Why a video store?
There isn’t a day goes by when I’m working at Black Dog and I hear a passerby on the street remark that they’re surprised to see that there is still a video store open. Some laugh, even chortle if you will, at the fact that we’re still here, like we shouldn’t be. I don’t really get it – it hasn’t been that long since the damn internet cleared the landscape of most of the worlds video stores. It’s not like we are a phone book company or telegram office. But as much as this saddens and sometimes angers me it always gets me to thinking, why am I still doing this? Why a video store?
When I started this company back in the spring of 1996, video stores dotted the landscape like some beautiful field of movie joy. There was nary a neighbourhood that didn’t have a video shop, even if it was just a shitty Blockbuster or Rogers or whatever chain. That’s what we had in our hood when I moved here. They were terrible stores – insanely huge with a very poor selection of movies and bad lighting – so I took it upon myself to open Black Dog and stock the shelves with, what I thought, great films. I don’t know how many times I went into a Megamovies or whatever and left empty handed and depressed. I vowed to weed out all the Dunston Checks In and Children of the Corn IVs and instead went for quality and obscure.
I thought that I knew plenty about movies but opening the store was a learning experience for me as well as I was introduced to many films and filmmakers that I wasn’t too familiar with – Tarkovsky, Haneke, Herzog and Argento among a plethora of others. We put a request book on the desk and that helped us, along with what we already had going, to build an amazing collection. Films like Bad Boy Bubby, Withnail and I, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, Harold and Maude and so many others came to represent what Black Dog was all about.
It was a great time for the video store and Black Dog took off almost overnight (I remember getting notes under the door when we were renovating saying “Please hurry and open!”). We ended up moving to a larger location across the street after only 3 years at out first 800 foot store (complete with astroturf flooring). They were quite fun and exciting times and we’d spend a big effort to find anything and everything we could – many a bootleg movie showed up – to fill up the shelves with great, hard to find movies. I even bought a terrible copy of Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones documentary, out of the back of a van in New York city. Things were humming along.
Then in the fall of 2004 disaster struck. Just after my wife and I bought our first house (back when folks like me could afford to buy a first house) we found out that we were going to have a baby. That’s not the disaster part. Really it’s not. One early October Sunday morning a fire broke out in a secret grow-op that was, apparently (the secret part), above the store. The resulting smoke and water damage destroyed all of my tapes and put us out of business. It was terrible. I stood in the middle of the wet, acrid smelling store looked around and wept. It was terrible. But as they say every cloud has a silver lining and as we slowly rebuilt the store I was able to use the insurance money to restock the shelves with DVDs which were fast replacing the old clunky VHS tapes. There wasn’t even a question that I would re-open. I loved this business and I felt that we were an important part of the community and besides, what else was I going to do? This feeling was confirmed when Choices grocery mart down the block threw a big fundraiser to help our employees. The show of support was amazing – folks turned out in droves in the pouring rain to help us out. We felt quite loved and that folks would miss us dearly if we were gone. It still warms these old heart cockles just thinking about it.
So we rebuilt and the next year we bought out the Celluloid Drug Store (video store) on Commercial Drive and turned it into a Black Dog. We’ve been there for 10 years now.
We’ve had such a great ride and there’s so many stories I could tell – I could go on about the great all-night debauched parties we had at the store, the Saturday nights when we’d sneak beer down the alley from the Kino Cafe, the time some kid pooped in between the racks, the crazy person who accused me of being racist because of our name and wrote me a 6 page tirade that ended up with me being thrown into a volcano, the time a small but vocal group of very intense kids protested our “Nast Nazi” selection at the Commercial store, the run-ins with the ridiculous film board. I could go on about all of the great people I’ve had work for me over the years, how much it saddened us with John’s passing last year, all of the amazing folks we’ve made friends with, some becoming more than just friends, people getting married in the store and just the wonderful sense of being part of a cool vibrant neighbourhood. Maybe I’ll write a book.
As International Video Store Day approaches I look back at this amazing journey with much fondness and more than a little sadness. I know that we won’t be here forever. And that makes me a bit despondent, not just because this used to be a big part of my livelihood (or all of it) but it makes me sad for all of the movie lovers who will not have access to the amazing collection of films that we’ve managed to put together over the last two decades. How is anyone going to know that they should rent Bubba Ho-Tep or The Tenant without having us to help them along? The internet? Not bloody likely. You can have all the Netflixs and illegal downloading sites you want (nobody steals movies do they??) and all that convenience but you can’t replace the video store. Not just for the selection and access and the low cost, but for the people and the experience. I think that many of these great films will just disappear into the ether as the next generation won’t even know of their existence. It makes me sad to think that one day we will all be gone and I think as a society we will be lesser for it.
I went to film school in Vancouver, and when I discovered Black Dog, it was like arriving in the Promised Land. All the obscure stuff noone else had was there, and the people working there, especially Kier La Janisse, helped open my eyes to a whole new world of movies. I was a regular customer for 12 years, until I moved back to Winnipeg, where Movie Village almost, but not quite, filled in the gap Black Dog had made in my viewing life.
Looking back, I know that Black Dog was and is the best video store I ever rented from. I am glad the owners have persevered. The arrival of Netflix fucking sucks; it has robbed the vitality and individuality of choosing and enjoying movies. The owners at Black Dog once allowed me to film part of a short film in their store before the fire; that precious footage reminds me of a time and a place where choice meant something warm and special, not chewing on the watered down offerings of a corporate ice berg.
Hi Lawrence, I totally remember you from the days gone by. Nice to hear from you and thanks for the kind words. It’s been a struggle these past few years and I don’t know how long we’ll be able to stay open (hopefully for a long time!) but getting notes like this makes it all worth while.
Hi Darren. My wife, accountant and bodyguard, all in one, and myself have been renting movies from Black Dog almost from the day you opened the first store on Cambie. We lived in the neighbourhood until 1999 but we still drive over from downtown Fairview. That could be because we have a car. We usually grab the latest, but sometimes opt for a couple of blasts from the past.
Keep going. There are plenty of reasons why. Thanks for many years of excellent service. I’m gonna cry.
Thanks for kind words and the support over the past (almost) 20 years. Yikes, 20 years! It’s folks like yourself and your bodyguard/accountant wife that keeps us keeping on. Please don’t cry, unless they are tears of joy. 🙂