Closing credits: The last days of the local video store
By Taig Byrne
“Sad is a word that seems to pop up over and over in these last couple of weeks. The store seems to stir up all sorts of nostalgia from peoples youth,” owner Eddy Stefani says of the last days Video Vision in Balaclava. The closing of two iconic St Kilda area video shops this summer is symbolic not only of the end of our 40 year love affair with the home video but also part of a much bigger picture as, internet technology continues to degrade our personal interactions in the local community.
From its humble beginnings in Betamax and VHS format to High Definition DVD and Blu-ray days, the home movie in its physical form has been cultural phenomenon for the last four and a half decades. For many of us a weekly visit to the local video shop was a significant part of our youth. Hours spent trawling through rows and rows of movie cases; the arguments, compromises, popcorn, chocolate, due dates and strongly worded letters. This generation will never know any of it and for the rest of us it will become just another faded memory of a bygone era.
Meet Arthur and Jenny Hiolos of Top Video Flash Albert Park store and three other stores until recently. They both came by boat from Greece as children and have been at the centre of the Albert Park community for 33 years. A cyclone over Fiji in 1983 forced them to cancel their honeymoon and, instead used the money to open Top Video Flash. For the next three years they both kept their day jobs and worked 70-hour workweeks to support the business. “It wasn’t easy, things were expensive back then, our first video player cost $2000 and the cassettes were $100 each” Recalls Arthur. Theirs is the familiar story of the immigrant business owners who work hard all of their life to ensure a good future for their children.
Eddy Stefani opened Video Vision in 1998 and over the years has built a close-knit team of dedicated staff and a legion of loyal customers that trek from all over the city for their unique selection of movies. The store became famous, for not only for its rare movie collection but its tongue-in-cheek humour with its various homemade signs, posters and of course the horror room tucked in the back corner. “The harder it was to get a copy of a cult movie, the more that made me want to stock it”, he says.
Both stores have a wide array of eccentric patrons, some of whom have been daily or weekly visitors since they opened. As you can imagine, in the last decade many of the remaining clientele are solitary, older people who are not as tech-savvy as the current generation and for whom, the process of selecting and watching a DVD as well as the interaction with the person behind the counter, is their major pastime. One Video Vision regular has visited every single day for as long as the staff can remember and claims to have over 7000 films in his personal collection.
I had the good fortune of meeting Sue Parsons, a local lollipop lady, DVD collector and self-professed ‘very interesting person’. “Last week you could have bought a film I starred in; ‘Lovestruck: Wrestling’s Number Fan’ but someone has since bought it” She told me. I couldn’t help but think that a chance encounter like this would never happen whilst sitting at home and watching a streaming site.
It’s the carrying of obscure movie titles like this, coupled with the personal touch element missing from so many larger companies, which meant these two shops have stood the test of time, while so many others around them crumbled. “There is no better feeling than being able to recommend a movie to someone and have them come back and thank you and tell you just how spot-on you were” says Jarrod, a long term employee of Video vision. “Just like the surrounding suburbs, the shop oozes personality and you will never find that online or in large chains”.
Kiosks, by eliminating theft and the need for staff, have allowed for a convenient and affordable way to rent in recent years. But the beginning of the end can be traced right back to the early 2000s when illegal downloading began. After years of legal battles; changes in legislation, coupled with affordable legal online streaming services have seen a sharp drop in illegal downloads in recent years that will be commended by many.
While the technology has existed for over a decade, the launching of two major streaming services in Australia in recent years has been the nail in the coffin for the last remaining local video stores. There is no denying that such services have revolutionised the way we discover and watch movies but is this just another contributor to the breakdown of the local community and social isolation? “People tell you their problems; there’s a lot of lonely people out there, they’d come in here and tell you their life stories because they knew you are a good listener and non-judgmental” says Jenny Hiolos.
So what now? What job does a former owner of a video store apply for? It is clear that both parties are looking forward to a well-earned break but with that will come a mourning period as they readjust to life outside the business. As any small business owners will tell you, when you’ve got your own place, it is rare that you ever get a full day off and it is even harder to take holidays. “I plan to spend 3 months a year in Greece but there is no way we can sit and do nothing after so many years of working. Maybe now we can finally take our honeymoon”, jokes Arthur.
In recent years, we have seen how vinyl records have made a comeback and the idea of having a personalised collection has been given a new lease of life. And then there are those who are plain stubborn, too set in their ways to move with the times. Clinging onto a past nostalgia that before the ‘on demand ‘era, renting a movie or video game or TV series brought about a certain excitement and sense of anticipation. If nothing else, I guess, it’s just something to tell the grand kids.