegally downloading off of Torrent sites, and they don't like the reception and they don't like the quality so they're still coming in to get the Blu-ray or the DVD," Borsa says.
"If you have a 42-inch high-def TV and then you've got some movie that freezes or stops or is terrible quality ... it just doesn't work."
And if Movie Village does fade away with all those other stores, squeezed out by a Shoppers Drug Mega-mart, the city's more famous cinephiles may mourn.
"I love its location in Osborne Village in that nice little cluster with the drug store, Safeway and the Liquor Mart," says Maddin.
"I regret that perfect balance will be upset. But I suppose the video store is in urgent need of reinventing itself, so I'm not sure how much outrage to feel if that reinvention is to be done at a new address.
"It's a very nostalgically sad situation, and now we must console ourselves with a far greater shampoo selection."
Grieving the passing of the video store
MOST Winnipeggers are untroubled by the dwindling number of stores in Winnipeg, writing them off as casualties to convenience. But some mourn their passing.
Amanda Stefaniuk, 30, is Uptown's DVD critic and the host of UMFM's Sunday radio show Mondo Hollywood. At the bottom of her weekly columns, she claims to have been raised in a video store. She is specifically referring to the late, lamented Oh Susanna Sunshine video store in Beausejour, which at its peak held a massive catalogue of some 20,000 movie titles.
"My parents Mel and Susan started renting videos in 1981, and because they only worked the store themselves, they often took us to work rather than paying babysitters," Stefaniuk says. "So my sister and I had the pick of any cartoon in the place, which we loved.
"But I also remember watching things on the in-store TV like the R-rated Class of 1984, so I think they just wanted us to keep quiet. They would also send us to the movie theatre next door on Saturdays for matinees, so I quickly became movie-obsessed.
"At one time, I wanted to watch every movie we had, but soon calculated that it would physically be impossible. So I kept working at the store after high school, and maybe being a bit inspired by Quentin Tarantino (who famously worked at Video Archives in Los Angeles prior to his breakout as a film director), I thought a video store made a better film school than an actual one."
The store burned down in July 2004, "just before the final demise of VHS," Stefaniuk says. But it left its legacy with her.
"I still love certain things about VHS -- the cool logos like Vestron and Paragon, the clamshell cases, but I've been spoiled by hi-definition TV and Blu-Rays to care about them anymore.
"And now I get to write about movies every week for Uptown, and I also have a radio show that features movie soundtracks every Sunday at noon, and I rarely have to go IMDb (Internet Movie Database), because I have all this crap in my head, all thanks to video stores."
James Borsa, 38, likewise harbours a sentimental love for the institution, nurtured in his youth when he would haunt video stores, inhale the plastic smell of those thousands of VHS tapes (and sometimes the popcorn made on the premises of stores like Jumbo Video). The former Rogers Video store manager and current Movie Village clerk recalls a not-misspent youth haunting video stores in the late '80s.
"There was much more of an atmosphere to them," he says. "You'd go hang out, you would know the guy who was working there and it was very social."
Borsa's passion for film translated to eventually earning a film degree. He currently holds two jobs, at Movie Village and at the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission which, he adds, pays more. Borsa hosts a weekly movie talk show of his own, Ultrasonic Film on Thursday nights also on UMFM, "the longest running film talk show in Winnipeg," he says.
But Movie Village still affords him the opportunity to talk movies.
"Teachers might come in and ask: What would you recommend that would show racism at this time in history? A 16-year-old might come in asking to see something from the French New Wave. I'll say, 'You're looking at Godard or Truffaut.' And then people can come back and say: 'That was awesome.'
"You can't do that on a computer screen," he says. "You can't do that at Netflix.
"That's one of the reasons I still work at Movie Village," Borsa says. "I do it because I love it."
Video business defied inflation
The unfortunate thing about the decline of the home video business is that it was one industry that actually defied inflation.
"The rental prices for a movie today are pretty much the same as they were in the mid-'80s," says Video 1001 store manager Ken Taylor. At his store, $4 would get you an overnight new release rental on VHS in the mid-'80s and $4 will still get you a new release on Blu-ray today. Only the technology has changed.
Video Cellar owner John Tropak agrees. His stores rent new releases for $2.99 and 99 cents for catalogue titles, essentially the same prices he charged when he opened his first store in 1984.
Taylor says, in his neighbourhood, customers will go to the store when they've decided to cancel their cable TV services. Tropak says when some of his customers calculate the cumulative cost of cable, VOD and the Internet, "they can be paying almost $200 a month.
"So renting 10 movies for 10 days for 10 bucks starts to look like a pretty good deal."
How do they get away with this kind of price freeze? The price of DVD discs, even a premiere Blu-ray, is far cheaper than the prices video distributors used to charge for movies on VHS tape: about $100 for a single VHS movie designated for rental. At HMV stores, you can buy many new DVDs outright for about $5, a couple of bucks more than a one-night rental. Most cost somewhere in the range of $20 to $40.
As for those old VHS tapes? Many are still stocked on the shelves of Video 1001. You can buy them for about $3 each.