It’s a Friday night in the mid 2000s, and my best friend and I are walking to the video store down the block to rent a movie for our sleepover. We’ve been entrusted with a crisp 10$ bill, and much to our delight it’s enough for a flick and also snacks. We pass by cheap pizza joints, bustling sushi restaurants and late-night coffee shops. Across the street, The Park Theater glows brilliantly, the marquees illuminated with an indie film from its pre-Cineplex days. The Bus stop line down the block intermingles with the liquor store crowd. As we enter what was then Black Dog Video, we are greeted by aisles crammed with films, vibrant chatter filling the air and bodies milling about excitedly. Teenage boys giggle at the unrated section covers, families with young children ponder which Scooby Doo to rent this week, and young auteurs silently peruse the foreign film section. Behind the counter the staff chat while scenes from a John Hughes classic flit across a CRT on the shelf. It’s a far cry from the repetitive lackluster of the nearby mega Blockbuster. It’s happening, it’s dazzling and to our young film geek tween selves, it’s quite possibly the center of the universe.
It’s a Monday evening in 2022, and as I walk up to the storefront, I notice Video Cat hasn’t yet replaced the old Black Dog Video awning. Instead, they have a personalized street sign out on display – it’s a pun centric hand drawn chalk rendition of a classic film featuring a cat instead of a film star. The store is familiarly charming with its aisles of films categorized with exquisite curation, its vintage poster art, and its handwritten recommendations taped to the titles. There are tables set out today with retro cultural paraphernalia — a t-shirt from Alien, print editions of Fangoria magazine, and an OG Playstation. RJ, the owner of Video Cat, and the provider of DVDs for my Saturday night home film screenings, stands behind the counter smiling and waving me over.
Bryn: Can you tell me about how Video Cat started, and your history with it?
RJ: I was a customer of the store since like 1996 when I moved to Vancouver. This was one of the first places I wanted to go because I just loved video stores and movies and stuff — it just sounded up my alley. I was going to Langara, and I would walk down to kill time because I was so poor I didn’t want to pay for the extra transfer to Burnaby where I was living.
I was wearing a Laura Palmer T-shirt and I walked in and the girl was like “Nice shirt!” We hit it off, and talked about horror and VHS and all these things. I was just hanging out so much, they were like “why don’t you work here?” I started with a few hours a week, and then I became store manager, and now I’m the owner.
Bryn: When did you turn it into Video Cat?
RJ: It was the end of 2019, early 2020, that the previous owner was humming and hawing about closing the store. So I was sort of distraught and talking to some good customers who know me pretty well who were like, “Why don’t you take over?” I was like, I’ve never really thought about that, let’s see if I can make it happen. But then COVID came along, and I was like, “I dunno! Am I insane?” We had a very short vision of the future then — by the fall we’ll be back to normal, and everything will open up again! Well, here we are two and half years later… It was a bit of a challenge, but I have taken over.
Bryn: What do you think is the role of a Video store in the community?
Well, honestly, one of the reasons I moved to Vancouver was because it was so culturally interesting. There were so many things to explore, so many things to discover. Between bookstores, record stores and video stores, there was just so much, and I was just so excited to move here. A video store has always had a circulation of people who are enthusiasts, people who share the love of cinema. Because it’s been here for so long. it acts sort of like a community hub. As time has gone on, there are less and less options of culturally interesting things to go around. Obviously, there are still some record and book stores — but downtown used to be the epicenter of all this stuff, and there’s nothing left down there.
Having the store here is important because . it’s become this circle of people sharing things and meeting and getting access to movies that are becoming harder and harder to get. Streaming platforms are out there, but they don’t carry this stuff because they consider it old, or outdated, or uninteresting, or too niche. So, all this stuff just falls through the cracks. It’s important to me to try and keep this vibe alive in the city.
Bryn: If the interest for independent popular culture is still there, why do you think these channels for it are disappearing?
It’s in how people find it — they just don’t know how. Our social media platforms are monopolized by corporations, so whatever is discoverable through them is what they want to promote. A lot of stuff doesn’t have the power to reach people. We want to keep art circulating and available to people.
Bryn: How are you working around the effects of streaming?
I’m trying to offer things they don’t. Some generations don’t really like computers and streaming very much, they want tangible stuff, so I keep it available for them. I also try to curate and bring in things that streaming platforms don’t have. Obviously, there’s some overlap, but I try to have a strategy to reach around what they’re promoting.
A lot of them are just promoting their own productions these days. Unfortunately, those get pushed by the media because the platforms are also pushing them to promote it. People ask for those, and we have to say, “sorry we don’t have that, it’s only on streaming services” — for example, Koda won an Oscar last year. It’s hard to get, but, honestly, it’s our catalogue that gives us an edge. The older films that none of the platforms are interested in. It used to be people renting new releases, now its mostly catalogue.
Bryn: Do you feel it’s hard-to-find films now, outside of what’s being suggested to the average person?
That’s the challenge because I’ll bring in movies, but no one has heard of them. So, unless I’ve seen them myself and I can recommend them, it’s hard to promote. Most people don’t have cable TV anymore, so why would they put commercials on TV? Who’s watching it? And even on YouTube, it’s so algorithmically curated that it tries to zone-in on what people have previously been interested in, so it’s not even really expanding your horizons. Obviously some people do their homework and know what’s out there. But COVID has made a huge impact on that too — it’s really cut people off from what’s being released. It’s just a lot of these [films] have had less exposure.
Bryn: Do you feel like you’re playing a part in garnering exposure for those productions?
We’re only a small group of people, but we try to get the word out. We write notes on movies — we love it and it seems to work. Side story: I was looking at the google reviews for Black Dog previously and one person was like, “I hate the notes on the movies!” But, at the same time, I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they love the notes! So they’re probably the only person in the universe who thinks that.
Bryn: Can you tell me about the process you go through to find all the films?
I read Sight and Sound, a great magazine from the UK. I subscribe to a lot of social media news about movies — I have a diverse range of interests from cult to foreign films. Criterion is doing a great job. Film Comment, though I don’t think it’s in print anymore, still has a social media presence. There’s also Mubi. I pay a lot of attention to film festivals around the world. I’m very excited to see what’s going on with Cannes, and Venice, there’s a lot of great stuff. Even VIFF and TIFF. That’s traditionally where I’d learned a lot about film. There are certain film publishers that do a great job of finding and promoting independent cinema. Cinema Guild and Film Movement do a fantastic job — so I typically order their stuff.
Bryn: The Cambie corridor is being heavily developed, and it’s changing this neighbourhood a lot — how has that affected you?
Honestly there’s a lot of weird city planning around this street, and it kind of just falls to the side. It’s ironic since it’s literally where City Hall is. There’s a whole block that’s mostly salons, which are only open during the day. So at night there’s this huge gap, as opposed to Main St. where there are diverse businesses on every block which facilitate people circulating. Whereas Cambie doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s a lot of development, the Skytrain thing is insane. Honestly, I’m always surprised and appreciative of the effort people make to come here because it’s not easy sometimes. There used to be more going on. Now there’s literal holes in the block… There’s gaps where there’s nothing. So many things have closed, and through COVID and all the development there’s been a lot of vandalism and storefront windows being broken. We’re being squeezed by Oakridge and Broadway. I really feel for the businesses on Broadway.
Bryn: How do we get people hooked on going to the video store again?
The way to sell it is, it’s not just a video store anymore. We’re diversifying what we do — I’ve realized that people want to interact with the store, not just rent movies. We have people who collect and buy movies. We’re diversifying into books and other pop culture related things, and so far it’s working really well. Hopefully, eventually, we’ll do some re-modelling. The plan prior to COVID was to have events in here, so we’re looking into the practicalities of maybe changing the floorplan for that, and having more interactive spaces. There are people who want to have screenings in here, so we’re considering that. It’s not just, ‘go pick something and go home.’ Part of my idea is to make this more of a hangout space, so people can come and chill.
As I leave Video Cat, dodging construction and sidewalk holes, I’m struck by what RJ said — apart from a few restaurants, Cambie street is oddly dark. The Park’s new overlords have installed self-serve machines flashing through the lobby windows. There’s a Starbucks now, and some stores I don’t think I can afford to even walk into. The new, mostly empty condos down the block sparkle, and further down there’s a large crowd of people gathering outside the fluorescence of the Canada line.
The window of Video Cat glows in the dark, open late for the last-minute rental crowd. It’s one of the last of its kind, competing with the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Indigo in an increasingly precarious time for small businesses. But here, the kids with their families still decide on which Scooby Doo to rent, the teenagers are still loitering in the unrated section, and the auteurs are still searching the stacks for their next inspiration. They’re all here supporting this cultural hub, drawn by their collective love of film. And while video stores may not occupy the spotlight of every neighbourhood as they once did in the 90s, Video Cat is still clearly the center of this community for its members.
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