Local video store persists, despite 21st century trends


James Onderdonk, University graduate, and Emily Otnes, sophomore in English, find employment at Rentertainment, the last locally owned video store in Urbana-Champaign.

By Masaki Sugimoto

Walking into a video store, scanning aisle after aisle of endless titles and finally finding the perfect film was like winning the lottery as a child.

With the introduction of instant movie streaming resources such as Hulu and Netflix, the novelty of these stores has significantly decreased, putting many shops out of business — including national brands such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.

In 2014, Blockbuster shut the doors on all of its corporate locations, leaving only 51 remaining franchises in the U.S., principally located in Alaska and Texas.

In contrast, Netflix has seen exponential growth in recent years since its launch in 1997. The streaming service, which charges $8 a month, has seen its overall subscriptions grow to 57.4 million, according to Forbes.

But despite the growth of online streaming, some rental stores continue to follow a model, still a float in a digital age.

That’s Rentertainment, Champaign-Urbana’s last locally owned and operated video store located at the corner of Sixth and John streets, continues to hold its own.

Beginning in 1985, That’s Rentertainment has boasted an atypical assortment of movies including foreign, independent, gay and lesbian, documentary and classic films. Geoff Merritt, owner and 1984 University alumnus, has seen the progression of the store since its opening a year after he graduated from the University.

Despite the struggle to keep a video store relevant in a world that lives online, he credits the uniqueness of the selections and the store itself with its success.

“We weren’t like the mainstream video stores such as Blockbuster or Hollywood Movie,” he said. “When they existed, they boasted a lot of top titles, but not titles in general. They carried copies of the latest hits.”

That’s Rentertainment, while holding newly release movies as well, has over 50,000 individual titles. Its biggest selections include documentaries, foreign and independent films.

“We’ve got a lot of things you cannot find online,” Merritt said.

He said that while he is proud that the store carries different selections, it is the heritage of the small business that gives him pride in his store.

This proves true as customer Richard Hamilton, University alumnus, discovered the store after he was unable to find the movie he wanted to watch online.

“I was complaining that I couldn’t find this movie online, and my co-worker suggested I look here,” he said.

His membership has now existed for a year and a half, and he said the number of visits he’s made to the store is more than 30. Hamilton added that he utilizes the movies That’s Rentertainment offers more than what he finds using online streaming devices.

Merritt said the store maintains success because it offers most of what cannot be found through legal streaming and its narrow customer group.

“We’re dealing more with people who are looking for a certain director’s films or certain films from specific countries,” he said. “They’re very intent on what they want, so that’s when you have to go to a video store. And some people just like video stores, like me.”

Other than That’s Rentertainment, the only other video rental store in Champaign and Urbana is Family Video. The chain, which is based in Glenview, Ill., is the largest movie and video game rental franchise in the U.S., according to its website. But despite three locations in Champaign and Urbana, Merritt believes the majority of his store’s competition is online services.

James Onderdonk, employee of That’s Rentertainment for the past five years, said he has seen firsthand how the store can maintain success even with the competition of online streaming devices.

“Even compared to any other streaming service online, we’re going to have more volume, greater variety and much more obscure titles compared to popular blockbuster titles,” he said.

Besides the unique selection, the foundation of the store’s success is ultimately its heritage. Having been on campus for 30 years, That’s Rentertainment has witnessed many customer turnarounds as a majority of the customer pool changes every four years; however, there are still local residents who live in Champaign-Urbana that remain loyal to the store.

“There are enough people in this community who are willing to help keep this place around,” Merritt said.

Onderdonk agreed, referring to the video store as a staple to the community.

“There are people who remember when he had multiple locations and who have been coming here for over two decades,” he said.

Merritt and Onderdonk said they believe the store can and will survive due to the presence it has created on campus and the relationships that have been formed with the more loyal customers.

“The online trend makes everything so uninteresting, and it’s pushing everything towards the familiar. So I think that, somehow, interesting stores need to find a way to stay open,” Merritt said. “Hopefully there’s enough people in each community that are willing to help these things stay around.”

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