ONE evening late last month, Gary Dennis was striding around Movie Place, his video store on 105th Street near Broadway, with a cordless phone clamped to his ear. His graying hair was brushed back, and he spoke, as usual, out of the side of his mouth. “No, I’m not going to be in this industry anymore,” he told the caller. “The industry’s dying.” He waited a beat, then added, “I’m going to sell drugs to junior high schoolers.”
Movie Place, which occupies a pale yellow room in a second-floor storefront, has 24,000 titles, making it one of New York’s best-stocked video stores; the average Blockbuster carries only about 5,000 films. Movie Place’s holdings — sealed in binders, arranged in wooden crates, shelved high on every wall — include commercial hits but also the very obscure, from a 1984 self-help video starring Mr. T to a biopic of Karen Carpenter acted out with Barbie dolls.
Presiding over this treasure house is Mr. Dennis, a fierce-browed, loose-jointed 45-year-old who fills the air with a giddy mix of film trivia, sharp asides and ribbing. “He didn’t like ‘Arrested Development’!” he shouted, pointing at a customer in mock outrage. “Should we throw him out?”
Customers go to Movie Place to be part of this banter, but they will not be doing so for much longer. Faced with a large rent increase, Mr. Dennis plans to close his 22-year-old shop on Nov. 30.
Such closings are increasingly common in New York and around the country. Like the movie theaters that preceded them, video stores are fast becoming relics, and their signs may soon join those unlighted movie marquees (with a vestigial letter or two) that dot various neighborhoods and remind passers-by of what once was.
But the decline of the video store is more than a story of small merchants undone by technological change. Like movie theaters, and unlike delis or drugstores, video shops in a city as film-saturated and film-savvy as New York emerged as centers of neighborhood life.
Their selections mirror the people they serve, and their proprietors, like Mr. Dennis, can be beloved figures with a deep knowledge not only of local inhabitants’ film tastes, but also of other aspects of their lives.
“I came in here once, and I said, ‘My husband just got his teeth pulled,’ ” said Maxine McClintock, a longtime Movie Place customer. “‘What’s a good movie to watch when your teeth are pulled?’ ” Mr. Dennis recommended some screwball comedies, including “Libeled Lady,” a 1936 film with Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Salvatore Ierardo, the liquidation director for Video One Liquidators, a Florida company that sells off video stores’ inventories on site, sees the deaths of these shops firsthand. The stores are like “the guy that used to deliver ice,” he said, adding, “He worked hard and everything, but the refrigerator was working while he was sleeping.” As for customers’ reaction to the demise, Mr. Ierardo said: “They know it’s inevitable, but they don’t feel comfortable. They know it’s been there a long time standing.”
Mom-and-Pops in Peril
The final scene in the story of Movie Place began last April, when its building was sold. Mr. Dennis had no lease, and his new landlord, Ralph Braha, offered him one at a monthly rent of $7,500, more than double what he was paying. Jay Litzman, a lawyer for Mr. Braha, said in an interview, “When you’re in a commercial setting and you don’t have a lease and someone takes over, you expect that the market will be reached.”
In the middle of last month, Mr. Dennis decided to fold his hand and close his store by Dec. 1. He does not plan to open a new one; business is too sluggish these days, he said, and his heart isn’t in it.
“Starting again would be like going back to an old girlfriend,” he said. “I’d always be second-guessing myself.”
Compared with some other video stores, Movie Place has not fared badly. For years, it resisted the forces that have been sweeping away many of the city’s other mom-and-pop video shops. Nationally, the number of privately owned video rental shops, as opposed to huge chains, fell to roughly 13,000 in 2005 from about 22,000 in 1996, according to Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research, which tracks the entertainment industry.
The mom-and-pops were weakened by the rise of chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery, which together added almost 5,000 stores between 1996 and 2004, striking deals with the studios that gave them dozens of low-priced copies of hot new releases. Then the independents were buffeted by the arrival of cheap DVDs for sale, now a $16-billion-a-year business, along with the rise of Netflix and on-demand cable movies.
These trends have been especially harmful in New York, where rising rents are imperiling many small-margin businesses anyway. For New York, the list of casualties includes not only single-store video businesses but also small chains that have scaled back sharply or folded: Royal Video, Captain Video, Champagne Video.
Mr. Ierardo, the liquidation director, gets a knowing look from browsers when he is selling off a New York video store. “Some people walk in and go, ‘The rent, right?’ ” he said.
In any event, the decline of these shops has left New York’s many film lovers increasingly adrift. Until 2001, for example, the cognoscenti could hunt for Iranian or Bangladeshi films in the International Film and Video Center, an East Side store run by an Iranian film scholar. Until the mid-’90s, they could browse the sliding shelves at Video Shack, a pioneering sales-and-rental emporium near Times Square. Video Shack was such an early entrant to the business that it was selling videotapes before many customers knew what they were.
“People would come in one day, buy a video and then two days later, they’d bring it back because it didn’t fit in their television,” recalled the former owner, Arthur Morowitz. “We had actually out-marketed the VCR.”
The Corner Film Critic
The proprietors of many of the city’s video stores often became film critics of last resort. North Heights Video in Brooklyn Heights, a defunct outlet run by the wry, hyper-opinionated Martin Arno, had a vast selection of obscure and foreign films (anyone for “White Hell of Pitz Palu” a 1929 silent about German mountaineering?). Mr. Arno was known to favor Hitchcock over Bergman. “I watch a Bergman film,” he once said, “and I want to jump off a bridge.”
Mr. Dennis of Movie Place, who named his 7-year-old daughter, Ava, in honor of Ava Gardner, has probably never been asked a film-related question he cannot answer. Once, a woman who was leaving her husband at home for the weekend asked Mr. Dennis, “What are the movies he’d want to watch that I’d hate?” Mr. Dennis’s recommendations: “U-571,” a 2000 submarine thriller set during World War II, and “The Seven-Ups,” a 1973 police drama.
But the influence works both ways, with some shops coming to resemble their neighborhoods over the years, much as people and their pets are said to grow to look like each other.
World of Video, still operating on Greenwich Avenue in the still heavily gay West Village, is known for its gay and lesbian collection. At Cinémathèque in Park Slope, the large number of local writers had a hand in determining what was on the shelves. Paul Auster, the novelist, repeatedly requested “In a Lonely Place,” a 1950 Humphrey Bogart movie about a hot-tempered screenwriter. Eventually, he got his wish.
Channel Video, on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, was shaped by its neighborhood of upscale cinephiles, people with highbrow but not obscure tastes. “He had gathered a collection of art-house movies and Criterion DVDs and things the customers wanted,” Mr. Ierardo said of David Cohn, the proprietor. “They’d ask for something, he’d buy it.”
Video stores are woven into the local fabric in other ways. A couple once asked Mr. Dennis if they could get married in his store. (He said no.) Some couples, among them Mr. Dennis and his wife, first met in the aisles. And last June, Mr. Dennis persuaded the city to give the name Humphrey Bogart Place to the block of 103rd Street west of Broadway, because the actor spent his early years there.
“I don’t know how I’m going to live without it,” John Reaves, a Movie Place patron, said the other day as he signed a petition to keep the store open. The petition was drafted by a local family, the Telushkins. Mr. Dennis was dubious about the petition’s chances of success, but that did not keep Benjamin Telushkin, a 13-year-old Fellini fan, from sitting at a card table down the street with a giant oaktag sign and shouting, “Save Movie Place!”
The Frustrated 2,500
The Upper West Side is suffering through a spasm of late-stage gentrification, with many of its restaurants, shops and grocers replaced by bank branches and chain drugstores. Mr. Dennis himself drew loud applause at a meeting of Community Board 7 this month when he declared: “Our neighborhood is becoming a punch line. You walk down Broadway, and it’s a Flintstones background: Duane Reade, wireless place, Duane Reade, wireless place.”
Upper West Siders are particularly protective of all their institutions, but the demise of Movie Place seems to have touched a raw neighborhood nerve. With the help of his mother, Devorah, and sisters, Shira and Naomi, Benjamin Telushkin gathered 2,500 signatures on their petition.
Such local affection surfaced a few weeks ago when Matt Unger and Stephanie Ehrlich, the couple who had asked to be married at Movie Place, arrived at the store. They had just learned that it was closing.
Grimacing, Mr. Unger said, “That’s one of these things that make you not want to live in New York anymore.”
Ms. Ehrlich looked at her husband. “What’s Gary going to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Unger replied. “He seems to only be good at one thing.”
In fact, Mr. Dennis is making plans to sell off his inventory, perhaps to an online service. The only movies he wants to keep are “Casablanca,” “A Night at the Opera” and “Orchestra Wives,” a Glenn Miller musical. As for the rest, he said: “Where are you going to keep it? My wife invented that phrase — ‘Oh, you’re going to buy it? Where are you going to keep it?’ New York’s different.” Besides, he added, “this stuff’ll show up on TV.”
He spends part of every day fielding condolence calls, at least two dozen on a recent Monday. “I’m available for parties and bar mitzvahs,” he told one caller. Then, more gravely, he added: “Don’t worry. I’m chained to this neighborhood. They’re going to bury me in Straus Park when the time comes.” After shutting the store, Mr. Dennis may set up a movie Web site or, fittingly, write a book about defunct movie theaters.
One of the store’s final visitors was Karen Young, an actress who plays an F.B.I. agent in “The Sopranos” and a romantic rival of Charlotte Rampling’s in the 2006 film “Heading South.” Ms. Young, who lives two blocks from the store, raised her two children on slapstick Laurel and Hardy rented from Mr. Dennis, and she was shocked to hear of the closing. “You know how hard those are to find?” she said of those ’30s comedies. “This is awful.”
“You can buy most of those on DVD now,” Mr. Dennis said in a kind voice. Then he paused for a second. “Not the shorts.”