Finding VHS in a DVD World

Can't live without VHS? Then Video Vault owner Jim McCabe is your man. He's got that Asian cult action flick you've been craving.
Can't live without VHS? Then Video Vault owner Jim McCabe is your man. He's got that Asian cult action flick you've been craving. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

From a basement in Old Town Alexandria that feels half-library, half-laboratory, Jim McCabe wears his gray hair frizzy, his Hawaiian shirts loose, and takes pride in doing the opposite of what everyone else does.

Walled in by bookshelves of old videotapes, McCabe's "office" houses a fold-up director's chair, a stack of blank VHS tapes and a TV planted in the corner, which he has hooked up to a recording system to convert the prevalent DVD format, like an electric IV, back to what it replaced: the videotape.

McCabe says he does the "backward conversion all the time," mailing back a VHS copy in exchange for the DVD he's given. "Sometimes I do it for filmmakers who want to show their movie to their parents."

The dim office is only the backstage to McCabe's grander project -- the cult video store he built up 20 years ago, Video Vault. Rewind to its infancy, the Vault rented out clunky Betamax formats to locals stuck on the wrong technology. Today, the Vault still boasts beta -- McCabe has never tossed a single movie -- and the store fills the same niche, surviving off customers who keep a dying technology alive.

"If a video breaks, we have the tools to fix it. If a VCR breaks, we can fix that, too. I know people who are buying VCR players to stockpile in their closets so they can watch their movies when theirs breaks."

If that mentality recalls the crazy hoarders who feared the apocalypse at the approach of the millennium, it should: Most people are tossing -- not treasuring -- their VCRs. Introduced in 1996, the DVD has nearly fully eclipsed the old black plastic, its two white eyes nearly weeping as the magnetic tape around them winds out. On June 15, 2003, DVD rentals outdid VHS rentals to officially become the more popular technology, and commentators at that time predicted 2006 would be the death knell. Today, studios rarely are releasing on VHS, and 82 percent of households have DVD players.

But Video Vault's business is better than ever, drawing VHS die-hards from local video stores that are phasing video out -- first setting up bins to sell tapes for less than the price of a rental, then shipping what's unsold out of the store. Ironically, the Video Rack on 17th Street Northwest now only rents DVDs. And while Video Vault won't need to change its name anytime soon, across the Potomac, Jon Francke, the buyer for the Potomac Video chain, is phasing out videos.

"Sometimes it can be really tough to get rid of them," he says. He also worries that the format switch will mean some films will get lost in translation. "Some of these titles took twenty years to come out on tape, so who knows how long until they come out on DVD." His favorite film, "Five Graves to Cairo," was released in 1943 but didn't appear on VHS until 1997. And on DVD? "Who knows when that's going to happen."

Just as the value of vinyl soared when records became more difficult to find and play, the Vault's McCabe has found himself awash in the first wave of video-collectors who believe that videos will follow suit. "Cinephiles kept their VHS," McCabe says, looking at a shelf of rare Asian cult action flicks, almost all on tape.

Aside from films that are simply not available in DVD, some video versions are valuable for quirky scenes that have been edited out of the DVD. The original 1977 "Star Wars" showed Han Solo in a bar, getting cagey as he's approached by an alien come to collect money. "So he pulls out his gun and shoots the guy," McCabe explains. But the remastered DVD reverses the action to make Han Solo more kid-friendly. "They made the alien shoot first," McCabe groans, "So it's more politically correct." The 1977 "Star Wars" VHS copies are valuable to collectors. Similarly, Norman Scherer, who runs the Web site, has a video copy of Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" that contains a violent rape scene subdued in the DVD release.

If you only rent DVDs, you're what McCabe might call a "new-release nut," who he imitates by crossing his hands across his chest and whining, "I want something new, what's new? I want something new."

Luckily for McCabe, there's plenty of video buffs still around. Fredricksburg resident Joel Esslinger has been renting from the Vault for years, and doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. "I don't want to see this stuff lost," he says. "I just wanna see everything, man."

Places to Get Your VHS Fix

If you're interested in oddball videos and don't want to seem like the only one scanning the VHS bins, check out these stores and Web sites.

CD/GAME EXCHANGE. Videos are cheap, cheap, cheap to buy at this chain store -- $1 to $4 -- a reward for the effort of raking through unorganized bins. Or, if you have videos to sell, the Exchange will offer store credit. 2475 18th St., 202-588-5070; 4533 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-966-8307; 4433 Lehigh Rd., College Park, 301-887-1370; 842 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 240-268-0675; 8236 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-495-0766. .

TRASHPALACE.COM. Run out of Frederick, Trash Palace offers films on VHS that are simply too goofy to ever expect to be transferred to DVD. The Washington Psychotronic Film Society gets their tapes here, paying between $5 and $25 dollars for spaghetti westerns such as "Navajo Joe" and B-movies like "Blood Orgy of the She-Devils."

VIDEO MOVIE LIQUIDATORS. This large, open store in Alexandria's warehouse district offers what local video stores rejected when they move to DVDs. About 14,000 videos are on sale, many for $5.95 -- but don't bring the kids; the store also sells adult tapes. 644 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. 703-751-7122.

VIDEOOYSTER.COM. The VHS collector's paradise, patronized by the Weinstein brothers, Ted Turner, and Michael Jackson, who bought $45,000 in retro children's shows. Prices like $675 for 1978's "A Decade of Black Sabbath" reflect the collectabiliity of the original cassette covers and the rarity of the films -- most offered here are the single existing versions.

VIDEO VAULT . The Alexandria fixture offers the area's largest VHS selection (50,000 titles) for rent at $2 for two nights. Pick a movie on the birthday of a star in the film, and it's half price. 113 S. Columbus St., Alexandria. 703-549-8848.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company