On Culture

On Culture: To video stores, a dying breed

CorrespondentApril 26, 2014 

Craig Lindsey

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

It’s still there, behind Harris Teeter, right beneath the Best Buy Mobile, right next to the dry cleaner.

The North American Video in Cameron Village is still around, full of DVDs and VHS tapes, covering many genres and selections. The store’s continuing existence is surprising for several reasons. For starters, it had stiff competition for many years when a Blockbuster Video was open across the way. But that store left in 2009, one of many Blockbusters that began disappearing around the Triangle. (The last one in Raleigh shut down in January.)

Another reason is, of course, the many alternative ways people can access movies and TV on demand these days – some without even leaving the house. Go to most supermarkets and you’ll find a Redbox kiosk (like the one in the Harris Teeter in Cameron Village, which often gets swarmed by young folk on a Friday night) ready to dispense new titles. “It’s a dollar!” exclaims Redbox frequenter Alison Oakley of Hillsborough. “You get a movie and return it the next day. You can’t beat it.”

Or, you can just stay at home and watch movies on your computer or TV via Netflix or Amazon. “Anything instantly streaming, I’ll watch,” says Raleigh bartender Christopher Herring, who prefers on-demand sites Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. “Most of the time, I just watch Netflix – if they ever put new movies in.”

North American’s survival is also surprising, considering so many outlets in the locally based video-store chain have closed. In its prime, North American had 10 stores across the Triangle, from Chapel Hill to Knightdale. Now, there are two: the Cameron Village store and another on Western Boulevard.

Those who know of North American and its history might say the chain and its remaining stores have a tradition to uphold. After all, the chain, which began in the garage of Gary Messenger’s Durham home in 1978, is the oldest, longest-running video-store operation in North Carolina.

Chip Williams, who has owned the chain for the past 15 years (ownership changed hands a couple of times after North American filed for bankruptcy in 1994), says the two Raleigh locations are still around because they still make money.

“My business plan is that I tell my managers that if your store is profitable, we’ll stay open,” says Williams. “And if it’s not profitable, we’ll close. So, if people stop coming to North American Video, we’ll close.”

Dedicated customers

If North American does close, it would be yet another, stateside video-store chain no longer doing business in the Triangle. The VisArt Video chain closed all three Triangle stores – including its cavernous Carrboro location – at the beginning of the decade.

You almost have to be both stubborn and optimistic to run a video store these days. Avid Video in Durham is still keeping on even after changing locations several times through the years. But Williams and the North American employees feel they have a customer base dedicated enough to keep the locations afloat.

“People are very loyal,” says Mia Feltis, who’s managed the Cameron Village location for six years. “It’s kind of a very community environment. People walk in and they see their neighbors and their kids’ friends’ parents and their teachers. It’s fun to be in here on a night and just watch everybody – ‘Hey, how you’re doing?’ 

Feltis thinks some of her customers come in and rent as an act of retroactive rebellion.

“For a while there, they were definitely enjoying everything online and on their computers,” she says. “And, every day, I sign up more and more customers. Every day, some more people come in going, ‘Oh, there’s still a brick-and-mortar store. This is so exciting.’ 

Williams says business at the stores has been reasonably steady these past three years – certainly better than when it nosedived in 2009. (“We’re profitable, but just barely so,” he says.) But, as long as people are willing to get up, leave their houses, go somewhere and browse, North American Video will be around.

“It’s a very competitive industry, and we have a unique product: We’re the last video store standing,” he says.

Lindsey: talkingfurniture@aol.com

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