How Jamaica Plain’s Video Underground rental store survives the age of streaming
It’s almost exactly as you remember it.
AT the underground video in Jamaica Plain, there are shelves of DVDs ready to rent: new releases, old ones, animated films. There are the Raisinets and Whoppers individual candy boxes, and the popcorn machine behind the counter. And, of course, there are the movie-loving employees, ready to offer you a movie recommendation – no algorithm necessary. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the 1978 horror film “The Swarm” played on an overhead monitor. Movie posters of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Clueless” adorn the walls.
But in this video rental shop in Egleston Square – a remnant of what was once a thriving industry – some things are different. There’s a cafe offering items like pancakes, smoothies, flatbread pizzas, and home-roasted coffee. There is an adjacent 15-seat theater-style screening room, available by reservation for private events. And the more than 16,000 films, which customers once rented by the day, can now only be viewed by those with an annual or monthly subscription. media subscription. Monthly, flat-rate, and unlimited rental subscriptions range from $20 to $60, a sliding scale that reflects how many DVDs customers can view at a time.
“Nostalgia will absolutely bring someone in,” Video Underground owner Kevin Koppes said, but he knew the store needed more to keep people coming back.
Video Underground, which now bills itself as a “movie cafe”, opened in 2002 on Center Street in Jamaica Plain. Koppes took it over in 2013 when he discovered it was in danger of closing and moved it to its current location on Washington Street in 2014. He opened the cafe soon after and took over the nearby space for add a screening room in 2019. The store hosted weekly public movie nights in the screening room before the pandemic. Now it is reliably rented a few days a week for private openings. (For non-members, rentals start at $25 with an hourly rate.) “We do a lot with a pretty crummy space,” Koppes said.
Koppes doesn’t feel like it’s competing with services like Netflix or Hulu or HBO Max — because hardly anyone is Video Underground “their main way to see movies,” he said. Instead, the store fills in the gaps left by the streaming giants. While some films may be removed from streaming catalogs after a while, “our collection is only growing,” Koppes said, adding that they invest in the catalog every week. Some customers are looking for a DVD’s special features, like a commentary track or deleted scenes, or are looking for titles that never made it to streamers.
“Even though I run a catalog of thousands of DVDs, I don’t think streaming is inherently bad,” he said. “But I still strongly believe that there is a place for physical media.”
Other customers, like Dan Thomas, 69, appreciate the human interaction at the rental store. Thomas does not have streaming services. “Sometimes I have to wait for things, but there’s always more to see,” said Thomas, who picked up “Solaris” and “The Eight Hundred” on a recent Wednesday.
Despite Koppes’ dedication to physical forms of media, the move to the subscription-level model for movie rentals was partly intended to emulate streaming services, he said. This means that in order for the current 700-plus subscribers to get the most bang for their buck, they need to come in often to redeem their DVDs — which Koppes hopes will entice them to try a coffee or a pastry. Or vice versa: a regular coffee shop customer might see a DVD title that catches their eye and decide to try a subscription.
“The longer the little bell rings at our door, the better off we are in general, and the more likely someone is to try something,” he said.
For locals like Thomas, the Video Underground is pretty much the only place (besides libraries) to get their DVD rental fix. Most surviving video rental stores – MovieWorks in Brookline, hollywood express in Cambridge, and Chet’s Video & Candy Shoppe in Marblehead – have all closed in the past decade. Massachusetts’ Last Blockbuster Video Store closed in 2014. Overall, DVD sales have fallen in recent years, from 6.1 billion physical video transactions in 2011 to 1.2 billion in 2021, according to market research published in a wired item.
The stores eclectic catalog has titles ranging from French New Wave films to art house films to current Oscar nominees. The floor only displays a fraction of the selection, organized into staggered categories like “Best of the Worst” and “Experiments in Gnarly”. The store has more than four times the number of movie titles on Netflix reported by the streaming service aggregator just look.
Carlos Troncoso, who came on a Wednesday with his two young sons, played the store’s “dice game,” where $1 buys a mystery DVD based on the outcome of a roll of six dice. They ended up with a DVD of eight feature films by Charlie Chaplin, “Foul Play” and “Spectre”.
“A place like this you need for every generation to learn to appreciate movies and movies,” said Troncoso, who in addition to his VU membership has a number of service subscriptions. streaming. “It’s about being able to expose them to things they won’t click on.”
And yet, there will always be a way Koppes can’t improve streaming services: “No physical item can match the convenience of sitting there in your SpongeBob pajamas, pressing the button over and over again,” he said.
But the dedicated clientele don’t care. Sarah Tuttle, who came with her boyfriend, Will Tao, watched “Super Mario Bros” and “Zardoz” on a Wednesday afternoon. “I just think it’s cool that this type of place can still exist,” said Tuttle, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “It’s more of an experience than a convenience.”
Somewhere along the line, the store has become something of a community center. The cafe has its regulars, whose employees know their usual order. There are dozens of DVD swaps every week, and renters often ask Koppes for his two cents on a title before committing to it. Right now, the long-running Oscars contest is in full swing: People fill out a sheet to guess which movies will win, and the person with the most correct predictions receives a $25 gift card. The person with the least gets a five-minute sermon from Koppes.
“The way I think mom-and-pop video libraries were intertwined with people’s lives, I think we’re still kind of intertwined with people’s lives,” he said, “at a different time, for different reasons.”
Dana Gerber can be contacted at [email protected]