For a moment, Willamina O’Keeffe hoped North American Video’s fate would twist like the plot of the movie “Empire Records,” a 1995 comedy in which employees of an independent record store save it from being absorbed by a chain.
“It is now the plot to something a lot sadder with less of a happy ending,” said O’Keeffe, 29, a customer who “for a minute” hoped to devise a plan to save Raleigh’s last video stores.
“I think it is a really disappointing loss of a cultural resource,” O’Keeffe said.
North American Video owner Chip Williams announced in April that he planned to close the 36-year-old company’s last two stores, ending in Raleigh the era when people left home to rent a movie from another person, rather than a machine. The store in Cameron Village will close Sunday, Williams said. The store in Plaza West Shopping Center on Western Boulevard will likely remain open until the end of the summer.
For Gary Messenger of Durham, who founded North American Video in 1979, it means he can no longer tell people that the company he started as a pioneer in the home entertainment industry in North Carolina is still in business.
“I am very proud,” Messenger said. “Wistful, sad, proud.”
North American Video lasted longer than most, as three different owners helped it to survive in a rapidly changing industry. .
Avid Video in Durham, which brings in most of its revenue from selling movies on eBay, appears to be the last remaining video store in the Triangle.
Messenger, 66, bought his first videotape recorder around 1979. He was a big fan of Charles Kuralt, who had moved from the evening news to become the first anchor of “CBS News Sunday Morning.” Messenger, who booked and played in bands, was often out on the road or stayed up late Saturday nights.
“I would really force myself to get up on Sunday morning,” he said, about a time when people watched television shows when they aired and saw movies in theaters or on TV.
Then Messenger saw an advertisement for a Sony Betamax, which could record television shows on a videocassette. He eventually drove to a Circuit City in Charlotte to buy one.
Messenger rented “The Godfather” from a Fotomat in Durham, a drive-thru retail chain that developed film. He had to call ahead, put down a $50 deposit and was charged when he forgot to bring it back.
“I figured there has got to be a better way than this,” he said.
Messenger founded North American Video as a mail-order catalog business in his home and sold the limited number of movies that were initially offered. “Everybody was buying anything they could get their hands on,” he said.
Revolutionary court ruling
Messenger moved to a basement location and then the first stand-alone North American Video in Durham. He began renting movies as well as selling them, navigating a gray area around copyright law.
Then in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a revolutionary decision in a legal dispute between Sony and Universal City Studios that legitimized recording devices, such as Betamax, and “opened the floodgates” for movie rental and sales, Messenger said.
At its peak around 1990, North American Video had about 10,000 members and 16 stores across the Triangle, Messenger said.
As more independent stores opened in the Triangle and chains such as Blockbuster and Movie Gallery started moving in, North American Video’s margins were thinning and Messenger’s business struggled. Twice, he filed for bankruptcy.
The second time, in 1992, William Burton acquired the company, installed a bar code tracking system, closed three stores and a home office and made the company profitable again.
By 1997, Chip Williams had acquired North American Video, shepherding the company into the DVD era as the players became the most rapidly adopted consumer electronic device in history.
In the following years, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Clubs, Amazon and Netflix would be big players in the video industry.
By 2011, Redbox had become the industry’s leading renter of discs, and Netflix had launched its streaming service as independent stores and chains were rapidly disappearing.
Amid the competition and an economic downturn, Williams started closing North American Video stores that weren’t profitable and cut salaries for himself and his employees. The last two stores remained open even as Raleigh’s last Blockbuster closed in January 2014.
Now, after years of not taking a salary, Williams says he’s shutting down, so he can seek a paying occupation. For customers browsing the remaining stock on a recent Friday evening, as an old black-and-white Tarzan movie played in the background, the loss is keenly felt.
Adam Aldrich of Raleigh said the closing represents a departure from a time when video stores untethered movie lovers from theaters, creating memories of first dates, family gatherings and movie marathons watching “The Godfather,” “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” series.
While the video stores made watching movies more convenient, said Aldrich, 50, it also created a sense of community through regular visits to the neighborhood store and interaction with other movie lovers and knowledgeable clerks.
Eric Caldwell of Raleigh has been dropping by North American Video for about 10 years. Caldwell, who has avoided cable in an effort to keep television watching to a minimum, said he appreciated doing business with people whom he likes and who take the time to help him pick movies and television shows that he can watch on his terms.
Caldwell, 43, started using Netflix about a year ago but said it lacks the interaction and selection that North American Video offered.
“Netflix will be a distant second” to the neighborhood store, Caldwell said.
Dwindling video stores
The number of video stores has declined from 19,394 in the first quarter of 2008 to 4,649 in the first quarter of 2015, according to Rentrak’s Home Video Essentials, which tracks movie and video game rental activity. Meanwhile, rental kiosks have increased from 10,800 in 2008 to 43,281 in the first quarter of 2015.