Video Vault, cult movie rental favorite, to close in April

Jim McCabe opened Alexandria's Video Vault in 1985, gaining a loyal following among cinephiles. High rent, no parking and Internet competition killed business.
Jim McCabe opened Alexandria's Video Vault in 1985, gaining a loyal following among cinephiles. High rent, no parking and Internet competition killed business. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another video rental store might have been content to boast a "Horror" section, but Alexandria's Video Vault always catered to far more specialized tastes.

How, precisely, do you prefer to take your splatter? Do you favor the blood and gore of "Italian Horror," or the more cerebral shocks offered over in "New Asian Horror"? Elsewhere in the crowded basement store, the "Cult" shelves tempt with oddball rarities from the golden era of drive-in movies, with names like "Blood & Lace," "Blood Freak," "Blood of the Virgins" and "The Bloody Brood." And those are just the B's.

Jim McCabe opened his video store in 1985 with 500 videotapes in the days when the local competition was Erol's, a powerful 63-store chain boasting at least 1,000 mainstream Hollywood titles at each location. "Guaranteed worst movies in town!" was Video Vault's motto.

The store thrived for many of its 25 years, sheltered in its niche from the whirlwinds that killed off most mom-and-pops and then began to catch up with the Blockbusters. Now an exhaustive and nationally known collection of the weird and the hard-to-find is no longer enough, and McCabe is shutting his doors for the last time at the end of April. He blames high rent, scant parking -- and the Internet. In the age of iTunes, online rental services and on-demand movies, convenience trumps a drive to the video shop, no matter how impressive a store's library.

Video Vault leaves behind a shrinking handful of independent movie stores, including the four remaining Potomac Video shops in the Washington are (down from more than a dozen six years ago), a Video Americain in Takoma Park -- and the automated $1-a-night kiosks proliferating in supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and company cafeterias.

Optimism takes a new definition in an industry facing such headwinds. Even though Video Americain owner Barry Solan is getting ready to close his store in Newark, Del., he expects that his other three in Takoma Park and Baltimore will be around for a "long time" -- and by that, he means "two or three years."

"In the video business," he said, "that's like saying you're going to be around for the tricentennial."

As for Video Vault, business has dropped off by about 50 percent in the past six years, McCabe said. Although some of the store's original members still come in to peruse the shelves, McCabe figures that his former clientele got tired of fighting for a space on Alexandria's crowded streets (tell your iPhone to alert you when your time is up, and the meter police will still get there first with a $35 ticket), then "gave up and joined Netflix."

"Packaged media is going the way of the dodo," he said. "At some point, the digital era is going to do in everything."

In 2000, at the peak of the video rental era, there were 30,000 video stores in the United States, said Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research, an entertainment industry research firm. Adams said that he expects 2,000 stores to close this year, which would bring that number to about 18,000.

"It's been a painful grind down for in-store rental," he said. Although movie rentals have stabilized in the past two years, that's mostly because more people are using automated kiosks that charge $1 a night, he said. That's one direction the former giant Blockbuster is turning to for survival. The chain boasted 5,000 stores in 2000 and now has 3,525 stores; by the end of the year, a spokeswoman said, the company will have 10,000 automated kiosks, by comparison.

As Solan puts it, it's "almost impossible" to make it as a video store these days, and every minor-seeming detail can be of vast importance, whether it's foot traffic or the attitude of a landlord. "You've got to have a very particular set of circumstances to survive," he said.

Video Vault's the biggest tumble happened when a rambling, three-story townhouse the store had occupied was sold, McCabe said.

When that happened, McCabe and his wife, Jane, moved the store into the biggest nearby rental property they could find, but the new location, unlike the old one, did not offer parking. That's an unfortunate development for any retail store, perhaps, but particularly for one such as Video Vault, with its packed shelves. To try to hold on to some of its customers, McCabe offered "curbside service," in which customers could call the store and have a clerk hand-deliver a movie to their car as they waited in the store's alley.

For Washington area film buffs, said longtime customer Paul Harless, it's another one of those depressing milestones -- up there with when the Biograph and Key theaters were shuttered. "However obscure the film was that you were looking for, Video Vault either had it or knew how to get it," said Harless, who said he was "devastated" at the news of the store's closing.

The store's collection of 20,000 DVDs and more than 40,000 VHS tapes still holds plenty of classics and not-so-classics, but perhaps not for long. All those titles are now on sale, though some of those hard-to-find movies command a premium price. On Tuesday the store sold a copy of "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," a cult favorite oldie about a trio of thrill-seeking go-go dancers, for $80. "It's almost like selling babies," McCabe said.

As for the future, "I haven't really figured it out yet," he said. Even with the store's end near, McCabe mostly just wants to talk about movies.

"Did you ever see 'Carny'?" he asks, mentioning a 1980 flick starring Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. "It's a great film about sideshow freaks." Alas, it's not available on Netflix.

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