Philadelphia area businessman still believes in video stores

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ARDMORE -- Everybody knows video stores are dead. Dead as an idea and dead as a business.

Except Miguel Gomez.

"I am," said the 32-year-old film fanatic, "quite the optimist."

And, in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia, he's making a stand, opening Viva Video: The Last Picture Store in the glassy, three-room expanse of what used to be a toy shop.

He's sure he can attract not just a niche of customers but a big, healthy slice, luring people who love browsing for surprises, who dislike the thumbnail-size posters that pass for description on Netflix, and who see a local video store the same way they see a neighborhood coffee shop: A place for sustenance and conversation.

After four months, he says, the business is almost profitable. New releases cost $5 for three days.

"Is that it?" a woman in the store asked Mr. Gomez as she quizzically handed him back a movie. "I forget how rentals go."

"You were perfect," he assured her.

It's easy to forget the protocol in an era when big chains like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster have all but disappeared, and on-demand services instantly deliver theatrical releases to home TVs.

Lots of people are pitching in. Local film lover Paul Donaldson made an indefinite loan of his 200-disc Blu-ray collection. Devoted customer Victor Hanson put up shelves and light fixtures. Barry Solan, a founder of the old TLA Video, gave Mr. Gomez a huge discount on scads of rare movies.

Mr. Gomez, in sneakers, gray dress pants, and a black sweatshirt, sees the store becoming a hub for art and discussion. This month, Viva Video hosted the blues-and-ballads band Bazaraza Bounders. During the U.S. Open in June, the store will screen "Happy Gilmore," the goofy Adam Sandler golf movie. In fall, Viva Video will be one of a few off-site settings for the Philadelphia Film Festival -- offering video store screenings of 1980s films set in video stores.

Of course, not everyone shares Mr. Gomez's optimism.

"He may as well open a typewriter store," said a skeptical Len Shyles, a professor of communication at Villanova University. "A dwindling market, to say the least."

The problem, he said, is not movies but molecules. Or, as Stanford University's Nick Parlando has put it, bits versus atoms. If a piece of information -- a book, a poem, a film -- can be transported at the click of a mouse, the market will embrace that technology to avoid the costs of making and delivering hard products.

At Viva Video, people can browse 8,000 titles, many of them unusual. Like "Suspiria," the 1977 Italian horror film shot in an odd, out-of-scale style. And "Man With a Movie Camera," the experimental 1929 Russian silent film. But if someone wants "Argo" or "The Avengers" or the latest incarnation of "Mission: Impossible," those are there too.

"He's a genius," said Farilyn Leopold of Wynnewood, who was renting the 1951 French film "Diary of a Country Priest." "The one thing the suburbs don't have, like the city, is intellectual stimulation. He's providing that."

The store's biggest demographic is 40-and-over film-lovers. A second is families wanting a popular film for home movie night. Third are the fanatics who seek out rare foreign and small-budget gems.

Whether a customer is novice or expert, Mr. Gomez offers this free service: Informed conversation.

"He knows everything there is to know about movies," said Susan Getze, who brought a friend to experience Viva Video. "He can always come up with things I'm interested in."

Perhaps because his interests are as diverse as his life. Mr. Gomez was born in New York City to a Guatemalan mother and Spanish father, and lived in Guatemala until age 7, when his family moved to northern Virginia.

At Haverford College, he majored in psychology because there was no film program. As a sophomore, he began working part time at TLA in Bryn Mawr, eventually becoming assistant manager and then film-buyer for the chain, selecting the inventory.

When TLA closed, Mr. Gomez decided to make a go of it as an independent. He and his wife, Perci, are raising their 3-year-old boy, Ash, in Havertown, and "I couldn't bear the thought of there not being a video store for my son to go to," Mr. Gomez said.



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