“Sold!” Casablanca Video owner Bruce Smith says in his best auctioneer voice as he dispatches a customer, who leaves armed with a bagful of DVDs. Word had gotten out that it was the rental shop’s last day of business, and titles were discounted to $1. By noontime, a steady line had formed at the counter of the St. Michael’s Drive establishment, as loyal patrons offered condolences and picked up as many movies as they could, Supermarket Sweep-style.
“It’s been a long month, that’s what it feels like today. It’s crazy,” Smith tells SFR, taking a breather, the clacking caused by removing the cartridges’ plastic security device filling the air. “I can’t even conceive it.”
After more than 30 years in the business, Smith decided to close up shop earlier this month. The sudden popularity his business experienced since then is bittersweet.
“For as many people that have cried when I told them we were closing, it’s gonna be a pretty huge void,” he says. “But people aren’t renting movies like they used to, so we couldn’t stay in business.”
"For as many people that have cried when I told them we were closing, it’s gonna be a pretty huge void. But people aren’t renting movies like they used to."
Like the still-open Video Library, Casablanca represents a throwback to how people experience entertainment. There, movies are displayed in shelves instead of being a stream away, a local harkening to the Blockbuster glory days when the rental giant boasted nearly 60,000 employees in more than 9,000 stores.
“We always were probably the most visited video store in Santa Fe. At one time, there were 20 to 30 video stores in Santa Fe. Some of them were small mom-and-pop stores, little corner things; others were a bit larger, but none of the big stores hurt us at all,” Smith says of the competition. “They spent a lot of money on advertising, and people would still come and see us; that’s how it worked. As a matter of fact, the void that they left me was that when Blockbuster closed, they stopped advertising.”
On Tuesday, customers sifted through copies of everything from Barney’s Great Adventure to Jay-Z’s Fade to Black, seeking out a specific beloved title, whereas others decided to build collections on the spot.
Santa Fe resident Tommy Gonzales left balancing two bags filled cheek by jowl. “They are movies I never see to buy or nothing,” he says. “Good movies that I watched when I was younger.”
“That’s nothing,” Smith intervenes, walking over to a stash destined to be picked up later, and hovering over each stack with his hand. “This is 40, 60, 80, 100…”
For him, it was always about the fans. “They’re gonna miss it like crazy,” he says, “but it wasn’t the regular 5-10 movies on the weekend. It’s, ‘I’m coming over for one movie.’ That doesn’t keep us in business.”
Smith’s foray into movie rentals was a fluke. Back in the summer of 1979, they started carrying this newfangled contraption at a local Curtis Mathes retailer where he worked.
“We were trying to sell VCRs, and they were $1,200 apiece. It was brand-new thing, nobody knew about ’em,” he reminisces. “The company said to us, ‘You gotta get movies. If you have movies, you’ll sell VCRs,’ and we were like, Yeah, right.”
Facing a stagnant inventory, Smith caved in and bought 50 VHS movies in November of that year, “and it snowballed.” All that was missing was a name.
“I woke up at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he says, “jumped out of bed and went, Casablanca—my favorite movie. I mean, what else could it be?”
As far as what’s next, Smith hasn’t started planning his sequel just yet. “I’ve done this for 36 years, man. I was 21 when I opened the store.”
“People have other things to do,” he says about the current Redbox world in which we live. A purist at heart, Smith says he is not a subscriber to any streaming services and doesn’t plan on joining anytime soon.
“Never,” he says defiantly. “Look at this inventory. Nobody had the amount of movies that I had. I could come at 1 in the morning and grab a movie and go home and watch it,” he says of his stock, which at its zenith reached 50,000 VHS and 17,000 DVD titles.
The industry shift is generational, Smith says, fueled by nostalgia and looking back on his run.
“There’s so much at your fingertips right now,” he muses. “My older kids used to watch movies with me—three or four of them on the weekend. My younger kids are like, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll watch a movie with you,’ and they put on their phone or their iPod while we’re watching a movie; it’s just not the same thing anymore.”
Trends come and go, and the current resurgence of things like vinyl records and slow foods might indicate a comeback for video, especially if the 2,000 units he moved by end of day is any indicator. Until then, quite sadly, we’ll always have Netflix.