It’s no secret that independent video stores are a dying breed.
Albany’s Video Environment Plus may just be the oldest independent video rental establishment still in existence in the Capital Region, and possibly in the country, according to current owner Robert Moore.
His brother, Dean Moore opened the store as a family business in 1977. It’s been at its location on Fuller Road in Albany since 1981.
During the store’s 30-plus years, Robert Moore has seen other independent video stores come and go in the Capital Region.
“At one time, there had to be 25 independents in Albany alone,” he said. “And there were many in Schenectady, many in Troy. I mean, they were all over the place. But as Blockbuster proliferated, the independent got priced out of the market and couldn’t compete.”
Dawn Warfield, who has owned and operated the Drive-In Movie Store on South Broadway in Saratoga Springs since 1991, has noticed a similar thinning in the ranks of independent video stores because of the weakened economy, chain stores such as Hollywood Video and Blockbuster and the emergence of online services such as Netflix.
“They started disappearing, I would say probably about eight years ago [was] when they really started — a lot of them started going out,” Warfield said. “And a lot of people used to say it was like shaking the apple tree, and the good ones would remain, but now even the good ones are going. Just in the past year, we’ve had four video stores that I know of in this area, that I know the owners, that have gone out of business.”
But a handful of independents — including Video Environment Plus and the Drive-In Movie Store — still manage to eke out an existence, and even thrive, in an increasingly difficult rental market.
“The doomsayers have been saying since 1995 that the video store would be gone,” Moore said. “They say three years, and then three years come and go. They say, ‘Oh, it’ll be gone in five years,’ they come and go. It’s the same thing when television came out, they said there wouldn’t be a theater anymore, and when theaters came out, there wouldn’t be a Broadway anymore. They all are co-existing, so who knows. We don’t have a crystal ball.”
Stopping by Crazy Nick’s
Crazy Nick’s on Broadway in Schenectady opened its doors in 1987. The store has gone through a number of owners, including founder and namesake Nick Palmier, but has remained independently owned. Since 1999, Paul Neubauer has owned Crazy Nick’s. He has been at the store for 20 years, working as a part-time employee before buying the store.
“I retired from Fleet Bank, and I wanted something to do with my time,” Neubauer said. “I enjoyed this so much that I wanted to stay a part of it and keep the store going; I didn’t want to see the store closing. It’s a good store here for the community and . . . they hope that the store will never close. So up until now, I can keep it open; who knows what’s going to happen in the future?”
Neubauer credits the store’s continued success to a loyal customer base of over 5,000. He said he still receives about a half-dozen new customers every week; and while some come and go, the majority stay.
“The clientele I have, they’re very friendly, and we have a good rapport,” he said. “It’s like a home-style store, where people come in and everybody knows one another, and they talk. It’s a friendly atmosphere.”
John Osborne, 51, a carpenter in Schenectady, has been shopping at Crazy Nick’s for at least six years.
“I went by it for a long time and didn’t think much of it,” Osborne said. “Then since the first time I went there, I don’t go anywhere else now. I always saw people in the parking lot — it’s a very small lot. Sometimes I saw the gentleman go to the door and wave goodbye. It just seemed really personal.”
Service is key
At the Drive-In Movie Store, customer service is one of the keys to maintaining the business through a tough economy and increased competition.
“I mean, if you walk in my store, everybody knows you by your first name,” Warfield said. “We’ll be like, ‘Oh, how’d you like that movie we recommended for you last week?’ My employees remember a lot of the customers.”
Warfield’s store offers other incentives to customers, such as a rental deal of five older DVDs for five days for $7.77, and a “Video Cash Booklet,” which gives customers 10 prepaid rentals for $24.95. Additionally, the store has maintained a community-oriented focus, participating in fund-raisers for local food banks and Toys for Tots.
“The benefits [of shopping at the store] are, we, the owners, management, we all live here, so whatever money we make we’re spending back in the community,” Warfield said.
Crazy Nick’s has weathered the changes on the video rental scene better than most, partly because of its location farther away from the Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores. Also, like the other independent video stores in the region, Crazy Nick’s offers a larger selection of independent videos, and also has an adult video section, which makes up roughly 40 percent of the store’s business.
Neubauer also still offers VHS tapes, although the number he carries has dwindled. When he first started working at Crazy Nick’s in 1989, the market was exclusively VHS, which curbed the competition somewhat.
“There was a lot more independent movie stores in those days all over the country, and it was a very lively business because all we had in those days was VHS tapes,” he said. “I think, well, the store is still lively, but the liveliness in those days, it was more people needed to rent VHS because they didn’t have availability of the other, the competition.”
Moore’s Video Environment Plus actually predated VHS tapes — when the store first opened on Route 9, the market was based in the smaller Betamax tapes, which fell out of favor in the 1980s. Back then, there wasn’t even a rental market. At first, the store initiated a program called a Video Exchange Club, which allowed customers to purchase tapes for $79, then exchange them at half price for credit toward another video.
“That lasted probably two years before there was any sort of rental at all; I mean, we were definitely pioneers,” Moore said. “The first bank we went to for a loan said, ‘Video? That’ll never survive.’ Because no one knew what it was at the time. Luckily, the second bank gave us our loan.”
According to Moore, Video Environment Plus still has about 6,000 titles in stock on VHS, although they are no longer on display.
“There’s titles out there that are on VHS that are never going to make it onto DVD,” he said. “And people just assume that everything is on DVD, and the changing technology is so fast, there will never be enough time for everything to go on DVD. So I’m reluctant on one hand to get rid of a collection that we amassed over a long length of time, but again there’s not a huge market out there because, 500 channels on TV, you turn it on, it’s gonna be on sometime, you would think.”
Like many other entertainment mediums, the Internet has provided all new competition, in the form of subscription rental services such as Netflix, and also downloadable movies and sites such as YouTube and Hulu that stream movies. However, the drop off from customers switching to online services hasn’t been as drastic as it might seem.
“The people that enjoy that premise, they may not come here as much, but I don’t know,” Neubauer said. “Customers maybe leave for a while and then they do the Netflix and that, but that’s kind of costly. My prices are low, and if they’re working on a budget, that may be too costly for them in the long run, and they can still come here and get the movies for a lesser amount of money.”
The Drive-In Movie Store experienced a 30 percent drop in business due to road construction on South Broadway that lasted for six months last year. When construction finished last September, the economic slowdown hit, which contributed to the loss, but the store has since recovered somewhat.
In some ways, Warfield can thank the recent economic woes for luring customers away from Netflix, which initially took a big bite out of the store’s business. “What I’ve seen recently with the recession is that a lot of people are cutting back on subscription plans like Netflix,” she said.
“A lot of my customers that I haven’t seen in a while, they’ve been coming in and saying, ‘Oh, sorry I haven’t been here; you know, we’ve been doing Netflix, but we canceled them ’cause we can’t afford it.’ So that’s one part of the recession that’s been in our favor.”
But even with all of these factors, the personal nature of independent video stores keeps customers coming back.
“It’s like a mom and pop store, but there’s no way to not end up friendly there,” Osborne said of Crazy Nick’s. “You have a rotten day, you go there and feel better about everything.”