“I can watch anything,” says Chatham native Steve Campbell, co-founder and current owner of one of the last video rental stores left in the country, Video Visions, located at 1 Hudson Ave, Chatham, NY. Originally opened in 1984, but in this location since 1985, Campbell and his friend initially invested in 200 videos. Video Visions is a survivor having lived through competition from up to five other stores in the area which have since closed. Were any of them a Blockbuster? Or any sort of corporate chain? “Yes,” he says as he smirks. He remembers when a chain store called Movie Gallery opened in the small strip mall down the street. Campbell loves to tell the story of the day the owner of the store stopped by Video Visions. “He was very nice, a gentleman” he starts. Apparently, he stopped by to kindly let Campbell know that when Video Visions goes out of business, he would be willing to buy his videos. After about a year the chain went bankrupt and Campbell ended up buying a number of their videos.
I asked him how he manages to survive. He says everyone always asks him that to which he always replies, we have everything. They have never thrown out a title. If interest wanes, he may get rid of copies of a title, but he always saves at least one copy. This obviously makes for an incredible collection of movies and documentaries.
I noticed the store immediately the first time I visited Chatham. I love movies, I was a movie projectionist for the campus film club in college and I’m a slave to nostalgia. I still have my dad’s Betamax player and battery charger! I jokingly asked Campbell if he has anything on Betamax because I still have the player to which he chuckles and says, “wow that is rare.” He informs me that most titles are on DVD or VHS and he does rent out VCR players. He also helps people convert their old home videos to DVD.
The store is enormous. There are tens of thousands of titles and a number of them you probably won’t be able to find online. Like what? Old horror movies that were never re-released on DVD. That was what Campbell said when he was interviewed by Inside Edition about two years ago. You can watch that video here. And of course there’s a documentary called Video Visions which premiered at one of the Crandall’s film festivals in Chatham. There has been a renewed interest in video stores since three of the last four Blockbuster video stores in the world closed in 2019. The one that stayed open, with no plans to close, is located in Bend, Oregon. You can read about that here. Earlier this week, the last nationwide video rental store, Family Video, based in my neck of the woods, Glenview, Illinois, announced it would be closing all its remaining video stores.
With all the online streaming going on why are people still interested in video stores? “Browsing,” he says. I completely agree. I often lament about always going through the perfunctory twenty, sometimes forty-five, minutes of online browsing on Netflix and still not finding something I feel like watching. My guess is because Netflix doesn’t allow for true browsing but only shows me titles it thinks I want to watch based on my past choices and also my watchlist which is filled with things I definitely want to watch to things I might watch but probably never will. Remember in-person browsing? Walking up and down the aisles of a video store and looking at video case covers and once in a while looking up at the huge fat non-LCD television set perilously hanging from the ceiling to see what was playing? I remember when we were kids, we would put our names on waiting lists at video stores for the official movie posters taped onto the front windows.
If you like old school things and old school stories, this is the place for you. I chatted with him about my projectionist days and discovered his uncle was a projectionist at the Crandall Theater back in the day! We talked about characteristics of moviegoers. Campbell himself rarely watches something more than once. I on the other hand have seen many movies a zillion times. We both like documentaries. Another thing missing from online streaming? A personal recommendation. Yes, an algorithm can guess what you might like but how nice to be able to chat with a live person and get recommendations from someone who has been in the business since the 80’s? Campbell says he can tell after a few rentals what a customer might like and not like. He gives two types of recommendations: things that other customers recommend and things that he personally recommends. He doesn’t really have a Top Ten list, nor a favorite movie. If you want to know about the writer or director of the movie in your hand, he’s probably not the best person to ask. But he has a book where he can look up anything. Ha.
My favorite of his stories is about the times when he and his partner would occasionally drive around Columbia County and knock on doors to retrieve overdue movies. Videos were $70 each! As small business owners, they couldn’t afford to lose videos.
My final question about VHS rentals: is there a fee if you don’t rewind? Ha! He says there used to be. Maybe it was $1. But these days, not really.