Reflections On The Way We Were and Are
It all started in a hot spring in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico during American Thanksgiving. It was the fall of 1995, I had just left my job fixing bicycles and my friend, Larry, and I decided that a 5 week road trip through the American Southwest was in order. When you spend 5 weeks in a car with someone many topics of conversation are broached (not to mention a certain desire to occasionally kill one’s travelling companion. Just kidding, Larry, you know I love ya!)). One topic that came up time and time again was what was I going to do when I returned? I loved movies and I was constantly lamenting the fact that there weren’t any good video stores in my neighbourhood (Cambie and 18th). Sure there was Megamovies and Blockbuster but, as you know, they were shit. I remember going there on occasion, browsing for a while and then leaving dejected and empty-handed wanting to kill myself. Sad days.
So it was while soaking in those lovely hot springs during American Thanksgiving in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico that I decided that I was going to open my own goddamn video store! And that’s what I did. It took about 3 months to get everything organized – securing a location, raising the capital, buying the films and so on. Black Dog Video (named after my girlfriend’s black Labrador Retriever) opened for business on March 5th, 1996 in a tiny 800 square foot store on Cambie St. with about 900 movies and a boatload of enthusiasm. We made about $100 that day and I thought that was pretty amazing. I had all of these great ideas for Black Dog. So many video stores were lame in their layout and their decor. I wanted something different. Something that reflected my aesthetics. I had my old classic monster models shipped out (almost all of them were eventually stolen), installed nice lighting and astroturf, and built everything ourselves. I thought it looked pretty cool. In keeping with the dog theme I wanted to use dog biscuits with corresponding numbers written on them to rent out the films. The plan was to write a number on the biscuit, shellac it so it wouldn’t rot, Velcro it and fasten it to the shelf. Folks would bring up the biscuit and get the film that they wanted. I spent many hours in my basement shellacking and Velcroing. I imagine that you can see where this is going. The very first day of business, in the very first hour a customer came on with their dog and much to the dog’s delight the store had free snacks right at mouth level! Before anyone could do anything the big yellow lab had eaten about 6 shellacked, Velcroed dog biscuits right off the shelf. That ended that “great” idea.
Those early days were pretty damn fun. I had less children (none) and led a much more carefree existence. We’d sneak beer down the alley from Kino on Saturday nights, enjoy exchanges with other businesses in the hood – movies for food/drink etc. It was wonderful. The Cambie hood sure was a different animal when we first got started.
Business was great back in those days. I knew that we’d done the right thing when notes and resumes would appear under the door while we were renovating. “Hurry up and open, we can’t wait” was a familiar refrain. Two things that I learned early on was a) not to hire friends – it seemed like a great idea at the time but it changes the dynamic of the relationship pretty fast when all of a sudden you’re the boss. I had some friends that did a great job and one or two that, well, not so much. It works much better to hire people you don’t know and then become friends afterwards. I’ve made excellent friends with some of my employees (and customers for that matter) which is pretty darned amazing. The other thing I learned is, while it’s OK to solicit advice from others, stick to your guns and follow what you believe is the right path. When we first opened I didn’t really know how the rental business worked. I hooked up with this company that leased films. The guy I dealt with told me I needed X amount of copies of new releases. What he didn’t tell me was that they have a relatively short shelf life. I remember him telling me that I need 6 copies of this piece of shit Keanu Reeves film, A Walk in the Clouds. And remember, this is back in the day when new release VHS tapes cost around $100. So I reluctantly agreed. And man did I pay the price. That stupid decision almost sunk us right out of the gate. Nobody rented it. I took an almost $600 bath. I even resorted to putting rented tags on half of them to try to drum up interest. So from that moment on, I decided what was going on the shelves and how many copies. I still make mistakes to this day doing it but at least I only have myself to blame. Well, me and Keanu Reeves.
It only took a couple of years to outgrow our first location and we moved across the street into the digs that where we currently reside. Business hummed along quite nicely for years, many of the employees staying on for a long time. My role behind the desk declined as business was good enough that I didn’t have to work at the store. When I was doing research into the logistics of opening a video store (there was actually a binder on that very subject with tons of info at City Hall) one of the comments that has always stuck with me was “high propensity for absentee ownership”. I liked the sound of that. And while it was true and I didn’t work a lot at the stores after a while, I did miss it as I liked most of the customers and I really enjoyed working at “The Dog” as it became to be known. It was fun. We had some great parties there. That was back when I enjoyed staying up late as the parties wouldn’t get started until after we closed and they would carry on until the sun came up. Think sex drugs and rock and roll and you kind of get the picture. Good, hazy times.
In the summer of 2004, my wife and I bought our first home. It was a nice little bungalow up around Fraser and 33rd. Then we found out the she was pregnant. And then in early October of that year the grow-op that was secretly housed in the apartment above the store caught fire. The resulting smoke and water damage destroyed Black Dog. All of our tapes, shelves, equipment – everything – was wrecked. I remember standing in the middle of the dark smoky store, ankle deep in water, weeping. Shit, that was an awful feeling – looking around at everything we had built and seeing it turned to garbage. What was I going to do?
Actually there was no question – I was going to rebuild. And that’s just what we did. Three friends and myself spent about 2 months working in the gross, mould-riddled building, gutting it and then re-shaping it into what it is now. We rebuilt the walls, the shelves, the desk, the ceiling, the floor, everything. It was a lot of work but it was fun at the same time. If there was one positive to having almost our entire VHS tape collection destroyed, is that it was destroyed right when the big format shift to DVD was happening. The silver lining: insurance covered replacing our collection, so we replaced all our destroyed tapes with DVDs. It was great fun going to my distributor’s warehouse with shopping carts and buying thousands of movies.
Another amazing thing that came out of the fire was the love and support that the community showed Black Dog. Choices grocery store down the block threw a fundraiser for the all-of-a-sudden out-of-work employees and hundreds of people showed up on a rainy Saturday afternoon to help out. The outpouring of support (and money) was quite amazing and touching in many ways. It helped the employees get through the next few months until we could re-open and really made me feel that we were a valuable part of this little community. I felt bad our new guy, Duncan, who showed up for his second shift that Sunday morning only to find the store destroyed. We laugh about it now.
So we re-opened just before Christmas of 2004 and the response was so over-whelming. Folks brought us gifts of cakes and booze and flowers. It was pretty fucking great I have to say. It was amazing to be back.
So we had our first (and only, thank christ :)) child in the summer of 2005. It was then that I thought it was a good idea to open a second location because I didn’t have enough on my plate with running the Cambie store and getting used to being a dad. We took over the old Celluloid Drugstore in October of that year and haven’t looked back since. I always think of the Commercial location as Cambie’s grimy little East Side brother. It’s a fun and interesting place to say the least. I work mostly there now as it’s just down the street from my house (we sold our first place in 2008 and bought over there when things were still remotely affordable). It’s much different than the Cambie location being on the east side and all that that entails. I could tell you stories.
So we hit 20 years of being in business this coming Saturday March 5th, 2016. It blows my mind that I’ve been this privileged to be doing something that I love (most of the time – up yours, taxes!) for a good chunk of life. It’s been a long strange trip. We’ve had many amazing people work for us and come to us for great movies. We’ve made fine friends and a few enemies (there’s been a couple of misguided fools who accused us of being racist because of our name. One woman even wrote a multi-page diatribe about how I was the worst person on the planet and that she hoped that I would end up being thrown into the world’s largest volcano!). We’ve seen kids grown up into adults, we’ve had people get married (and then divorced) in the store. We’ve had good people die (R.I.P. John) and people go on to open their own successful video stores (2 friends 1 brother).
I don’t know what the future will hold for Black Dog. We’ve survived fire, transit construction, floods, rocks through windows, barfing dogs, pooping kids and flying monkeys but now we face our biggest challenge – The Interweb! We’ve been on the precipice of closing (thank you again to all the people who saved our bacon during our Indiegogo campaign in 2014) but, as the last video store standing in Vancouver, we are going to do our best to be here as long as we can. And with the continued love and support of all of you good people, I’m looking forward to more great years and more great films to come.
Thanks so much for being a central part of the Cambie neighbourhood. While I subscribe to Netflix, I will rent films from your store that I could get on Netflix to: 1) help keep Black Dog going; and 2) because I like the extras (well, some of them) that you get on DVDs. The store appears a lot busier now than it did a few years ago, so maybe others are coming around to the idea that having a rental store with many specialty titles has its advantages. Hope you’re around another 20 years.
Thanks very much Marke! I think that we can exist alongside services such as Netflix. We offer a different (and better :)) service. Now that we’re the last store in town and I think that many folks still see the value in what we do, we have seen an upswing in business (still not like it was years ago but it is what it is) over the last little while. I’d love to be here 20 years from now but who knows what the future will hold?
Congrats on the 20 years, Darren. Cathy and I have been coming in for most of those years. We used to live up at Cambie and 23rd but we still regularly drive up from Fairview where we are now. It’s quite a distinction to be the last store in town and I’d say you’ve now got this town right where you want it.
Nice to see you and Cathy yesterday! And thanks for the continued support. You guys rock!