HIT REWIND: Top of Utahns still appreciate mom-and-pop video stores

Aug 5 2013 - 5:56am

Images

Rick Cowley (left) adjusts videos while Brad Mayer looks through the collection at Star Video in Syracuse recently. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
VHS tapes fill one of the two rooms at Star Video in Syracuse. Rick Cowley rents out DVDs at the store but keeps the VHS tapes because some older films were never converted to newer formats. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
DVDs decorated by customers are displayed at the Top Hat video store in Bountiful. (MARK SAAL/Standard-Examiner)
Rick Cowley (left) adjusts videos while Brad Mayer looks through the collection at Star Video in Syracuse recently. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
VHS tapes fill one of the two rooms at Star Video in Syracuse. Rick Cowley rents out DVDs at the store but keeps the VHS tapes because some older films were never converted to newer formats. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
DVDs decorated by customers are displayed at the Top Hat video store in Bountiful. (MARK SAAL/Standard-Examiner)

SYRACUSE -- Over the years, plenty has changed in the video-rental industry. One thing hasn't.

"People still don't rewind them," Rick Cowley says with a smile.

Cowley owns and operates Star Video in Syracuse, one of the few remaining mom-and-pop video stores in the Top of Utah. Or, more accurately, this one is just a "pop" video store -- because "mom" wishes he'd give up the business.

"She'd like me to get out of it," said Cowley, who turns 71 this year, "but I just can't bring myself to do it."

Not that technology hasn't been trying to force Cowley out of the business.

In this age of automated video-dispensing outlets like Redbox, and on-demand video streaming from companies like Netflix, the bricks-and-mortar video-rental store is a vanishing breed.

A handful of Blockbuster chain stores remain in the area, but independent stores are something of a rarity. Most notably, there's Cowley's Star Video in Syracuse, Top Hat Video in Bountiful, and Cosmos Video in Kaysville.

Cowley acknowledges that folks have been expecting his store's demise for years.

"I know that, a few years ago, they predicted that, within 10 years, there wouldn't be a bricks-and-mortar video store left," he said.

"And business has really gone down. Technology has done it to us."

Particularly in the last few months, business has slowed for Cowley. But then, he's not too worried.

"This is not a get-rich thing by a long shot," he said.

"This isn't even the business that's making the living in our home; my wife works. I get just enough out of here to pay the store bills and some of the home bills."

Star Video, at 1954 W. 2250 South, is a one-man operation, and Cowley covers all hours of operation, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

"I used to be open noon to nine, but I'm 'semi-retired' now," he said.

In the old days, Cowley said, kids would come to the store to buy candy, and he'd let them use his Kermit the Frog telephone to call their parents for a ride home.

"Those kids are now coming in with their kids," he said.

Memory lane

West Point resident Michelle Miller, 36, grew up in Syracuse and has fond memories of Cowley and his store.

"My whole life, we've been going to Star Video," she said. "My family started going when I was little. Before we even had a VCR, we used to rent the machine from him."

Miller's loyalty continues to this day, although she doesn't watch many movies now and only drops by the video store every few months. Still, she insists she has never rented a movie from Redbox, a term Cowley jokingly calls "a dirty word."

Indeed, every time Miller goes in the store, it's a trip down memory lane, and she almost always sees someone she grew up with.

"I don't think he gets a lot of new customers, but there are still a lot of loyal people going to him," she said.

Brad Mayer, of Syracuse, is one of those few, new customers to Star Video. He only recently discovered the store.

"If you don't know it's there, you won't find it," Mayer, 37, said of the business tucked in a residential neighborhood.

On a recent weeknight, Mayer took a notebook with him to Star Video and started making a list of all the older movies he wants to watch again -- movies like "The Goonies," "Sixteen Candles" and "Weird Science."

And while Mayer said he and his wife have had an "off and on" subscription to Netflix, he much prefers the tactile experience of visiting a video store.

"It's much more interesting to go into the store, because there's that whole atmosphere where you're in the middle of the store, and you can see the movie (boxes), and handle them."

Tip of the Hat

Mark Earl, manager of Top Hat Video in Bountiful, bristles at the notion that the independent video store is going the way of the dinosaur.

Fifteen years ago, Earl said, local news media outlets were doing those hand-wringing, "How on earth do these independent video-rental places survive?" stories. And yet here it is, 15 years later, and Top Hat Video is still in business.

Earl wouldn't talk specifics, but he insists it's a fairly brisk business, too.

"Of course, it could always be better," he said.

One of Earl's employees, 23-year-old Brendon Elwood, said he accepted 15 new video memberships on a recent Friday night and that the line to check out movies stretched all the way to the back of the store at times.

And on a recent Saturday morning, a steady stream of customers entered and exited the store -- bringing back movies or coming to rent new ones.

Mary Jensen, 69, of North Salt Lake, is a loyal Top Hat Video customer.

"This place is the best," she said. "They are fair and so kind. ... And if they don't have (a title), and I come in asking about it -- like, 'What do you think about carrying "Wallender" ' -- they'll order them in most cases."

Jensen was at the store to rent five discs of the BBC series "MI-5."

"My husband passed away, so I have a little more time to do this," she said.

"I like that I can come down and talk to them about movies."

Killer collection

The Bountiful Top Hat Video store offers 24,000 titles from which to choose. Earl no longer stocks VHS, although he does have a small "rare category" behind the counter of about 10 videocassettes not available on DVD or Blu-ray -- movies like "Rad," "Take Down" and "Condor Man."

"Our selection is unparalleled in Utah," Earl said.

And as for places like Blockbuster and Redbox?

"Our selection beats their collection up," he said.

Earl's parents, Lee and Lona Earl, started Top Hat Video on April 1, 1983 -- "No fooling," he quips -- in the old Five Points Mall. Earl was just a teenager at the time, and the idea of video rentals was so new he remembers having to ask people to "please come try it."

"We went door to door, begging people to try them," he said.

The store has been in its current location, 521 W. 2600 South, in Bountiful, for the last eight years.

Shelly Stuart, 24, of Bountiful, dropped by Top Hat Video to rent "Out of Africa," "I Dreamed of Africa" and "The Power of One."

She's getting ready to go to Kenya for humanitarian service and was told these films would give her a better understanding of the continent.

Stuart says she was unable to find the films anywhere else; Earl found them quickly, and the young customer was on her way.

Plenty of VHS

Cowley carries more than 16,000 copies of movies in his store, representing nearly 8,000 titles. Although it's not the majority of his business, Cowley does have an extensive videocassette rental collection.

"I have both DVD and VHS," he said. "If they can't find what they want on DVD, they'll come in and get it on VHS."

Cowley says he'll rent up to half a dozen VHS movies in a good week. Other weeks, he might just rent one or two videocassettes.

He has been in business since 1984 and moved to his current location in 2002.

Cowley also still makes a twice-monthly trip to Bancroft, Idaho, to stock a small, 200-title video business in an old-time soda fountain there.

"Even there, we've seen a drop in rentals, especially in the last two months," he said.

"The owner there is puzzled as to why business has dropped off."

Michelle Miller hates to hear these stories of video stores struggling to survive.

"It makes me sad," she said.

"I don't know why, but there's just something about a video store."

As for Cowley? Despite the challenges of a bad economy and new technology, he figures he'll keep the store open as long as possible.

"Unless I drop behind the counter or something."

The owners of Cosmos Video in Kaysville declined comment for this article.

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