Written by Eddie Gurrola
Photo Credits: Viva Video Facebook
Viva Video on a cold day, circa December 2020
*Update - 7/16/21 - After this article initially ran, we were informed of the unfortunate news that Viva Video will be closing its doors at the end of August. If you're in the Philly area, please head over to enjoy the store while you can. 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.
Miguel Gomez, owner of Viva Video in the Philadelphia-area suburb Ardmore, PA, joined us for a Q&A, which we're excited to share below.
Cinematic Void: Tell us a bit about the history of the store, how you started it, and where it's at today...
Miguel Gomez: I'm the proud owner of Viva Video! The Last Picture Store! We opened October 12, 2012, a few days and a mile and a half away from the video store I managed and worked at since 1999. I'd seen the heyday of video stores and had so many great memories of times at various stores -- the one I worked at, as well as the many I've frequented as a customer -- and I wasn't ready to let it go. I had access to our financials, and did our ordering and scheduling, so I saw that I should be able to make a decent go of it, if the customers were willing to follow me down the road a little bit. I didn't think it would be feasible at that time to start a store from scratch -- the built-in and loyal customer base was essential. [But] we've managed to keep the dream alive much longer than anyone really thought we would. We've continued to offer and champion all kinds of wonderful films, from our fave blockbusters, to our fave crazy exploitation films, to our fave art films and kids' flicks. In addition, when I started Viva we made an attempt to do more events, with, at times, monthly film screenings with discussions, overnight VHS pizza parties, outdoor Bollywood dance parties, etc. Unfortunately, with Covid, our in-person events have not taken place for some time, but some of my truly wonderful employees have taken the helm and organized zoom discussion groups and trivia nights to keep our little corner of the world a wonderful film community!
Miguel at Viva Video. Quiet on the set!
You dove in and started the store when most of the others were closing. Can you expand on what made you decide to do it anyway, knowing the challenge that you were in for?
I'm a stubborn, old-fashioned, non-listening to reason fool, that's why! But also, I did plan for a year, and as I mentioned, I'd worked at an excellent independent video store chain for more than a decade. I knew both the ins and outs of running a video store, as well as what sort of numbers we were doing, so I could make a somewhat reasonable assumption that the business made sense.
[I did it] all with an eye to the fact that it would not be something that could last forever. I fear the day physical media is no longer supported by the studios. I don't know that others would have necessarily taken the leap with that in mind, but I freakin' love video stores and movies. And you know what? I didn't want to live in a town without a video store -- an excellent video store -- and unless I started Viva I'd be S.O.L.!
What is it about the community in Ardmore and Philadelphia that makes it a place for Viva Video to thrive? Tell us more about the Ardmore and Philly movie community landscape...
Our clientele has had us around as Viva, and before that as TLA Video (the previous video store) since the '80s, so they're accustomed to having a video store available to them. It's a fairly well-off and educated area with many colleges. Although we don't get all that many college kids -- as a demographic, they don't seem to have physical media so much these days in our area -- we have academic-minded folks that want to watch foreign, arthouse, and documentary films. It's also nice and family-friendly, so we get the weekend families keeping the ritual of Friday night at the video store alive, too. The city hasn't had the access that NYC or LA has to repertory film, but we have had, since 1997, Exhumed Films, who present all manner of 70s and 80s horror, exploitation, sci-fi, and general weirdness on film in the theater, so there's a great community of horror lovers and esoteric cinema lovers from that. There's also the Lightbox Theater, which presented museum-style arthouse (they moved just prior to Covid, so we'll see if they can keep trucking), and another fave space, PhilaMOCA, which would show truly off-the-wall flicks like the incredible, all child-acted, shot-on-video stone classic HAWK JONES. So although there aren't a ton of different places, there is a lot to offer that dedicated folks gravitated towards. These places really win over your complete devotion, which is great, because you'd go check things out you either didn't know or only had glancing interest in, just from trusting their programming.
Viva's Roxy and Dan promoting KISS ME DEADLY
How would you describe your horror/cult movie section? Is there a different type of thought process that you use when you stock this section?
Expansive? Well-loved? Never large enough? We have several horror/cult obsessives on staff -- myself included -- doing our best to make this vein of cinema available to folks. I, and most of the folks that work for me, are in this because we want to shed light on our faves. In terms of a thought process, I'd say I just think if it's something that one of us on staff loves, something with a particular notoriety, something from a label I love (Mondo Macabro, AGFA/Bleeding Skull), or something that's been tough to get ahold of, I'll generally get it.
What have you noticed about customer watching habits since the pandemic started?
We had a nice pick up for a couple months after things opened up, but that's actually fallen off now. I mean, people have definitely been pushed into streaming that hadn't been before, and it's understandable. I'd say our base has skewed more towards older movies...both because the newer ones become available streaming sooner and because there's been a lot less new stuff coming out recently. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten to witness too much first hand. I used to be at the store very regularly, though I work full-time as a nurse as well. But, being as I work the Covid unit, I didn't work the counter since the pandemic started, until I was vaccinated. I thought it would be irresponsible to be a possible vector for disease since I was/am in contact with Covid on a nearly daily basis.
Tell us about the trivia nights and the virtual screenings with the local library you've been hosting recently...
We took a break from in-person screenings after one of our customers produced a pilot television episode that featured one of our parties. It aired on SyFy back in September of 2019! [Editor's Note: Check it out here.]
But, the rad employees of Viva have been working with the Ludington Library to run a film discussion group featuring great flicks, far more left of center than I would have expected we could do in partnership with the library. Films screened have included SNOWPIERCER, FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES, and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. We're generally shooting for stuff that hasn't been watched by everyone, and that follows a social justice-conscious theme. Also, the staff have been running a monthly trivia night as well! Fans of Viva from afar could definitely partake in those activities too. We list our happenings on our Facebook.
Final question: If we walked in right now, what would be a few recent release titles you’d recommend to us that we might have passed over on our own?
If you encountered me, you'd get pestered about the new WORLD OF WONG KAR WAI box set from Criterion. Those films are such stone classics! Several of us would steer you towards ONE CUT OF THE DEAD if you haven't seen that yet. It's a super fun no-budget, high creativity zombie flick/celebration of filmmaking. Truly wonderful! Since I grew up in Guatemala and moved to the US back in '86, I'd also hype up a Central-America-in-the-80s double feature of MUSEO and DON'T PANIC. MUSEO is a really great arthouse heist movie based on the real life theft of artifacts from the Mexican National Anthropology Museum. Really interesting in structure and execution, and a good deal of fun. DON'T PANIC is an 80s Mexican NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET knock off that features a grown man, playing a high schooler, that sleeps in matching dino pajamas and wears them through the bulk of the movie.
Oh, and I really loved VHYES, a really rad oddball comedy put out by Oscilloscope. A love letter to the days of cable television in the early 90s, structured to look like clips recorded over a wedding video back in the day. It's great. Features the under-rated Kerri Kenney from THE STATE/RENO 911!/WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER for a bit. It also features that slow scroll cable TV guide I didn't realize i had such nostalgic feelings for!
I'd also like to recommend to any of you non-Viva area folks, a couple streaming wonders available to those with HBO Max. Unfortunately, I don't believe either will receive a physical media release, ever, so I don't feel that conflicted about hyping them.
The show LOS ESPOOKIES is absolutely the bee's knees. It's an HBO series in both Spanish and English, produced by Fred Armisen. It follows a group of friends that create scares for special events and their wacky adventures. It is the very best. Very kind-hearted, hilarious and bizarre. 100% recommend.
Also, I had not watched JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU until this past week, and it is of the most vital importance that everyone watches it immediately. Made for Adult Swim and now available on HBO Max, it features comedian Joe Pera talking to you about simple things...minerals, breakfast, beans, etc. But it's just the kindest, sweetest, incredibly moving, and heartfelt thing I've seen in ages. The depth, emotion, and meaning they manage to put into 11-minute episodes is astounding, and seeing something with not an ounce of irony coming out of Adult Swim is jaw-dropping. A friend of mine described it as TWIN PEAKS without any of the darkness, which is pretty apt. I'd say it's comedy pulled from mindfulness. It's an attempt to grasp the simple pleasures of life and underline them without being too heavy about it.