Popcorn Paradise

Outlasting Blockbuster and Hollywood Video and fighting off Redbox and Netflix, Casa Video celebrates its thirtieth year in business

The first thing that hits you as you walk into Casa Video is the smell of freshly popped popcorn. Near the checkout counter is an old-timey popcorn machine that is constantly churning out fresh, golden kernels. Employees in green vests cram small bags with the stuff and place them on a crate on the counter, tempting hungry and wide-eyed customers with one thing on their minds—movies.

For 30 years, Casa Video has been giving away free popcorn and renting movies in Tucson. It's no small feat in an era when Netflix is streaming thousands of movie titles both old and new online. And if you do decide to leave the house to rent a movie, you don't have to go any farther than the Redbox vending machine at your nearest convenience store, no human interaction required.

Video stores, like record and photo finishing stores, are a dying breed. Once colossal chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have been brought to their knees. There are only 500 Blockbusters left in the U.S. There are zero Hollywood Videos.

Independent video stores in the Old Pueblo have suffered similar fates. Garland's Video Gallery at Broadway and Sarnoff is now a café. Zip's Music and Video, at Speedway and Kolb, has become a health care center. A laundromat has replaced Director's Chair Video at Sunrise and Swan.

So what is Casa Video's secret to staying alive?

Owners Ray Mellenberndt and Gala Schwab have been in the movie business as long as they can remember. The brother-and-sister duo got a taste for cinema growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where their father ran a movie theater. Their parents moved to Tucson in the late 1970s. Schwab was in college in Iowa until she transferred to the University of Arizona. Mellenberndt, Schwab's older brother, came to town looking for work shortly after Schwab graduated.

The early 1980s were boom times for video technology. In 1983, Sony released the Betacam camcorder system. That same year, JVC released a camcorder using the VHS format. Mellenberndt and Schwab hatched a plan: Let's videotape weddings.

"We tried that as a business," Mellenberndt says. "We did one."

While their business wasn't exactly getting off the ground, a new opportunity arose when Mellenberndt spotted an ad in the newspaper. A video store's inventory was for sale.

"We said 'We know the theater business, let's see if we can try something.' We thought it could be a home base, and we could run our wedding videotaping business out of it," Mellenberndt says.

There were only a few small video stores operating in town, Schwab said. This gave the brother-and-sister team the idea that it just might work—with a particular slant.

"We would go to these stores looking for movies," Schwab says. "We would remark 'I wish somebody would spend more money and get some classic movies in,' something we wanted to watch.'"

Casa Video is a film buff's paradise. As I walked in on a warm, windy Monday afternoon, the 1987 cult classic The Monster Squad was playing on the store's 80-inch television. The 8,000-square-foot two-story building houses more than 50,000 movies, along with video games and audio books. The walls of the first floor are lined with new releases and reissues.

All major film and television genres are represented, along with niche genres like exploitation films, the Warner Archive collection, the Criterion collection and a section dedicated to visionary directors like the Coen brothers, Robert Altman, Brian DePalma, etc. There's a diverse section of employee picks next to a special weekly section. This week had a topical slant: Iron Man 3 director Shane Black's films were on display next to the films of Wesley Snipes, recently released from prison.

After you've walked up a winding staircase with framed pictures of icons from Hollywood's golden age mounted on the walls, you arrive in the upstairs section. Thousands of documentaries are stored here, along with an enormous foreign section. You'll also find scores of music video compilations, a gay and lesbian section, adult animation films and sports clips compilations. It's almost dizzying when you realize how much there is to choose from.

In 1983, "there were warehouses in Phoenix that you could go to and literally get a grocery cart and walk down these aisles and pick out VHS and Betamax movies that you wanted to purchase," Schwab says. "We would spot something that looked great, and it would end up in our shopping cart. So we were kind of building our inventory to our own taste and then soon realized a lot of other people enjoyed those movies, too. It just became natural; this was our niche market."

All they needed was a choice location. After nixing available vacant stores on Tucson's eastside, the pair settled for a modest store in the university area. Armed with about 600 video titles, Mellenberndt and Schwab opened Casa Video at the corner of Grant and Campbell in 1983. It proved to be a success, and two years later Casa Video opened a second store at its current location at 2905 E. Speedway Blvd.

"The Grant store closed down after 14 years," Mellenberndt says. "We decided to close it because this store was growing so much and that store was taking a tumble because most of the people decided they wanted to come over here."

Their new neighbors included a scuba diving store and the offices for the Tucson Shopper magazine. Over the years, as those businesses closed or moved, Casa Video took over their vacant spaces for its ever-expanding inventory.

There was a war raging in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now long forgotten, it was known as the "Videotape Format War." Before the advent of DVDs and Blu-Rays, the most popular format for watching movies in the comfort of your own home was the Video Home System, or VHS, videocassette. And videocassette recorders, known more popularly as VCRs, became a staple in American living rooms, Sony and JVC had battled it out in the marketplace with their two video formats, Betamax and VHS. Customers ultimately choose VHS over Beta because of running-time differences. Betas only had the capability to record an hour's worth of material, while you could fit an episode of CHiPs and an episode of Dallas on one VHS tape.

"When we first started this store, that was when the war between VHS and Betamax was really heating up," Mellenberndt says. "We would buy copies of each not knowing which one was going to win and it was a short time after we opened up (that) VHS won. We held onto Betas for as long as we could."

A new format entered the arena in the mid-1980s—the LaserDisc. These clunky precursors to DVDs offered higher resolution, better sound quality and special features. While LaserDiscs and their players never really caught on with the public, they were a dream come true for film fanatics.

"Those were nice because that was the first time they started introducing special features they would put on these discs," Schwab says. "Documentaries, interviews with the actors or directors. That was interesting for the people that were coming here, until those phased out."

About 15 employees work the floor at Casa Video. They're the ones in the green vests responsible for helping customers, stocking the shelves, keeping the store tidy and, yes, making sure the delicious popcorn keeps flowing. When most people think of video store staff, two things come to mind: Would-be Quentin Tarantinos jawing away about John Boorman's camera angles in Point Blank or the cynical slacker Randall taking the piss out of customers in Kevin Smith's debut film, Clerks. The majority of the staff working at Casa Video are knowledgeable about film, and very courteous.

"We've been lucky because a lot of them seek us out. They come in and apply because they love movies and they're interested in movies," Schwab says. "A lot of them have been our former customers. We definitely prefer to hire people that know something about movies."

Christopher Fuller has been a manager at the store for a few years. When he was younger, his dad used to take him to browse the video selection at the old Grant and Campbell location.

Fuller says he works at Casa Video "for the same reasons anyone wants to work at a video store: I really, genuinely love movies. I also assumed it would make me hip or be an in with the ladies, but those are two notions I was quickly disabused of."

Ask Casa Video employees what the best perk of the job is, and most will tell you it's the employee picks section.  This is their chance to show off their film knowledge; to be the curator and programmer of their own allotted shelf space.

"Someone will have a shelf of nothing but Lars Von Trier and John Cassavetes films and then they'll throw a copy of Real Steel up there. But the weird mix is precisely why people like them," Fuller says. "The staff picks are always 2-for-1 so they rent constantly, and people put new stuff up all the time."

In 1999, Netflix started its subscription-based service. By 2009, it was offering more than 100,000 movie titles on DVD and it had more than 10 million subscribers. Now, Netflix has 33 million subscribers. According to various reports, its streaming "Watch Instantly" service is the biggest source of Web traffic in America.

"I would have to say through all the years that we've been here, after surviving the Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos, Netflix has been our biggest competitor because it's the one thing that can offer the breadth of movies that we can offer," Schwab says. "But Netflix's streaming doesn't have everything. I heard they recently lost over 1,500 titles. If you make it too complicated for customers, if they have to go this website for this movie or this website for this movie, they might just say, 'Forget it, I'll just go and rent it.' At least we hope so, anyway."

Calley Davenport, 25, a Pima Community College student, was browsing videos late on a Saturday night. She's a fan of the classics and old comedies, and this was the first time she would be renting movies on her own account. After an unspecified amount of time renting movies through other people, she had signed up for a Casa Video membership.

"I've known about Casa Video since I was a teenager. My parents would always come home with cool movies," Davenport says. "Casa always has something I'm looking for, or what I didn't think I was looking for."

There's the key. The secret to why Casa Video has survived for 30 years just might be the curious customers attracted to the wide variety of films the store has to offer. Or it might just be Tucson itself.

"Casa Video truly has one of the coolest customer bases in the city, so keep it up everyone, you guys are killing it," Fuller says. "This place has remained opened for 30 years because it's more than a place to get movies, it's a place for people who love movies."

Mellenberndt agrees.

"We had 14 years where we built up and up, then we reached our plateau (and) we've maintained that plateau for 16 years now. There's not too many video stores that can say they've done that," Mellenberndt says. "People in Tucson love movies. The Loft has been here even longer than us. Redbox has all the hit movies, but we've got such a wide variety. Most people in town realize that. They appreciate us being here. I think we're here to stay."

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