After years of building up what owner Barry Solan calls a film “archive,” Thursday night began the official division of the video and DVD collection of Takoma Park’s Video Americain.
Like a scene out of one of the remaining movies on the shelves, the video rental store stood alight in Old Takoma with customers carefully searching for additions to their film collections, waiting in the line winding to the back of the store, and some leaving with a well-stocked box.
A quick glimpse around the store — which has inhabited two Takoma Park locations since the mid-1990s — is enough to show that it is not your average Blockbuster.
Or as Barry put it: “We’re not selling bologna.”
The store is filled with cult, martial arts, Eastern European, westerns, documentary, horror, classic, anime and fantasy films among others.
Barry, 61, of Newark, Del., said he always had “a strong desire” to open a store like this, that offered a unique blend of movies and could be a part of his customers’ daily life.
But after about 16 years in the city sharing their ardent love of film, Barry and his wife Annie Solan ended rentals on Nov. 11 in part because of new-release business lost to competitors including Netflix, Redbox and Amazon.
“You can’t survive just as an arts store,” Barry said.
The couple will have one store left in Baltimore — of a previous total of six in the Mid-Atlantic region — after they end sales at the store in late January.
“It’s been a long run,” Barry said.
‘A love of film’
Barry’s self-described “love of film” has been alive since high school.
“As soon as I got a car, I was immediately off to Philadelphia, watching as many movies as I could,” he said.
His passion for film would lead him into the world of repertory theatres — including the State Theatre in Newark (which he ran) and The Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia — which showed a variety of movies until videos arrived on the scene.
“The handwriting was on the wall for repertory cinemas because video had taken away the ability to keep bringing films back; “Harold and Maude,” all those types of films,” he said.
At the suggestion of his two partners — who have since moved on from the business — they opened up a video store in Newark in 1988, later expanding to other locations including Baltimore, where Barry said the store gained its national reputation.
Annie, 60, co-owner of the two remaining stores, is no stranger to film either.
“We always, always shared a love of film,” she said of herself and her husband, and the two spent their first two dates watching “The Passenger” and “A Woman Under the Influence.”
Annie’s love for film is so deep, she said she had to finish watching “Children of Paradise” even as she went into labor with her first child.
“I was sitting in the theater, and I started having contractions,” she said.
While it took time for a spot to open up in Takoma Park, Barry said they always had their eye on the city that he said “seemed like a natural area for a store like ours. It had an intellectual quality, it was near colleges.”
“Our prime crowd, apart from students, was always the people that used to go to the repertory and arts cinemas but now have children,” he said.
Barry said that while there might only be one copy of a certain film, it would never be banish from the collection entirely — one difference between Video Americain and video stores like Blockbuster.
“They never really cared whether a film had a functional, archival purpose,” he said. “In other words, whether it’s a film of value and just sort of like the whole natural run of film.”
After years of building up the archive, the store’s collection included about 15,000 to 16,000 VHS tapes and about an equal number of DVDs, Annie said.
While DVDs “breathed new life” into the video store industry, Barry said the store also included new releases within the collection to help the store survive.
But he said that the store’s doors are closing in part because competitors have taken away their new release business.
That and other factors created a situation like the trash compactor scene in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” Annie said.
“All these things compressed,” Barry agreed.
‘Bigger than just Takoma Park’
Though he said he has never taken any film courses, Barry has “picked up a pretty significant film knowledge.”
With that knowledge, he said he is able to relate to customers and make the “empathetic leap” necessary for recommending the right movie to someone.
“It’s like buying a gift, giving people suggestions like that,” he said.
Annie, who said all her extra money went to watching movies when she lived in New York, said she enjoys the same experience of matching someone with a new film they might love.
“The joy is getting someone to try something they’re not aware of,” she said.
At Video Americain, Annie said there lives a “serendipitous quality” that allows people to discover things they “wouldn’t be attracted to otherwise.”
Barry, who works in both the Takoma Park and Baltimore stores, said he often speaks with customers about more than the films they would be watching, from their kids to their marriages to their health.
Lena Reed, a store employee for about six months, said she was a regular customer before she filled out the store’s employee application that asked her to pick her five favorite movies and explain why.
“I think it’s sad that this won’t be here anymore,” Reed said. “It’s part of the community.”
Annie described the store’s “core audience” as loyal and recalled snow days where families with kids would stop by the store to rent a movie when school was out.
“I feel like we succeeded longer than anybody had the right to expect us to,” she said.
As people wandered the shelves Thursday night, many described the store’s unique collection as something they would miss.
Fenwick Anderson of Takoma Park said he thought it was “depressing” that Video Americain’s closing marked the end of one of the last video stores in the area.
“I’m always a believer in having everything available in every which way,” Anderson said.
Despina Kakoudaki of Washington, D.C., waited in line with a collection of films and TV shows to buy including “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Treme.”
Kakoudaki, a film professor at American University, said that she would visit the store to find a movie she wanted to show in a class, including those that are out of print.
Langley Park resident Mike Quilligan said the store offered movies he was not sure he could find anywhere else, and was “bigger than just Takoma Park.”
“In the bigger sense, I don’t think there’s anything quite like this,” Quilligan said.