Video Rental Stores Get Creative to Stay Afloat in Age of Netflix

By Heather Holland on November 4, 2013 6:58am 

Slideshow
 From adding a bar to renting to TV stations looking for hard-to-find clips, the city's last remaining video rental stores are doing whatever it takes to stay relevant.
NYC's Video Store Owners Share Secrets for Staying Afloat in Age of Netflix
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NEW YORK CITY — As Netflix and video on demand drove the final nails into the coffin of the video rental business several years ago, Wendy Chamberlain, owner of Williamsburg’s Videology, was faced with a choice: close the store for good, or find a new source of income. 

She chose to stay open, overhauling the 308 Bedford Ave. shop in 2011 to add a bar and screening room. She trained some of her staff as bartenders and moved most of her inventory of 16,000 titles to the basement.

“We couldn’t just give up,” Chamberlain said. “We hated the idea of not being able to be here and rent movies to people anymore.”

While small video rental shops across the city have closed and even once-dominant video giant Blockbuster was forced into bankruptcy, a handful of owners are renovating and innovating to keep their businesses afloat.

Some have focused on extras like drinks or free movie delivery, while others have banked on building their collection of hard-to-find films, trusting their customers to stay loyal.

At Videology, Chamberlain decided to continue offering movie rentals — which cost $3 for two days or $4 for five days — but now, customers make their selection on a touch-screen from a booth on the shop's ground floor, rather than browsing the shelves.

“Most of our income comes from the bar at this point,” Chamberlain said. “It’s tough because we took away what set us apart from Netflix and iTunes. People would come in, browse and actually pick up the DVD cases.

"A lot of people were disappointed, but it was this or going out of business altogether. People don’t seem to realize, video stores are not long for this world.”

A more optimistic view comes from Aaron Hillis, a film critic who bought Cobble Hill’s Video Free Brooklyn last year and is convinced it will succeed.

“We’re kind of a boutique that caters to more cinephile tastes,” Hillis said of the 244 Smith St. shop, where he said business has increased 30 percent since he took over in June 2012. “It’s not as risky as you’d think. In Brooklyn, and especially on Smith Street, restaurant row, people are more knowledgeable about what’s out there.”

Hillis hires his staff based on their film knowledge and stocks his shelves with independent movies, foreign films and documentaries, including hard-to-find films by documentary maker Frederick Wiseman. Popular rentals at the shop have recently included HBO's “Beyond the Candelabra,” Sofia Coppola's “The Bling Ring” and Richard Linklater's “Before Midnight.”

“There’s a nostalgia for the old-school video store, where you can browse, turn the boxes over and talk to people who are film-knowledgeable," Hillis said.

For those who want to rent a DVD without leaving their apartment, the Upper East Side's We Deliver Videos has found its own niche in the video rental world: door-to-door service.

The shop has succeeded over the past 15 years by delivering movies, in person, to the customer’s doorstep. The company — which offers packages starting at 10 rentals for $39.99 and serves only the Upper East and Upper West sides — also picks up the movies once they're ready to be returned.

“Delivery in New York City is key,” said Drew Palermo, who owns the store with his wife and another partner. “If your product is mobile, you should be able to deliver it.”

When We Deliver Videos opened at 1716 First Ave. at East 89th Street back in 1998, there was a lot of competition, Palermo said. Business has improved since so many other video rental shops have closed, and the shop rents more than 10,000 movies each month, he said.

For the East Village's Two Boots Video, which opened at 42 Avenue A in 1996, making money isn't the focus.

“Business has been up and down, especially with Netflix coming out,” said Mike Roth, manager of the Two Boots rental shop. “It’s a lot of effort to keep it going, but the owner [Phil Hartman] is a filmmaker himself and wants to keep it open forever.”

Most of the customers come from the neighborhood, and they tend to pick new releases, which go for $4 per night, as well as TV series box sets, Roth said. They also have the chance to browse Two Boots' 6,000-title collection, just feet from the tempting pizza parlor.

“There’s a lot to learn just from looking at the back of DVD cases,” Roth said. “People look through a lot of the titles and people sit down and have a slice of pizza. There’s a lot of conversation here.”

There's no beer or pizza at Alan’s Alley Video, at 207 Ninth Ave. — for the past 25 years, it’s simply been about the movies.

Owner Alan Sklar started seeing a serious dip in revenue about two years ago, as his Chelsea neighborhood changed.

“A lot of our customers have moved to Brooklyn, Hoboken, Long Island City or Harlem, where the rents are cheaper,” Sklar said. “People are getting younger, and they’re coming with their Netflix.

“I think as new people move into the neighborhood, they’re not looking for a video rental store necessarily," he continued. "Years ago, that’s one of the first things you’d scout out.”

His library of 35,000 rentals is mostly made up of DVDs, but some, like the 1983 film “Betrayal” with Jeremy Lyons and the 1948 Robert Mitchum Western, “Blood on the Moon,” are still in VHS because they were never made into DVDs.

He also offers a selection of Warner Brothers archives and other classics that usually can’t be bought in stores.

His most popular rentals are TV shows, including "Breaking Bad" and "Homeland" — plus the Netflix original series "House of Cards."

But Sklar said he actually makes most of his money from corporate accounts — particularly local television stations.

“If NY1 is doing something on the weather, and they need clips, I’ll get them some videos from National Geographic,” Sklar said of the news channel. “Or if an actor passes away and they’re doing an obit, we’ll find them all the videos of that actor. TV shows use us all the time.”

Astoria resident Niki Nicastro, 39, said she had tracked down Alan's Alley to look for Italian movies to show her students.

"I teach Italian and my students need to watch movies in Italian to improve their conversation and diction," said Nicastro, "The only way to get them is to shop here, because You Tube doesn't have anything."

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