Video Store Spotlight: A Q&A with Beyond Video (Baltimore, MD)
Interview by Eddie Gurrola
Top Photo by Bruce Willen; Additional Photos by Eric Hatch
Home Video has been there for us in a way we've never needed it before over the past year. In celebration of the format, we've reached out to the folks that own and operate some of the baddest video stores in America to hear about how they got started, where their passion comes from, and how they've adapted to new customer needs during the pandemic.
Eric Hatch, co-owner of Beyond Video in Baltimore, MD, a non-profit store started by a group of film enthusiast friends, joined us for a Q&A, which we're excited to share below.
Cinematic Void: Beyond Video is different than other video stores in the sense that it was conceived from the beginning as a non-profit. From what I understand, you and some of your friends got together and started the store because you wanted to have fun and give back to the community. Can you tell us about you and your friends? What spurred this amazing idea in the first place?
Eric Hatch: Beyond Video’s origin story traces back to the closing of Baltimore’s late, great independent video store Video Americain, where most of us met each other over the prior decades. Video Americain (which you can see here as featured in John Waters’ SERIAL MOM) had been around since the 1980s, and grew to have a half-dozen locations in Baltimore, D.C., and Delaware. Their stores were incredible archives of physical media and very alive community spaces; everyone involved in the arts rented movies there, and seemingly everyone paid their dues working there at some point.
In the early 2010s, Video Americain started closing their locations one by one. Behind the scenes, we knew that it wasn’t that demand for video stores had ended, but that streaming and torrents and whatnot had taken a big bite out of their profitability -- making it less worthwhile for the owner to trek down from Delaware. He was having health problems and the profits were diminishing…but a loyal core of cinephiles still supported the store by coming in regularly.
So initially, a large group of us who had worked at Video Americain over the decades -- along with some friends and community members who just felt passionate about the need for such spaces -- banded together to try to buy one of Video Americain’s Baltimore locations. That didn’t end up coming together, so we reconfigured the idea. We’d build something from scratch that looks and feels like an old-school video store, but we’d crowdsource a new collection and operate it as a non-profit video library, staffed by volunteers. We spent a few years doing an open call for donations, contributing large chunks of our own collections, and working towards a tipping point where we thought we had a collection worthy of comparison to a Video Americain. When we found a good location in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood (next door to one of the city’s main music venues, The Ottobar), we mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign for renovations, shelf building, and other opening costs.
Long story short, there’ve been a couple dozen people involved in the planning and opening of Beyond Video over the almost-decade from idea to the present. Right now there’s a collective of five owners actively involved. Most of us have known each other for 10 years or more, and many of us met each other on one side or the other of Video Americain’s counter, so we know we all share some common passions, memories, and goals.
We opened Beyond Video in 2018 with close to 8,900 titles; we’re at 19,800 now, and expect to cross 20,000 in the next two weeks or so!
How does it work running a store like this? Although it's a non-profit, I'd imagine that there is still a ton, maybe even more, business planning that needs to go into designing the operation…
We’re all entirely volunteers who have one or more other day jobs, so the division of labor is complicated and somewhat fluid. During COVID we’ve compressed our hours to weekends only, but staffing those public-facing hours is just one piece of the pie. We also have to research and order each week’s new releases; pay bills like rent, internet, water, and electric; maintain our donation wish lists (we have a small budget for ordering new releases, but we’re still actively crowdsourcing our back-catalog); coordinate multiple donations each week; make the weekly work schedules; train new volunteers; send reminders to members with overdue movies; run our social media accounts; clean and maintain the library; and augment it with occasional building projects such as new bookcases, etc. We also hope to grow to have bandwidth to research and write grant applications.
It’s a lot, and some of it we’re making up as we go -- although most everything is work we’re familiar with from the Video Americain days, only given a non-profit, volunteer twist.
Now that the store has been built, established, and running for a period of time, what are you noticing that customers seem to get the most out of when they come to Beyond Video?
Every member has slightly different interests, but they all prefer browsing in a physical space. For some, that’s about talking to our volunteers and other members about movies, and for others, it’s about browsing physical objects in a vibrant IRL space filled with posters and cool movies or music playing, instead of the draining scroll of browsing hunched-over online. You can feel the excitement when someone comes in for the first time -- even if they think they’re coming in as curiosity seekers, they quickly realize they miss places like this far more than they realized.
One thing that’s really cool is that our member base is diverse in every respect, and skews younger than I anticipated. We have lots of members in their 20s who grew up without video stores in their lives, but prefer our experience over online; that’s really affirming to the project and our belief in community spaces and physical media.
Also Check Out...CV's Video Store Spotlights with: Scarecrow (Seattle); CineFile (LA); Videodrome (Atlanta)
Has running the store, and being on the other side of the counter giving recommendations, changed your perspective as a cinephile? Do you have a different connection to movies now?
The two have always been inextricably linked for me. I grew up with video stores and managed a Video Americain location for 6 years before starting to work as a professional film curator, eventually programming Maryland Film Festival for 11 years. Working in a video store gives you such a full and detailed picture of film culture as you become familiar with the thousands of different movies in the collection and expand your own taste through the easy access given by free rentals. Watching 3 movies a day from Video Americain in my early 20s was my film school!
At the same time, working in a video store exposes you to the taste and curiosity of hundreds of other people, who alert you to movies you never knew existed. Working at Beyond Video feels like a return to my roots. As a film-festival programmer, you’re mostly engaging with emerging films, while working at our non-profit video library has reawakened memories I haven’t accessed in years about my favorite films of every era, country, and genre, whether it’s revisiting film noir and screwball comedies, or learning more about the cinemas of Senegal, Iran, or Turkey.
Tell us a bit about the Baltimore film community. Being from the West Coast, I fantasize that there's a bunch of cinephiles running around quoting John Waters all day. What is the audience mix like at Beyond Video?
Baltimore’s always had multiple strong countercultures going at once, and definitely remains a safe place for weirdos of all stripes. Most of the normies left for the suburbs years ago, or cluster in a few upscale neighborhoods, leaving the rest of us to make cool things happen. Waters’ influence on the city is huge, and our customers have a voracious appetite for his films, and vintage cult films [in general]. When films like MANDY and DOGTOOTH rank high on our all-time rental list, I see that as adjacent to Waters’ taste and his imprint on Baltimore as well. At the same time, Baltimore is also the town of Barry Levinson, THE WIRE, 12 O’CLOCK BOYS, documentarian Ramona Diaz, art-house narrative filmmakers like Matt Porterfield and Albert Birney, experimental filmmakers like Karen Yasinsky, Corey Hughes, Jimmy Joe Roche, Stephanie Barber, Margaret Rorison, and Marnie Ellen Hertzler, and on and on. There’s a cool animation scene, and some maverick indie horror filmmakers as well. I see all these flavors reflected in our members and their taste.
If we’re talking demographics, our music scene maybe gives you an even better sense of the city than our moving images: we have alternative hip-hop artists like Abdu Ali, Eze Jackson, and DDm; popular artists like Beach House, Dan Deacon, Ami Dang, Lower Dens, Horse Lords, and Future Islands; the Baltimore club scene (recently highlighted by TT The Artist’s DARK CITY: BENEATH THE BEAT documentary); the High Zero improvised-music festival; and we were the home base for artists like Animal Collective and Weyes Blood before they went on to bigger success elsewhere. Those fertile overlapping scenes reflect how Baltimore feels on the ground floor to me.
What have you noticed about customer watching habits since the pandemic started? Has there been a shift with a lot of folks hunkering down over the past year?
Everyone’s become an expert on the blind spots and failings of streaming services in regards to their own personal taste. It’s always been a lie that you can find “everything” online, and that’s only become more and more true as streaming services proliferate and access fragments across seemingly infinite platforms, each with their own subscription fee. But many people didn’t see those limitations until they had an unexpected amount of enforced at-home time over this pandemic.
In general, the majority of our rentals come from our Directors Wall, highlighting the bodies of work of almost 350 filmmakers from all over the world. That means that work by artists like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claire Denis, Ousmane Sembene, Agnes Varda, Carlos Reygadas, Andrei Tarkovsky, Kelly Reichardt, Dario Argento, Charles Burnett, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Elaine May. David Lynch and Cronenberg films rent literally many multiples of times more than things like the MCU or STAR WARS films and shows like GAME OF THRONES. Which isn’t to say people don’t rent or watch those things. They just know they can access them elsewhere. Most people come to us because they’re hungry for moving images that live beyond the mainstream.
How would you describe the horror and cult movie sections of Beyond Video?
They’re so overflowing that we’re in the process of building a new room just for them! A lot of peoples’ fondness for home video is tied up in memories of the “forbidden fruit” of cult and horror movies when they were kids, so we try to keep those sections not only fully stocked with discs, but more crammed with vintage VHS than other sections. It’s also clear that horror and cult specialty labels are doing as much to keep physical media alive as are more canonical labels like Criterion, and we try to highlight the awesome work being done by Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow, Scream Factory, Severin, the American Genre Film Archive, and other kindred-spirit labels as much as possible. In the cult section specifically, we try to do a good job of updating and refreshing the body of films that fit that bill, keeping recent big-budget head-scratchers like THE SNOWMAN and SERENITY (2019) there, instead of in the thrillers section. This also has us picking up as many deranged-looking straight-to-video Christian genre films from the dollar bins at Goodwill as we can.
I'm sure some folks reading this have been thinking, "Maybe I should try this with my friends in my city..." or "What a great way to keep video store culture alive." Do you have any resources you can point those folks toward, and any words of advice if they're thinking about trying something like this?
Absolutely! I think projects like this are possible in almost any community of a certain size, provided you start with the assumption that there’s no money in this and you have to do it for the love of film and physical media.
I wrote an article called How to Open a Volunteer-Run, Non-Profit Video Library in Your City to try to share as much open-source info about Beyond Video as possible. For further reading, look into Kate Hagen’s writing about video stores for The Black List, and keep tabs on other projects in-progress across the country, such as Vidiots Foundation’s campaign to re-open as a video store and movie theater in L.A.’s Eagle Rock neighborhood [Editor's Note: You'll be able to read all about that very soon on CinematicVoid.com!]
I’d start by reaching out to as many people as possible and sharing ideas, understanding that many people will fall off as it comes time to stop talking about doing things and actually show up to do the work. Research things like non-profit fiscal sponsorship, which might give you the ability to get up and running much faster than you anticipated. Do an open call for home-video donations; you’ll be amazed what people are getting rid of for free these days, and you’ll start to get a sense of how robust a collection you’ll be able to put together. Once your collection gets to a certain size, reach out to the specialty home-video labels you admire; many of them will be excited to work with you.
One of the keys for us was a central location that was in a walkable neighborhood. Every area’s a little different, but projects like this are all about access, and geography is a big part of that.
Be sure to check out Beyond Video in person next time you're looking in the Baltimore area. And if you're interested in donating a video to the cause, you can do so here. To connect with the store, no matter where you are, here's their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.