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After 20 years, Black Dog Video keeps on barking

Vancouver's last video store remains a neighbourhood hub for families, film lovers and Kevin Smith

Black Dog Video turned 96 years old in dog years on Saturday, which is a grand age for both a canine and for a video store.

It was 20 years ago the store opened on Cambie Street with its shelves packed with owner Darren Gay’s curated cult and horror films along with drama, foreign, documentary, independents, arthouse, classic and new releases. Business boomed, but it wasn’t without challenges, which included ideas gone bad (the original “rented” tags were made out of shellacked dog biscuits with Velcro that lasted until a dog came into the store and ate them off several boxes an hour into opening day), a move across the street two years later and a fire that ruined everything (caused by a grow-op in the apartment above). Then there was the massive interruption of traffic that came with the 2008 construction of the Canada Line, which runs underneath Cambie Street.

The in-between times during the soul-crushing times have been great, Gay pointed out — the parties after closing, the appreciation from neighbours and doing something he loves. He was the kid who preferred to watch The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on summer days rather than swim in the family’s backyard pool.

After the fire in 2004, block neighbours Choices Market raised a couple thousand dollars to help out Gay who was rebuilding his store with friends, a trying two months especially as he did not have business interruption insurance. Other minor set-backs included the usual vandalism and petty robbery, but the negative total wasn’t enough for Gay to lose his video store love. He added another Black Dog to his collection when he and his brother bought the Celluloid Drugstore on Commercial Drive a little more than 10 years ago. Kevin Smith, in Vancouver to direct an episode of The Flash, popped by that location Monday to sign all boxed copies of his films.

“Coming back from the fire was the hardest one. A lot of people were surprised we actually reopened because, why do it all again?” Gay said. “The response was great. People came by with food and flowers when we reopened. Even today we have people tell me, ‘Please stay open, please stay open.’”

Lessons in resilience have only prepared Gay for the toughest battle of all: staying open. He teetered on the brink so wildly that he initiated a crowd-funding effort in August 2014 that asked supporters, “Where else can you find such a diverse selection ranging from Kurosawa, Cronenberg and Fassbinder to sections dedicated to sexy, delinquent nuns, Australian exploitation flicks and troubled teens?”

Many people seem to be satiated by the offerings from online streaming services such as Netflix, judging by Black Dog Video’s continual struggle for survival despite having 30,000 members who obviously don’t visit the stores as often as they used to, if at all. The same reason, coupled with high rent, did Limelight Video in on the West Side. It will close at the end of this month, leaving Black Dog the last man standing in the movie rental business in Vancouver.

It’s a matter of the convenience of Netflix versus the expertise of the local video store. While Netflix’s recommendations are based on strange and random algorithms, many film boxes at Black Dog are accompanied with hand-written notes taped to the covers. “Wow! One of the best looking films ever. Not your poppa’s bio-pic” is described of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. And who could resist Klown with its hand-written review of, “Totally offensive, inappropriate, and totally hilarious. Good times.”

“At the height there were a lot of video stores in town and they all did well. I didn’t even consider them to be competition. It was a community. Now it’s a community of one,” Gay said. “I’d like to turn it over to my son who’s 10 right now. I keep telling him he’s going to inherit the empire. We’re just going to keep going as long as we can, as long as people keep coming here and supporting us we’ll be here.”

One of the issues that plagued video stores since their beginning in the 1970s has been the chore of having to return films. Gay said he hates charging late fees but added it’s the only way to ensure the movie is returned. Other video stores, such as the Family Video chain in the United States, opened pizza restaurants next to its stores for one-stop shopping where the drivers will return movies for customers if they also deliver a pizza at the same time.

Before people dismiss video stores as relics, Gay said, consider supporting it not only because it keeps himself and his staff employed, but also because the non-mainstream film world counts on the existence of video stores as a portal to connect with an appreciative audience.

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