Local Video Store Fights to Keep Its Doors Open

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Photo: Reel Video, a Berkeley store that offers a unique collection of videos, may close unless it can buy its independence from its parent corporation, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.   

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Spaghetti westerns, driver's education videos from the 1940s and instructional videos on how to smoke a cigar in the nude could disappear from the sight of Berkeley offbeat film aficionados if a local store known for its unusual collection is unable to raise $200,000 to buy its independence.

Reel Video, located at 2655 Shattuck Ave., has over 81,000 individual video titles, ranging from the familiar to the fantastic, and more than 100,000 copies total, but their one-of-a-kind collection could be closed down because the store's parent corporation, Movie Gallery Inc., has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The store was founded in 1997 but was bought about a year later by Hollywood Video, a subsidiary of Movie Gallery Inc.

Store employees and community members are launching efforts to save the store through fundraising and other initiatives, including a website campaign asking for help. The store has yet to be told when it will close.

Movie Gallery Inc. filed for bankruptcy in February and initially said it would close 760 of its stores nationwide, but now it may be closing most, if not all, of its more than 2,000 stores in the United States. Movie Gallery Inc. could not be reached for comment.

According to employees, the store has remained profitable despite the parent company's bankruptcy.

"In November, we were told (by Movie Gallery), 'You guys are our most profitable store,'" said employee Stephanie Pasvankias.

'Still Worth the Shelf Space'

In addition to employee fundraising, the East Bay Media Center has stepped in to sponsor the store and is accepting donations on its behalf. Center officials say it is important that the store stays in business.

"What we'd like to do is keep Reel in the community and help it expand its services," said Paul Blake, the center's president. "It's important for the community to support this because of Berkeley's strong cinema culture."

Blake added that the store appeals to customers both because of its large film collection and because of the quality of its employees.

"People don't go there, initially, for just mainstream movies," he said. "They go there for the depth of both the employees and the (film) catalogue."

Pasvankias said the store's employees and the way it categorizes films make it unique.

"The retention for employees here is amazing, and it's not because we're paid well," she said. "We absolutely love movies."

The store has dozens of film categories, including more typical genres such as drama, comedy and documentary, but it is known for its more offbeat categories such as "Bromance," "Blaxploitation" and "Your Mom."

"At Reel, they live with this idea that a lot of titles are looked at on a rare occasion, but they're still worth the shelf space," said Steve Seid, video curator for the Pacific Film Archive. "That to me is really laudable because the business model goes kind of counter to that idea."

Seid added that if the store closes, it could signal the downfall of other similar stores.

As Industry Struggles, Hope Remains

Many video stores in Berkeley and across the nation have been struggling for business because of the success of online movie renting companies such as Netflix.

In Berkeley, Five Star Video has seen tougher times in recent years, according to manager Dave Fuller.

"Netflix is our steepest competition at this point," Fuller said.

But Reel employees have emphasized that their store has been economically healthy and profitable in recent years.

"This place was mismanaged and forgotten about through Hollywood Video," said Pasvankias. "It's funny to look at a privately owned video store as a community resource, but we really do see it that way, and we think we can further that."

Pasvankias said employees want the store to become a nonprofit organization to expand its services to the community.

"We have folders upon folders of ideas and proposals to be able to transition into a larger community resource," she said. "The best-case scenario, for me, would be to see the community pull together and save this place."


Contact Matt Burris at [email protected]

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