Fade to Black

As Blockbuster and other big chains devour more and more of the market, mom-and-pop video shop operators fret about being erased

Richard Zeeman is scowling again. He's been doing that a lot recently. Business is bad. Three days a week (down from six when demand for Zeeman's services peaked in 1989) he leaves his North Miami office at noon (Zeeman used to leave an hour or two earlier) and piles into his faded two-tone 1979 Chevy van. With its interior shelving and antitheft steel cage protecting the videos he carries in back, the van, like its owner and the independent video stores Zeeman services, has seen better days. Zeeman is a mobile independent video trader, one of the last of a dying breed. He drives from small independent video rental store to small independent video rental store, buying, selling, and swapping tapes. "The mom-and-pops are dead," declares Zeeman, referring to the neighborhood stores that flourished eight to ten years ago but that have all but vanished recently. "Business stinks."

Zeeman has been servicing the tri-county area (Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach) for seven years. In 1989 he tallied over 200 small video stores on his active client roster. In May 1993 he was down to half that, and the list continues to shrink. And not only has the sheer number of mom-and-pops in his customer base declined, but so has the dollar volume of the survivors' businesses.

"The small store that was only able to afford [to rent] videos is history," asserts Zeeman as he waits out a traffic jam on the 836 expressway. "They've had to diversify into renting video games and laser discs, repairing VCRs, selling candy, putting arcade games in the store."

Rick Veingrad concurs. Veingrad owns three Video Connection stores in Broward County and is outgoing president of the South Florida chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), the national trade organization for video retailers. "We're trying not to focus on videos as much," Veingrad confides. "It's no secret that video rentals have tapered off or fallen recently. We're getting into other things. We've done well with beeper sales; we've been involved with CD-ROM for six months. We had a Ticketmaster outlet in our Hollywood store, but they just pulled out because we're not part of a big enough chain. That hurt. December was a disaster locally, but there was nothing we could do about it. The weather's been fantastic, and competition from TV -- the Dolphins game on New Year's Eve -- spoiled what is usually our biggest day of the year for rentals."

Veingrad sounds like a man on the edge of burnout. "I can remember when we first opened and it was just my sister and myself," Veingrad reminisces. "On slow afternoons we could literally take a nap in back."

Richard Zeeman has had to alter the nature of his product mix to reflect that of his customers. "Adult videos have become the last refuge of the mom-and-pops because Blockbuster doesn't carry them," claims Zeeman, referencing the imperious chain's policy of not stocking any title rated NC-17 or worse. Which is to say, Debbie doesn't do Dallas at Blockbuster. "My business swung from being a general title distributor with one or two adult films to now where it's become 85 to 90 percent of my business.

"My accessories business has been cut to almost nonexistent," he laments. "I used to sell a full line of accessories -- rewinders, blank tapes, stickers, labels, Styrofoam inserts, plastic cases. I've had blank tapes in my van for a year now I can't get rid of. The furthest south I drive now is Coconut Grove. I used to have regular customers in Homestead, Florida City. The hurricane didn't help any, but it was getting bad before that.

"The only survivor in North Miami proper is Bob Rich," Zeeman continues. "I personally had five or six accounts that have closed in that area. But North Miami doesn't allow adult videos. Bob Rich was one of the first in the area, so he was grandfathered in [to sell adult videos]."

Zeeman points to the emergence of the video superstore, especially Blockbuster Video, as the leading cause of death for the mom-and-pops. Most of Zeeman's former clients were 1500- to 3000-title operations occupying less than 1500 square feet of space in a strip shopping center. The video superstore stocks 10,000 or more tapes spread over twice as much square footage in a freestanding building. The superstore trend is not limited to video rental; neighborhood grocery, hardware, office supply, and sporting goods shops have been rendered obsolete by massive warehouse-style markets (Office Depot, Home Depot, Costco, Sam's Club, the Sports Authority, et cetera). One characteristic that distinguishes the video industry, however, is that most of the smaller video stores are (or were) cheaper than Blockbuster, while most mom-and-pop grocery, hardware, office supply, and sporting goods stores are more expensive than their gargantuan competitors. Blockbuster did not become the industry giant on the strength of discount pricing.

So how did it happen? Ernest Tornabell, who owned Astro Video on West Dixie Highway and 145th Street for four years before finally going under on December 31, 1993, thinks he knows. "Blockbuster and the others [superstores] have more money up-front, and they use it well," Tornabell reasons. "They're very good at marketing.

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