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

Joe Mason, videotape broker and Veingrad's successor as VSDA president, echoes Page's appraisal. He also sympathizes with door-to-door trader Richard Zeeman's predicament. Mason used to compete directly with Zeeman, and at one time had four vans on the road. He has changed his emphasis, however, to telemarketing and brokering on a national level, and has been pleased with the results.

"Certainly the business was easier six or seven years ago," Mason recalls. "The image of the small store owner sitting behind the counter and reading magazines may have had some truth to it back then. But the guy who didn't do that, who managed his business professionally, now has maybe six or seven stores and is looking to sell out to one of the regional chains. And then you have the cases of people who open a store with twenty or thirty thousand dollars. That's especially popular in Hialeah. In the business we call that 'buying a salary.' You hire an in-law to run the store while you work all day at some coming-to-America job, then you run the store at night. Most video stores are open seven days a week, so you never have a day off. It's a very tough road. New owners usually don't realize the hours and the commitment you need going in, and some just give up after a few months."

Mason likens many of the proprietors of video stores in the early days to "restaurant owners who didn't know how to cook." But while he agrees that the traditional mom-and-pops may be history, he is not ready to sign the death warrant of the independent video retailer. "That may be true in one sense but it fails to capture all the nuances," he hedges. After more than a decade working at all levels of the video business, Mason has learned to shy away from blanket statements. He points to the recent demise, after thirteen years in operation, of a popular local independent store as an example of why it's so hard to generalize. (Mason tactfully declines to name the store for the record.) "The original owner ran it for ten years, then sold it three years ago," he explains. "It was quite healthy at the time. But the new owners were absentee. They would only stock one or two copies of popular new releases; they weren't in control of the business. You have to pay video stores close attention. But all people see is a thirteen-year-old store closing its doors."

By Mason's count there are some 150 video stores (excluding more than twenty Blockbuster outlets) in Dade. The majority are, in his opinion, doing well. "Sometimes you even get the surfing effect," he chuckles. "An independent opens right next door to a Blockbuster. Blockbuster doesn't stock adult films, so any of their customers who want adult films will go next door. And that's a lot of customers. Plus, Blockbuster may have 30 copies of Wyatt Earp, but not 31. [The surfer] may have that thirty-first. That scenario is repeated over and over. Let the big guys do all the marketing to bring in the customers, and then capitalize on the spillover."

Ernest Tornabell maintains that the blue-and-yellow giant fosters the illusion of having great selection. "You go into Blockbuster, you see all those movies on the wall," he observes. "Of course they're never there. You go in and try to find a new release, they don't have it. But they've always got plenty of empty boxes on the shelf."

Mason responds guardedly to the oft-whispered assertion that Blockbuster actively has pursued the eradication of the mom-and-pops from the retail video landscape. "Did they [Blockbuster] single-handedly try to eliminate the mom-and-pops? Absolutely not. Was their philosophy self-serving? Of course," Mason contends. "Maybe they've behaved in a highhanded manner, but they've played within the rules. They have the business acumen and the capital behind them. It may seem cold and ruthless when they move into a territory where an existing store forgot to sign an exclusivity agreement with the landlord or whatever, but whose fault is that, really?

"In a sense, Blockbuster has helped the business," the broker continues. "They've acquired quite a few locals and independents at prices very lucrative to the sellers. They've forced the mom-and-pops to be bigger and better. And they fulfill a very important role for the whole industry when they defend their own interests in cases such as maintaining the windows [the time between a movie's release on video and its release on cable or pay-TV]."

Video Pursuit's Rene Curbelo, vice president of the local VSDA chapter, is a little less generous when it comes to assessing the big chain's business practices. "When Barbra Streisand did her big tour recently," he says by way of illustration, "she released a video which was in great demand. Her fans are very loyal and there are a lot of them, and this was the first opportunity to see her in concert in years. Blockbuster got a special version of the video with one song added that wasn't available to anyone else. There was a huge uproar. To protest the preferential treatment, almost no independents bought the tape. The distributors got the message: Unless you want to sell only to Blockbuster, never do that again.

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