Most video rental stores have followed Fotomat kiosks and typewriter repair shops into oblivion, but Santa Clarita is home to at least one exception.
Video Depot on Lyons Ave. in Newhall proudly touts itself as “the last DVD and Blu-Ray rental store in Santa Clarita, and possibly the world.”
That claim is on the store’s Facebook page, which suggests that owners John and Gina Lee are not oblivious to the changing world around them.
“We used to have four locations, back before Blockbuster and Hollywood Videos came along,” Lee said. “We’re down to one store now, and we’re the only one left in the whole valley.”
Lee opened Video Depot in Newhall because he loves movies, he said, especially the classics. Newer movies are too violent for his tastes. He prefers the romance and stories of the old movies.
In business for 33 years, Video Depot was part of the rise of independent movie-rental stores in the 1980s, followed by the ascent of big national chains in the 1990s and RedBox and other kiosk-based rental outlets in the 2000s. The Lees outlasted them all.
Video Depot was among the thousands of standalone video stores, until Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came along with their larger stores and vast inventories. Then RedBox reinvented the rental business by offering movies from vending machines for a dollar a day, eliminating all overhead costs of running a brick-and-mortar store.
Netflix began offering Internet video-streaming services to customers in 2008. By the end of 2010, Hollywood and Blockbuster had both filed for bankruptcy, and Netflix had gone from the Postal Service’s largest first-class customer to the largest source of Internet streaming traffic.
Most small-business owners couldn’t compete. The Lees demonstrated nimble survival skills to stay in business through all these changes.
In addition to closing their other stores, in 2008 they moved their remaining 4,000-square-foor store into a space about half the size.
The trust of his customers and the ability to physically browse a wide number of titles are two reasons customers keep coming back, Lee said.
“We have some older customers who just don’t want to give their credit card number to an online streaming service like Netflix because they don’t trust them,” he said. “But they know us and trust us.”
And customers still like to come and browse titles in person, even as the physical format changed along with the competitive landscape.
“When we started, it was Betamax and VHS,” Lee said. “Then laser discs came in. They were big for a time, and then they were gone. These days we deal with DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.”
“We have a lot of classic movies,” Lee said. “We had more than 4,000 classic movies on VHS, but they’re gone now. I’ve been collecting titles on DVDs now from over 100 other video stores.”
The video store is one of two retail outlets the Lees own on Lyons Ave. that reflect changing industries.
“We started a Mail Boxes Etc. store that became a UPS Store about ten years ago,” he said. “About a year ago, we became independent as Best Mail and Ship Center.”
The former school teacher and current commercial real estate agent also used to own a restaurant that his wife ran. And though he concedes it’s not easy to stay in the movie-rental business, he and Gina (who runs the store day-to-day) continue in the business because it “just fits,” he said.
“I love movies. We don’t know how long we’ll be able to stay in business. I do know that we keep getting people coming in from all over the valley. We have loyal customers who have been coming in for a long time. We know a lot of people.”