The experience of walking up and down the aisles at a video store to pick out a Friday night flick may seem nostalgic to some. To others, this may still be a regular weekend ritual.
But in the new year, this practice will come to an end for many in Guelph. After nearly 34 years in business, Thomas Video will be closing its doors for good. The final day for the shop will be Jan. 21, 2017.
“I’ve been doing this game for a long time,” said store owner Ian Findlay in an interview on Thursday.
The former Guelph councillor opened the shop on Macdonell Street in 1983 when he was 18 years old and still in high school. At the time, the rental industry was burgeoning and there was a big debate over whether VHS or BETA would take over as the next big medium.
Findlay went his own way and opened his shop with a selection of 250 video disc movies and 20 video players to rent.
Customers driving the selection
It was this decision to provide something a little different than the competition that enabled this shop to survive over the years.
The city’s Blockbuster stores closed in 2011. Guelph no longer has a Rogers Video. Even the kiosk movie rental machines have been pulled from most local stores. Outside of the public library, Thomas Video is one of the last vestiges of the movie rental industry.
Findlay said his shop was able to outlast its big box rivals by offering something they couldn’t: independent films, hard to find documentaries and unknown foreign movies.
“We cultivated a customer base who was looking for alternatives, other than just watching the latest Transformers movie or the Hollywood blockbusters,” he said.
Customers would come in and ask if the store carried random foreign films no one has ever heard of, and if Thomas Video didn’t have it on the shelves that day, they would make sure they would have it the next time that person came in.
“Our customers helped drive our selection,” he said, adding the relationship was a two-way street. “As we were being educated in film, our customers were being educated.”
But as streaming sites like Netflix and other online platforms entered the scene, the shop could no longer keep up.
At its peak, the store offered 28,000 titles along with music and games. Netflix, according to the blog netflixable.com, carries around 4,800 movies and shows.
‘That human interaction’
In 2000, the shop moved to their present location on Baker Street, and their customers followed.
Findlay said his memberships were set up in chronological order, and member number one, his first customer, still comes into the store regularly. So does number 10, number 91, and many of the other early customers.
To date, the store has registered more than 35,300 members.
“It’s that human interaction,” that keeps people coming back, he said. “That knowledge base that my staff had of film was invaluable for customers.”
On social media, Thomas Video customers have been expressing their sadness and gratitude over the announcement Findlay made on Tuesday. He said that while reading through the comments on his Facebook, he had to turn away at one point because tears were coming to his eyes.
“It’s been a big part of my life, no question,” he said. “I’ve made the decision to close, but emotionally, I’ve got a big roller coaster ahead of me for the next couple of months.”
Many have weighed in online, including Findlay’s very first customer, Roberto Veri. “Guelph won’t be the same without you,” he writes. “Thank you for the education in the cinematic arts that you made possible.”
Another comment from Alexandria Currie says “This is so sad. You were a pillar of the community.”
What comes next
When the time comes to close the doors, the massive selection of videos will be sold off, Findlay said. When and where the films will be sold has yet to be decided.
The Thomas Video space at 60 Baker Street is owned by Findlay and will be sold off as well. He said he already has someone lined up to buy it, but didn’t comment any further on who would be moving in.
Even without his store, Findlay said he lives downtown and doesn’t plan on going anywhere else. The #HappyMaking street pianos – a campaign he started years ago – will continue to come out every September, and he plans to stay very involved in the community.
As for Findlay himself, the 52-year-old said his entrepreneurial spirit will lead him towards the next project, whatever that may be.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I showed up in business again in the very near future,” he said.
Chris Seto is a reporter/photographer with the Guelph Mercury Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @topherseto