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Local Video Store's Secret to Outlasting Blockbuster: 'Thank God For Porn'

 Ray and Julie Vanda of Mount Greenwood opened Video Playground in 1982. The video rental business settled at 10437 W. Kedzie Ave. on the far Southwest Side in 1994.
Ray and Julie Vanda of Mount Greenwood opened Video Playground in 1982. The video rental business settled at 10437 W. Kedzie Ave. on the far Southwest Side in 1994.
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DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig

MOUNT GREENWOOD — Ray Vanda, owner of Video Playground in Mount Greenwood, jokes that he always knew his tiny DVD rental business would eventually outlast Blockbuster.

The video rental giant closed the last of its 300 remaining stores in 2013. Its contemporary, Hollywood Video, closed its stores in 2010.

Meanwhile, Vanda's modest shop remains — though it's hardly the same business it was when he and his wife, Julie, opened Video Playground in 1982. The same goes for Anna Mae Henry's Popcorn Video in nearby Morgan Park.

"Our big thing is survival," Ray Vanda said.

Simply staying afloat is no easy task for an independent video rental store in an era of On Demand movies, streaming video services such as Netflix and DVD rental kiosks like Redbox.

 Both Popcorn Video in Morgan Park and Video Playground in Mount Greenwood have survived where other DVD rental businesses have failed. The owner of Popcorn Video credits her store's existence to the sale and rental of adult movies. The owners of Video Playground believe that diversifying their business has kept the store viable.
Video Rental Stores
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These technology-driven competitors have forced the owners of Video Playground to diversify their business. Video conversion services have become a mainstay for the store at 10437 W. Kedzie Ave. on the far Southwest Side.

Julie Vanda has become an expert at taking old home movies and converting them to DVD. She also works with several area funeral homes to make video slideshows of the deceased.

Some 10 funeral homes direct customers to Video Playground. Families often come into the shop with nearly 200 pictures. Julie Vanda then digitally scans in the photos and promises a DVD slideshow in just one day.

"I'm pretty good at fixing photos," she said.

Meanwhile, Ray Vanda had a hobbyist recording studio in the basement of the couple's Mount Greenwood home. The studio has since moved into the back of the store, and he uses it to record local artists including gospel groups, heavy metal bands and more.

Only about 20 percent of Video Playground's bottom line comes from actual video rentals anymore. And of that side of the business, just over half of all profits come from the sale and rental of adult titles, the Vandas said.

"You do what you've got to do," Julie Vanda said of the adult video business that accounts for about half of the floor space at Video Playground.

Anna Mae Henry of Popcorn Video said 80 percent of her business comes from the sale and rental of pornographic movies. She and her late husband, Bill, started the business as Home Show Video 30 years ago.

"I watched Beta come and go," said Henry, who has operated her business from a tucked-away storefront at 10918 S. Western Ave. in Morgan Park since 2009.

Henry was getting ready to close up shop until about two weeks ago. That's when she received a phone call from a woman asking if Popcorn Video would be interested in buying some 1,900 movies that were part of her deceased brother-in-law's estate.

"She said, 'Unfortunately, they are all adult titles.' I said, 'Oh yeah, real unfortunate,'" Henry said with a grin.

She and her son Edward have been slowly going through 15 boxes of movies and adding them to the back room that's become the lifeblood of their business.

"Thank God for porn," said Henry, an Ashburn resident.

She said neighboring suburbs including Evergreen Park, Burbank and Oak Lawn don't allow the rental of adult movies. Henry believes these policies have kept her Chicago-based store alive.

Popcorn Video also tries to make ends meet by selling small trinkets, handmade jewelry and older movies for 99 cents. Still, the profits are a far cry from where they were 15 years ago when the Henrys operated a pair of stores.

"It's getting harder and harder to operate a video store," she said.

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