Chip Williams raises a can of beer in the back office of North American Video, the company he has owned since 1997.
“It’s the end of an era,” Williams says, the first of many times he’ll repeat those words.
He clinks cans with Bill Burton, the owner who preceded him, to toast the Triangle’s last video store, as “The Maltese Falcon” plays on a small television in the front of the store and a few customers pick through the DVDs.
Avid Video in Durham, the other remaining video rental store in the Triangle, closed just last month after 19 years. Both outlasted Blockbuster, whose last Raleigh store closed in early 2014.
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On Sunday, Dec. 20, Williams will close North American’s shop at 5563 Western Blvd. The third owner in a chain that once had 16 stores across the Triangle, Williams says it’s a business decision. Shutting down the company has been years in the making after unsuccessful efforts to find a new owner.
But he knows there is a greater meaning behind ending a company that has meant so much to hundreds of workers and thousands more movie buffs. North American has been a family to many of its employees – a few even married each other – and a place where customers can find movies that just can’t be found on Netflix or the other streaming services that have surged into our daily habits.
That’s why on a rainy Monday night, he invited Burton, the second owner and his longtime friend, and Gary Messenger, who launched the business out of his home in 1979, to reminisce about the company’s highs and lows. Messenger was unable to attend, but he was mentioned often for creating a company that is thought to be the first video rental chain in the state.
Their oral history of the company sometimes feels like a how-to course in running a small business, along with a history lesson on the evolution of the video industry. If video killed the radio star, the Internet squashed the video store, they say.
I tell them I hope this story doesn’t sound like an obituary.
“Actually, you should put it in the obituary column,” Williams suggests. I think he might be partially serious.
With that spirit in mind, obituaries often start at the beginning.
‘A better way’
Messenger likes to credit the late broadcaster Charles Kuralt with the launch of North American Video.
“He was my inspiration,” Messenger says, letting out one of his signature laughs.
It was the late ’70s, and he wanted to record Kuralt on “CBS News Sunday Morning” when he was away from home. Video recorders were just entering the picture, and Messenger bought a Betamax recorder. Naturally, he wanted to watch films, too, and the only way to do that was by renting tapes through a mail-order company that had hefty late fees.
“I said, ‘This is stupid,’” Messenger said. “I said, ‘There had to be a better way.’”
Messenger had an idea to create a company that would rent videos to members. He borrowed $3,000 from his grandmother and started accumulating videos in what he calls his warehouse, which happened to be the den of his Durham home.
The company grew rapidly. He moved to the basement of a storefront on James Street in Durham and named the store North American Video LTD. “The name sounded important,” he says.
Then, it was $50 to join and $5.99 to rent a video for three days. He was soon ready to open a second location in Raleigh.
As with his successors, Messenger tried to adapt to the changing technology and trends. Beta videos disappeared, as did the $50 membership fee. Messenger estimates that at the company’s peak, its 16 stores had 150 employees and profits of $6 million.
Messenger said the company did good things, raising money for charitable organizations. At one point, Messenger helped Dean Smith, the late UNC basketball coach, make the transition from film to video for watching back games. He often met up with assistant coaches to deliver them videotapes of games when Smith was on the road.
But, he adds, “I took my eye off the ball.” He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy twice.
Burton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a knack for rescuing companies, took over in 1991. Williams, who met with Burton for lunch regularly, bought the Western Boulevard location a few years later, eventually taking over the whole company. He also bought up other independents in the area, owning as many as 10 stores during his tenure.
Turns out running a video store company can get complicated. But all of the owners pride themselves for providing for their employees and creating a culture that embodies the spirit of the independent video store. Each of the store’s locations reflected the community it served. They say that’s what set them apart from the competition.
“There was a subset of people who worked here who loved the business,” said Burton, 69. “They were really video freakoids. That’s one of the competitive advantages we had. You come in here and talk about movies with people who are really knowledgeable about directors and producers.”
‘That’s all, folks’
When they talk about the end of North American Video, that’s one of the losses that will be felt by employees and customers alike.
“It’s a fellowship of people that love movies,” said William Long, a customer for two years who turns to the longtime employees for suggestions. “We talk about documentaries. We talk about whatever.”
Coming to the store is part of his family’s routine. On Monday, he was searching for something “wildernessy” while his family waited in the car. When he first saw the video store a few years ago, it brought the 40-year-old a sense of nostalgia.
“It was like, ‘A video store? I haven’t seen a video store in years,’” he said.
And maybe that was part of the video store’s problem. People didn’t know it was still around.
By many accounts, the employees, and Williams, 59, are mentally prepared to move on to something else. Williams, while receiving a share of the profits, hasn’t earned a salary in years.
But Charles David, a former Garner manager who has helped close other North American Video stores, also said he is “generally a little melancholy” that the Triangle no longer will have a video store. It’s a cultural resource that will be missed, he said, adding “as ridiculous as that sounds.”
“The idea that there’s no video store here is tragic, in my opinion,” said David, 67. He has been with the company for 17 years and remains close with former employees, even officiating at one’s wedding this year. “It would be like shutting down the libraries. It feels very much the same to me.”
A sign behind the register reads “That’s all, folks. Everything must go!” Williams hopes longtime customers come to the store to say their farewells and buy up the remaining inventory of movies and posters. He’s not sure what’s next for him.
As for Messenger, who is 67 and semi-retired, he plans to come by, too, to say goodbye to his baby. Launching the company was a “hell of a trip,” he said.
“I’ll make an effort to go in and look around and introduce myself,” he said. “Before it’s over, I’ll shed a little tear. I think it’s funny. I think it’s grand. It was a gas. Every once in awhile, you have to leave the party.”