How to Open a Volunteer-Run, Non-Profit Video Store in Your City (like we did in Bmore!)

The following piece was written late this past summer, as Beyond Video worked hard to open its doors by the end of 2018. And we did it! For the first time in years, Baltimore has not only a video store, but an awesome one—one that reflects the d.i.y. subcultural ethos that makes Baltimore so awesome, one that operates on an all-volunteer/non-profit/crowdsourced business plan, and one that has deep catalogs of foreign, classic, indie, doc, cult, local, LGBTQ... and even (gasp!) mainstream films! 

We weren't sure how the public would respond, all the work we did over the last few years to make this happen required a leap of faith. The results have blown us away: the store is crowded nearly every minute its open, and the number of people who've signed up to rent under our subscription membership model had us, almost immediately, at a sustainable level of support; every membership from this point forward help us add new stock, make improvements, add hours, and otherwise make Beyond Video more awesome. 

How'd we do it? Can it be repeated elsewhere? The incredibly enthusiastic community response to Beyond Video since we opened in December makes me even more convinced that you can, even if you live in a much more expensive city. Want to? Read on! 

In the spirit of open-source information sharing and reviving video-store culture, I've made this article free-to-all. But if you should want to tip me, you could subscribe to my Patreon, feed my Venmo (@ericallenhatch), and/or donate one or more movies to Beyond Video's crowdsourced inventory by checking out our regularly updated Wish List

This article first appeared in the Eyeslicer 2018 zine; thanks for amazing soldier-of-cinema Dan Schoenbrun for reaching out and asking me to write this piece! 

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When Baltimore’s late, great video-rental shop Video Americain closed the doors of its final location several years ago, myself and a small group formed a collective to bring video-store culture back to Bmore. It’s been a long road getting here, but the results of our work, Beyond Video, will open its doors to the public shortly. 

Beyond Video will look and feel much like an indie, mom-and-pop video store of yesteryear. We have about 10,000 unique titles and counting, the bulk of which are on DVD—but plenty of blu-rays as well, and a tasteful, curated smattering of VHS. We have a directors wall, house favorites, sections for specialty labels Criterion and Oscilloscope, and well-stocked foreign, cult, classic, local, and LGBTQ offerings. Oh--and tote bags! 

But behind the counter, our business model is very different from past video stores. We have non-profit status, both our collection and start-up costs were 100% crowd-sourced, and our labor will be on an entirely volunteer basis, unless and until our revenues perform beyond expectations. 

We hope our project is not only sustainable, but also repeatable—maybe by you, in your city? 

Here are some steps, tips, and lessons learned from what went right (and wrong) in the years it’s taken to bring this project to fruition.

TAKE THE PULSE OF YOUR COMMUNITY WITH SOME BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS

Opening a video store with any business model, new or old, is a quixotic endeavor in 2018, so unless you’re sitting on a pile of cash, you’re going to need a lot of brains, hands, energy, and resources. Even if you already have a core group of like-minded people on board, spread the word through community message boards, email lists, and old-school flyers that you want to explore the idea of opening a volunteer-run video store. See who else shows up (and keeps coming back). They may have complimentary resources, connections, experience, or skill sets that you hadn’t even considered.

OTHER COLLECTIVES, ARTISTS, AND MOM-AND-POP SHOPS ARE YOUR FRIENDS

There’s a large overlap between people who run and/or frequent record stores, bookstores, music venues, and other local independent businesses and those who miss video stores. The same holds true of local filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, writers, and journalists—and all of the above will be very valuable to connect with in terms of publicizing your project to potential funders and customers. Related: does your community have a collectively run, worker-owned business—maybe a coffee shop, progressive bookstore, information center, free store? Take them out for a meal and pick their brains; they have the potential to help every step of the way. 

ENLIST FORMER VIDEO-STORE EMPLOYEES

They walk among us! And whether they’re in the core group or not, you need people with this experience to help guide you. There are a lot of nuts and bolts “institutional memory” details re: supplies, staffing, business hours, store organization, floor-display options, ordering, home-video labels, and obscure films that will come into focus much faster if you have veteran video-shop workers involved. Related: make sure you also read up on existing video stores (Like Seattle’s Scarecrow) and Kate Hagen’s excellent article “In Search of the Last Great Video Store.”

PICK YOUR LOCATION CAREFULLY AND FIND A SYMPATHETIC LANDLORD

The cost of DVDs has plummeted everywhere, but the costs of renting space have skyrocketed most places. Even in Baltimore, where change happens a lot slower than, say, New York or L.A., we wouldn’t be able to open Beyond Video if we hadn’t found a sympathetic landlord who was eager to see the project succeed (something our rent reflects). Keeping overhead costs as low as possible will be even more important to this project than most other endeavors—as will a central location convenient to walking, cycling, and unicycling hipsters as well as gas-guzzling oldsters who never got the hang of streaming, which I predict will be video stores’ biggest two customer demographics in the next few years.

HAVE COMPELLING, PASSIONATE ARGUMENTS FOR YOUR PROJECT MEMORIZED

When you tell someone you’re trying to open a video store in 2018, reactions are rather binary: people who will be immediately excited, and people who will look at you like you have spinach in your teeth and a zipper down as you tell them that the moon isn’t real. 

For the latter group, ask them to think about all the time they’ve wasted looking for something to watch on streaming services, all the specific movies they’ve looked for online that they couldn’t find, all the times a streaming service has held the rights to something and then lost them (think Hulu and Criterion, and subsequently the shuttering of Filmstruck), all the times streaming has frozen or bumped down in quality or the internet’s gone out, and all the months they’ve paid for multiple streaming services they didn’t use. Conversely, remind them of the great conversations and recommendations they’ve had at video stores (or book stores, or record stores, or libraries), and the pleasure of browsing in a physical space; have some first-hand memories ready in case they’re too young to have had those experiences.

For the merely somewhat skeptical film-lover: zoom in on how many streaming services they currently pay for to try to re-create the breadth and depth of an old-school video store, or even just how many movies Netflix has shed as it transitions from mail-delivery to streaming; point them to corroborating stats in Kate Hagen’s aforementioned article. And: once our project is open to the public later this year, point them to us!

In as concise a form as possible: 

--human interactions and physical spaces rule rule harder than logarithms and hyperlinks; 

--streaming services are getting more expensive, splintered, numerous, and less film-oriented; 

--and once a brick-and-mortar video store owns a film, unlike a streaming service, it has it as long as the item survives. 

MOUNT A MAKE-OR-BREAK FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGN

We set our Kickstarter goal at $30k, the smallest amount we figured we could ask for that would actually give us enough money to pay our rent forward, renovate our space, and buy some inventory. The worst-case scenario would’ve been to set a goal of $30k and meet it halfway and get those funds, creating an expectation in the community that we would still deliver a video store. It buys a lot of peace of mind to know that people funded that minimum (or beyond), a promising sign that your community is not just casually excited about video stores, but willing to put significant monies where their mouths are.

RETWEETS DO NOT PUT MONEY IN YOUR POCKET; PLEADING DOES

Speaking of money, it’ll be great to have some “influencers” (ugh) with large social-media followings on board to help publicize your project and fundraising efforts, but don’t think that signal-boosting alone will get you across the finish line. We had some significant celebrities from the worlds of music and film tweeting about our campaign, and I found that even if the tweets went viral, our earnings didn’t spike on those days; people clicking RT or “like” seemingly felt that they’d taken the needed action to help, and very rarely clicked through to donate. Your campaign will likely live or die on a compelling pitch (text, image, bios, and video); a consistent awareness campaign combining press, internet, a launch party (with bands and/or DJs) and IRL flyering; compelling rewards; and, importantly, direct and embarrassing email or text appeals to your contacts. 

USE THE INTERNET CREATIVELY

Get started on FB, IG, and Twitter before you’re fundraising, so you’re not chasing followers and money at the same time. Stay on brand, but have a sense of humor and a strong personality. Post pics of old video stores and your incoming inventory, progress shots of your space, articles about remaining video stores, Criterion-Closet visits and movie memes. Retweet your favorite filmmakers and home-video labels. 

Once our inventory started taking shape, I created a public Wish List of needed titles as a shared document anyone could access; donations started flooding in from all over the country! We plan to maintain the list after opening, and offer benefits to members who donate; online can be such a bummer that people really get excited when they see it being used positively.

BUY IN BULK

Are you embarking on this project because a local store (probably a beloved institution and/or the last one standing in your community) is closing? If so, seize the day! Buying their existing collection in its entirety (or as much of it as you can mobilize quickly to retain) may be an unrepeatable opportunity both to assemble a comprehensive inventory and fundraise in a moment of peak public sympathy.

Short of that, estate sales, thrift stores, flea markets, and used record and bookstores are great places to buy, in both quantity and quality. Don’t be shy to ask about bulk discounts! If possible, having someone on your team familiar with used-market reselling (someone with experience buying and selling on eBay, Discogs, and Amazon and/or accustomed to sourcing collections via estate sales) can help you maximize your buys.

PRIORITIZE DVDS

Blu-rays are little miracles and VHS tapes are in the prime nostalgia zone right now, but DVD remains the format that is ideal for this kind of project. More customers will still have their players, acquiring the discs is cheap and easy, and many donors will be happy to shed their collections. As we assemble our collection, we consider DVD the target format for each desired film, and consider also having the blu-ray icing on the cake. Meanwhile, we try to collect VHS titles that never made the leap to higher-res formats, as well as a smattering of fun/cool/kitschy titles (especially cult and big-box ‘80s horror). So as we close in on 10,000 unique titles on DVD, we’re also able to offer roughly 1,000 blu-rays (most of which we also own on DVD) and hundreds of VHS tapes (many of which never came out on disc).

BE INCLUSIVE AND REWARD VOLUNTEERS

Make efforts to have a core group, volunteers, inventory, and customer base that reflect the diversity and sensibility of your community. And when people donate or show up, thank them in person and send thank-you emails after; offer soda, pizza, or other snacks on site; and do whatever else you can to let them know your efforts are appreciated! 

NEVER EVER SAY THE WORDS “LATE FEES” UNLESS THE WORD “NO” DIRECTLY PRECEDES THEM

Let’s talk business model. Customers miss brick-and-mortar video stores, but they don’t miss the stale old business model. No one wants to rent for $4 something they could buy for $5, and no one wants to have deadlines and penalties associated with their home viewing. Our model allows people to buy in for a reasonable monthly fee, and then take out between 3-6 items at a time, depending on their monthly membership fee, with no official due date (after two courtesy calls if the item’s been out a specified unreasonable period of time, we’ll charge their credit card for the replacement cost of the item and acquire a new copy). Keeping the monthly fee low, and ideally setting it to renew automatically unless someone terminates (as with sites like Patreon) means you should be able to break even with a doable baseline of community support—many of whom, as with a streaming service, will continue their membership through months when they don’t use the membership much, knowing that other months they’ll be more active. 

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS AND STAY POSITIVE

Assuming your resources, like ours, require your video store to operate on an all-volunteer model, bear in mind that everyone has lives, jobs, and hobbies outside your project. Especially in the planning stages, be very understanding when people have limited time to give. Obviously you’ll want to open your store as quickly as possible so you don’t waste money, but also don’t beat yourself up comparing your opening schedule to that of for-profit businesses with investors and full-time employee commitments. 

It may be that, staffed by your core group, your store is only open on weekends, or limited hours 3-5 days a week… that’s cool and awesome, and better than having no video store! Just make sure you post manageable hours and stick to them so you’re consistent and reliable. 

It may also turn out that your collection has a fraction of what the old video store in your community had. So what? Video stores never had “everything”--they just created that illusion with great taste and smart spending. Think of your collection as a starting point, and keep building!

Every minute of this process won’t be fun. Even among the best of friends, tensions can mount and personalities can clash when there’s lots of hard work and financial pressure involved. Just stay focused on the end result. Video stores are not only one of the coolest things ever, but also something that are not supposed to exist any more. And you and your friends can flip that script!

Eric Allen Hatch is a film programmer, film critic, and festival consultant based in Baltimore, MD, and a founding member of the Beyond Video collective. Eric was the Director of Programming for Maryland Film Festival from 2007 into 2018. His article "Why I Am Hopeful" for Filmmaker Magazine was one of the most-discussed articles of 2018 in the U.S. art-house communityHe writes the monthly column Infinite Fest for MUBI Notebook, serves on the advisory board of Vidiots (LA), and works with Sentient.Art.Films in acquisition and theatrical distribution. He can also be found photoshopping Paul Blart into transgressive art-house films on Twitter, IG, and his Beyond The Boonmemes patreon page as @ericallenhatch.

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