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End of an era on the West Bank as video store shuts its doors

Om Arora: “Because of my age and sickness, I am going out of business.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Om Arora: “Because of my age and sickness, I am going out of business.”

Om Arora, who has a Ph.D. in genetics, is closing up his video store for the last time. Arora’s small shop, Intercontinental Video, has long offered an eclectic mix of films from around the world from the corner of an 1890s brick building on the West Bank.

“I ran this store for the last 35 years, and you have come in on a day when I’m in the process of selling it,” Arora said after a chuckle. “Because of my age and sickness, I am going out of business.”

It seems that 2017 may be the year that technology finally erodes the last of Minneapolis’ video stores, even in a place as chronologically complicated as the West Bank, where people from all parts of the world mix in surprising ways.

“I’m 78 years old and my health is giving up,” Arora told me, resting on a stool behind the counter. “That’s life. There were a lot of changes you know, from BETA to VHS to DVD and now streaming. The prime time was 1995, '96, '97 — that was the prime time.”

The Video Lease on Lake Street closed months ago, and as far as I know, Intercontinental was the penultimate video store in Minneapolis (The Movies on 35th Street is still open). 

Arora spent the week watching calmly as his stacks of DVDs were boxed by Scott Prost, owner of Video Universe in Robbinsdale (self-described as the last of the “good ones”). Prost is excited about the influx of Intercontinental stock.

“This is mostly stuff to sell, but the good stuff is all the foreign stuff,” Prost explained while sorting through interchangeable piles of soft-core. “We’ve been there in Robbinsdale since 1985. We carry everything: classics, foreign movies, TV shows and miniseries, American dramas, comedies, classics, and tons of kids movies. The most popular stuff in my store is "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" stuff because I don’t think you can stream that right now.”

The modern internet era, combined with the proliferation of cable, has made the brick-and-mortar video store as obsolete as an elevator operator. Like CD stores, newspaper stands, and one-hour photo developers, certain types of retail are inherently at odds with stability.

“I just opened this as a hobby and it evolved into a store,” Om Arora explained. He founded Intercontinental in 1982 while working as a post-doc in genetics at the nearby University of Minnesota. Since then, he’s seen the neighborhood evolve. Two of the old brick buildings on Cedar Avenue have burned down on his watch, and the influx of new people and immigrants to the neighborhood is the only constant.

But no matter where they’re from, everyone likes film, and Arora’s store had always reflected the shifting tastes of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

“One of the reasons I am going out of that is because this neighborhood has changed a lot,” Arora explained. “Now it is mostly the Somalis. Before that it used to be international people. and then the Chinese and Korean and Hmong. But now it’s mostly Somalis. They only watch Indian movies, and they mostly like to just get the copies, not the originals.”

Intercontinental focused on international titles
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Tthe small VHS rack at Dead Media, on 25th Street.

When I first began seriously exploring the streets of Minneapolis, video stores were still in their heyday. Pre-internet days, they dotted the landscape, attracting people like flies around dinnertime. Along Minneapolis' old commercial streets, each seemed to occupy a specialized niche like so many tropical birds. Just north of the freeway, for example, Nicollet Village Video offered a spacious haven for lost souls and their dogs. Wandering its well-stocked aisles in search of the urbane, poking through curated shelves while punk played overhead, was a pleasure sorely to be missed.

In the late '90s, I recall hunting down an obscure Swedish title as part of a film studies class in which I was enrolled. I called every store in town, and there were only two shops that carried "The Silence," part of Bergmann’s existential trilogy on God. One was in Southeast on Como Avenue and the other on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown; I remember its yellow-and-black sign, though not what the place was called. I recall that shopping there was a snobby experience. You had to leave a $100 deposit, in case of loss or damage, and the clerk behind the desk donned the kind of critical authority found today in wine cellars.  

“The last great place was in Seward, Filmzilla, and I remember Discount Video on Hennepin,” Paul Dickinson told me when I asked about his shelf of VHS.

Today Filmzilla is a laundromat, but just a few blocks away, Dickinson runs  Dead Media out of an old storefront on 25th Street. The small shop is crammed with outdated formats — records, VHS and cassette tapes, and (gulp) used books — not a video store, per se, but it does qualify as a place to acquire portable films.

Intercontinental Video
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Intercontinental Video has long offered an eclectic mix of films from around the world from the corner of an 1890s brick building on the West Bank.

“Since day one we’ve had VHS for sale,” Dickinson explained. “It’s a dedicated group of customers, and we rotate fresh stock from our magical stash of VHS. We sell a lot of '80s, '90s stuff; that seems to be what people like. I cannot vouch for their archival quality. That is maybe the downside of the genre.”

Curiously enough, as both Dickinson and Prost pointed out, VHS tapes are seeing a renaissance in the online aftermarket. Though VHS players are no longer produced, many people find that the old plastic tapes retain some allure as both a curio and as a format for the obscure. 

“There are some very valuable VHS,” Dickinson explained. “They’re becoming collectible, because there’s a list of VHS [titles] mainly in cult film horror and different genres that will never be transferred to DVD, and will never be streamed either.”

These days, $10, the price of Dead Media’s three-box set of the Godfather trilogy, gets you a month of access to a seemingly infinite stream of pixels on Netflix or Hulu, enough to strangle the eyeballs of any cinephile. But compared to the time when a blue-and-yellow Blockbuster lurked on every corner, when Mr. Movies was where neighbors crossed paths, Redbox and Netflix mark yet another victory for placelessness. Romance evaporates when huddled around a vending machine in a gas station parking lot, though the act of endlessly paging through Netflix icons with a couch companion retains the remembered patina of a youth spent browsing.

When you ask him, Arora, who lives in Arden Hills, says he is looking forward to taking it easy. He’s philosophical about the end of the video era, the coming day when the ritual act of browsing an aisle of movies is another historical footnote. 

“This is the last generation,” said Scott Prost, owner of Video Universe. “The kids I see coming into my store will probably be the last of the kids that will ever go to video stores.”

“Afterwards nobody will go,” agreed Arora, surrounded by stacks of DVDs.  

“I’m never sad,” he added. “Why to be sad? That’s the life. Life goes on.”

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Comments (9)

Movies on 35th

Just a suggestion. You might venture to south Mpls and check out our wonderful video store on Bloomington Ave So at East 35th St, just across the street from the fabulous May Day Cafe. Thanks, Tom Clarke

Sad to see an era pass.

Just a note for all you streamers of film: At least with Netflix, to which I subscribe as a DVD renter, the DVD catalog they have is the only place a real film buff can go. Netflix streams many fewer films and tv shows than it has in its DVD list, especially for foreign and indie video. And, not infrequently there's a semi-interesting "making of" featurette and behind-the-scenes stuff on the DVD that I don't think you get with streaming service.

Of course, Netflix has to pay postage for DVD users, and they're desperately trying to limit the catalog to discourage us film buffs who ask for the rarities. They want just the "give me the latest blockbuster" subscribers these days. (Netflix routinely culls its DVDs, so what one could rent five years ago is no longer available, so Amazon gets lots of business from frustrated DVD renters around the USA.)

Now that video stores are disappearing around the Twin Cities, there's less and less variety of films and TV to see. Streaming, then, is a kind of dumbing-down of film and TV viewing.

Discount Video

The store on Hennepin and 27th was Discount Video and yes it was a totally snobby shopping experience, though I recall the guy being jovial in his strictness and snobbiness. If I remember correctly, the films were organized by distributor, not genre. I lived on that block and almost never went there--easier to walk 4 blocks than deal with them.

Still love our neighborhood video store

The closure of Intercontinental Video is the end of an era and a priceless resource of global films. I wish the owner well.

In Powderhorn Park, the Movies on 35th Street thrives and despite access to multiple streaming services, my family values owner-turned-friend Tim Hanson and his shop. We walk to the store, maybe stop for some baked goods at MayDay, and interact with Tim and other patrons as we browse films and tv shows. No download or vending machine will replace live person-to-person feedback on films, the option of splurging on candy, or the sense of neighborhood belonging the brick and mortar store offers.

Discount Video on Hennepin in Uptown

Great review of local video store history.

I got my film education at Nicollet Village Video, but I first began my tutelage at Om's video store, followed by Discount Video.

I remember experiencing something beyond sadness when I heard that Discount Video was closing, as though a not-quite-person had passed. The world slightly shifted. The owners were personable and also delightfully opinionated at times (as we all are) about film. If you went into the store and said, "I like ___; could you recommend something like that?" You'd get an expert rundown of your options. In their closing sale of VHS stock and DVDs, I felt like a vulture looking for a couple of titles to buy.

Om--I remember him very fondly. Always genial and ready for conversation, and also a local font of filmic knowledge. It was at his store that this small town boy opened his eyes wide to the world as revealed through film.

Village Video was practically a warehouse of film. They had the Criterion collection, art house rarities, the usual studio films, all sorts of odds and ends you wouldn't find anywhere else, and also truckloads of dreck churned out by smaller production companies, which only added to the flavor of the store. If you didn't stop by for a few weeks or a couple of months, there's no telling what you'd discover upon reentering that cave of discovery with all of the new titles added. Altogether I spent many hours looking through their stock for a title or two for the weekend. I only scratched the surface. I sometimes wonder what happened to the store clerks, those familiar faces--where are they now?

We shouldn't forget a last cry of rebellion at the end of the video store age--Revolution Cinema, a true film aficionado's store, and runned/owned by one who was himself a filmmaker. A perfect selection of films, but too small. It's one of those stores that if you were a billionaire you might buy just to keep it going on principle.

And now we're in the full swing of streaming digital. Convenience has improved, for one. Also, if you download a movie from iTunes you won't get a copy with scratches on its pixels or skips in its code.

The downsides though are considerable. Despite the technical erasure of boundaries that should have enabled the doors of all moviedom to be pushed wide open, there's still a ton that you can't find online. One example: Martin Scorsese's The 50 Year Argument, a documentary by one of the world's leading filmmakers, is impossible to rent despite being released in 2014.

One of the beauties of these old stores, analogous to the experience of libraries, is the possibility of chance discovery. This would happen all the time and because of this I expanded by boundaries probably more than I would have if I had just gone looking for films in a category like French New Wave. Chance discovery is sometimes easier, sometimes harder online. In this regard iTunes leaves much to be desired. A company known for its design, Apple hasn't yet begun to imagine how chance discovery might be built into iTunes.

And then there's the "tail end" of film, all the stuff that the mass public won't typically watch, films that appeal to specific interests, films of a specific time and place, or obscure but important directors, etc. Again, with dedicated searching online you'll find more there than you ever could in a store. But where you can watch a lot of this online?

The internet promised, and has partially delivered on, a golden age of access. But, that golden age imagined something much better, something close to total and frictionless access to everything in the global history of film. Instead, the lawyers are still in charge harming wider distribution, and the "market" often couldn't care less about something unless there's a decent return on investment. The video stores were subject to these pressures too, and maybe I have rose colored glasses on, but it seemed to me that the age of the video stores offered a more chaotic and diverse access, compared with today's metric-ized and constrained distribution systems.

At once we gain and lose, and so it must be.

great memories

Thanks for all the wonderful comments here. It's just what I was hoping for from Minnpost's diligent readers.

Family Video chain still going strong in Minnesota

Nearly two dozen stores in larger non-metro cities and towns in Minnesota (Mankato, Hutchinson, Willmar, etc). A few stores in the northern and southern suburbs. Apparently they buy their locations so they are not subject to rent hikes and other vagaries of the retail business market.

A lot of advantages come with the inconvenience of renting DVDs

As others have mentioned, I enjoy the experience of renting from "The Movies on 35th Street".

Netflix is cheap, but their downloadable library is tiny compared to the video store. Also, nice to get opinions on choices from a storeowner that hand-picked all of the available titles. It is actually quite difficult to come up with a worthwhile title that the store doesn't have...

The video store is a marker of rurality

I took some students on a field trip to a small town in the Midwest and there at the center of town was a thriving video store. The college students were shocked. They didn't know video stores still existed today. They don't realize that not everyone has broadband and netflix, especially in rural areas. There are places along the Gunflint Trail that were just got access to broadband fiberoptic cable last summer. In the data I could find, Cook County, Minnesota had 1,850 houses and businesses connected to the broadband out of over 6,000 houses.