From vinyl records to instant Polaroids, nostalgia has a firm grip on the city’s consumer market. And in an age when video rental stores have all but disappeared, a few holdouts are taking advantage of this trend, as well as capitalizing on the benefits streaming services can’t provide.
“Having everything is unique. It’s key. And we still do pickup and delivery, which is critical to our survival,” said Video Room manager Howard Salen.
Salen has managed Video Room since it began in 1980 as one of the first beta-rental spots in the city. Though the store on 80th Street and Third Avenue still occasionally rents VHS tapes (1979’s “Agatha” starring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave is a popular one), most of the rental business stems from its collection of 25,000 DVDs and Blu-Rays.
The store’s customers — a majority of which are women over 50 — count on Video Room to have the classics they love, as well as foreign films and British series that aren’t readily available on major streaming services, Salen said.
“It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it to watch what you’re really in the mood for,” said Joan Meister, an Upper East Side resident and Video Room regular. “Netflix just doesn’t satisfy.”
However, disc rentals at $4.89 per movie only account for half the business’ revenue. The other half comes from “transferring” — converting analog home recordings and audiocassettes to a digital format.
Andrew Palermo, owner of We Deliver Videos on 87th Street and First Avenue, said “transferring” accounts for around 30 percent of his business too, though rentals remain the lifeblood. Pickup and delivery services also help tremendously.
“We average 850 to 925 rentals per week,” he said. “We’ve started getting a lot of people moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan and they like supporting small business.”
Palermo opened We Deliver Videos almost 18 years ago and still offers a selection of more than 30,000 titles. Like Video Room, Palermo sees consistent interest in foreign and British titles; though in his view the human cinephiles behind the counter are what keep patrons coming back for more.
“When I see a movie in the theater, I immediately think, ‘Oh, [a particular customer] would love this,’” the Upper East Side native said. “Maybe that’s weird, but it’s true. There’s not a lot of browsing in here, people appreciate our recommendations.”
Aaron Hillis would agree. Hillis bought Video Free Brooklyn in 2012, and prides himself on staffing the store with friendly, knowledgeable film buffs.
“[About] 80 to 85 percent of what I have on the shelf is not available streaming,” Hillis said. “One of the biggest factors is being able to talk to people behind the counter instead of relying on an algorithm to tell you what to watch. Especially with couples.”
Hillis recently closed his Cobble Hill storefront but will reopen this year inside Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Brooklyn. The decision to relocate was both a pragmatic and creative one. He hopes the partnership will boost business, and help further his goal of maintaining an expansive, curated selection of quality films.
“Our movies never expire. That’s the big point,” Hillis said. “I’m not thinking about what’s going to be on Netflix or Hulu. If it’s good, if it’s a piece of the canon, it belongs on the shelf.”
There’s no consensus regarding the future of the video rental business. The demise of once-massive chains like Blockbuster Video doesn’t instill much confidence. However, New York City’s mom-and-pop holdouts might have found a niche and a model that works. Some experts are actually bullish about the direction these stores are headed. Andrew Mandell, managing partner at Ripco Real Estate Corp. and chair of the retail committee of the Real Estate Board of New York, has worked in city real estate for 25 years and sees no end in sight for business owners like Hillis, Palermo and Salen.
“When you factor in the population of this city and the level of sophistication, people will always have that need to go to a vintage product or store,” Mandell said. “With my years in the retail real estate business, I can tell you confidently they’ll be operating in this city forever.”
At Videology in Williamsburg, patrons describe the store as more than just a place to rent films — it’s a place to run into friends. For Juan Hill, 44, that warm, water-cooler-esque vibe is vital.
“It’s a sense of community,” Hill said. “It’s the people who create it. As much as the city has changed, it’s kind of marvelous and miraculous that this kind of place can survive.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Andrew Mandell’s role on the Real Estate Board of New York. He chairs the retail committee.
With Ivan Pereira