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Black Dog Video fights to keep on barking

One of city’s last remaining video stores pens open letter to customers asking for help
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Darren Gay owns and operates Black Dog Video, one of the few remaining video stores in Vancouver.

The owner of one of the city’s last remaining video stores has taken the unusual step of taking to the Internet and asking his customers to help revitalize the dying practice of renting DVDs.

When Darren Gay was a child he would hide in his shady basement to watch The Brain That Wouldn’t Die instead of leaping in his backyard pool with friends. So it’s no surprise he jumped into the video store business, opening the first Black Dog Video on Cambie Street nearly 20 years ago and a second location on Commercial Drive in 2005.

That was before online streaming sites such as Netflix and downloading cut into his rental business by nearly 40 per cent. Since January 2013, Gay says his business has been on an “alarming, noticeable decline,” and Black Dog remains one of only a handful of video stores left in the city.  

In mid-April, Gay published an open letter on the company’s website declaring that without customer support it “won’t be around too much longer.”

“Black Dog Video is a labour of love,” Gay wrote. “Everyone who works for us, or has worked for us, does it because we all love movies. We feel passionate about sharing our experience and knowledge of film with everyone we can. I’ve been doing this for over 18 years now and I love it as much as I did when we first opened. Black Dog has never been about making a lot of money but it is a business that does have to support itself. And at this time we’re getting precariously close to not being able to do that.”

In an interview with the Courier, Gay added that the loss of video stores in Vancouver leaves a void that the Internet doesn’t fill.

“Once this is gone, it’s gone, and we have such a great resource for films and the staff here are so knowledgeable that I think there’d be quite a void left if there weren’t any video stores left,” Gay said.

“The purpose of the open letter wasn’t to get people to stop downloading and watching Netflix but to sort of supplement that choice of getting their films with us, too.”

Store manager Josie Boyce also doesn’t expect people to start getting all of their entertainment from Black Dog Video, but if customers rented from them once a month, the business would be “swimming in money.”  

Black Dog Video carries approximately 10,000 DVDs, ranging from new releases and independent films to art house flicks and cult classics. And while the store boasts 30,000 card-carrying members, only a small portion of them are active renters.   

After customers read the open letter, some suggested the company set up donation options on their website, include an annual membership, and improve the cataloging system to attract and maintain customers. Others showed their support saying,

“We’ve been customers of the Cambie store for 18 years. We love you Black Dog.”

Since Alex Westhelle started working with the UBC Film Society three years ago, the projectionist says he has seen a “rapid” shift towards digital content. Although he opposes going digital at the theatre, convenience and cost won him over to Netflix.

“It’s super convenient, the quality is not much different from a DVD... you’re able to get certain versions of the film with a quality even better than what you can get on DVD. Or you can see things that were never issued on a DVD, especially like on [U.S. online streaming site] Hulu.”

“Video stores are more expensive. I have friends who still go to Limelight Video and I will accompany them to go look at the movies they have there, but it’s the cost and late fees.  I do value the video store, and love being in a video store, but out of personal convenience I totally just go the streaming route.”

Westhelle thinks video stores will eventually become extinct. Most customers, he says, are from older generations who haven’t adapted to digital technology.  

Though not all of Black Dog’s beloved customers from “older generations.” John Krneta has been renting from Black Dog for five years and says he would be sad if the store closed.

“I don’t know where else I’d go. I don’t want to sign up to Netflix, I just don’t want the commitment,” he said. “There were several video stores up and down this street and then they all ended up closing. So I use to go to another one further down Venables [Street], and I was a regular customer there but when they closed I came here much more often.”