The dying light of the afternoon penetrates the storefront glass and settles upon rows of DVDs arranged not by genre, but in rough alphabetical order. Thus, Michael Myers from “Halloween” lurks on a shelf near Tracy Turnblad of “Hairspray.”
Past a hand-written “DROP OFF MOVIE HERE” sign, the Jumanji poster and the Blues Brothers action figures, three customers search for entertainment to pass a Monday evening in Norfolk. It’s a daunting task. Chris Logan’s Call Video offers roughly 33,300 movies for rent, plus another 3,700 video games.
Most are on DVD, but if you hung onto your perfectly functional VCR, Logan’s got you covered with another 7,400 titles on VHS. Somewhere he even has a few movies on Beta — the purportedly superior tape format that faded into obsolescence long ago. He doesn’t rent them. As far as he knows, none of his customers own a Betamax player.
Chris Logan may have reached his own Betamax moment.
For more than a quarter century, he has survived the ultra-competitive, constantly shifting video rental industry. He outlasted at least six brick-and-mortar competitors in his northeast Nebraska hometown of 24,000 people. He has beaten back Blockbuster and weathered cable’s video-on-demand. He hung on when Walmart dumped pallets of DVDs in discount bins and Redbox kiosks sprouted like noxious weeds.
Today, a few Nebraska convenience stores and movie theaters still rent movies to supplement their main revenue streams.
But Chris Logan’s Call Video may well be the last free-standing video store in the state.
It’s a one-of-a-kind spot located near the intersection of U.S. Highways 81 and 275. It’s a home entertainment outlier, open seven days a week.
The Internet, the pitiless disruptor of all things retail, has come for Logan’s Call Video. Even Logan’s delivery service (the reason behind “call” in the store’s name) isn’t convenient enough for former customers seduced by the siren call of streaming.
“How do you compete with a remote control?” Logan asks with a resigned nod. “It’s hard.”
It’s hard for a generation raised on Hulu to imagine having to go to the theater to see a new release, like everyone did in the 1970s. In the second half of that decade, the advent of the videocassette recorder started to change that. But buying a single VHS movie could cost $79 or more — nearly $300 in today’s dollars.
The exorbitant prices created an instant business opportunity. Why buy if you can rent?
Video Station, believed to be the first video store in America, opened in Los Angeles in 1978. Within a decade, more than 30,000 outlets had opened across the country. One was Logan’s Antenna/Logan’s Video in Norfolk.
Logan’s father, Gary, started renting Betamax tapes as a sideline to his antenna and satellite business. He sold annual memberships for $100 and mailed tapes to out-of-town customers.
After Gary Logan died in 1992, Logan acquired his dad’s tapes. He walked away from his job in a minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit ice cream freezer at a local dairy. In 1994, he opened a new storefront a block south of downtown Norfolk.
He spent the past 27 years behind the counter of his own store.
At the start, rentals cost $1.89 for new releases and 99 cents for older titles. Logan sold annual memberships for $10, or $25 for a lifetime pass. He offered the lowest prices in town and gave customers punch cards for a free movie after 10 rentals.
It worked. In 1994, Forrest Gump raked it at the box office, and Chris Logan raked it in Norfolk. A line of customers stretched outside his door when new releases came out. Some nights, he and his employees had no time to restock, and were left to search stacks of tapes behind the counter for a requested title.
In that first year, he commissioned a painting of leading actors on his stucco storefront. The slogan beneath Macaulay Culkin, John Wayne and Jack Nicholson stated: “Our hits will make you see stars at Chris Logan’s Call Video.”
“Business was good,” he recalled. “I mean, in those days, it could be really good.”
Even in the good times, the days of the independent video store were numbered. Corporate America launched franchises by buying up mom-and-pop stores. Blockbuster Video, the most successful, grew to thousands of locations and 60 million customers by 2004.
The transition to DVDs created an even stronger headwind, said Daniel Herbert, University of Michigan film professor and author of “Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store.” They rapidly drove down the cost of owning a movie.
“So people went to Walmart for movies rather than Blockbuster,” Herbert said.
Discs also allowed Netflix to cheaply mail movies to customers who paid a monthly fee. The subscription model represented a shift away from the individual transactions of video stores.
“When Netflix and Amazon made streaming a normal thing in the 2009 to 2011 period, it just sealed the deal on a trend that was already happening,” Herbert said.
Sure enough, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. Only one of its stores in Bend, Oregon, remains open. In early 2021, Family Video closed its last 700 stores, including several in Nebraska, marking the end of the chain-store era, Herbert said.
At its peak in 2003, the movie and game rental industry generated $12 billion in annual revenue. The number plunged under $2 billion by 2019. Fewer than 1,000 stores are still open in the U.S., Herbert estimated. Only a few niche stores are expected to survive.
More than jobs and incomes have been lost. Trips to the video store helped cement a local “movie culture” and contribute to the social fabric of a community in small but meaningful ways. Customers conversed with employees, and with other customers, about what to watch and why.
“The loss of all those things means that we are relating to movies in a very, very different way than we used to,” Herbert said, “and also interacting with each other about movies differently, too.”
The industry collapsed. Logan remained standing.
He did it in stark contrast to the well-lit, brightly colored corporate chains. He did it with water-stained ceilings, crumbling stucco, classic rock thumping on the stereo and an “adult” section under lock and key in the back corner. To reach it, customers have to pass under a crucifix and portrait of Jesus.
Logan saw revenues decline but managed to eke out a profit. He catered to people lacking broadband — a major problem in rural Nebraska — or others who can’t afford monthly subscriptions.
What his customers sacrificed in convenience, they gained in choice. Serious movie fans walk through the door and are dumbstruck by the selection.
Consider: If every single resident of Norfolk rented a video from Logan’s Call Video on the same day, the store would still have 9,500 titles on its shelves. It’s more than some streaming services reportedly maintain in their rotations.
Logan has a repository of obscure, low-budget titles that never made it to DVD or streaming, said Dustin Ferguson, a movie director in Los Angeles who attended community college in Norfolk. Logan’s vast collection of slasher and horror movies includes titles rarely offered for sale, let alone for rent.
Ferguson knows how hard it is to run an independent video store in the 21st century. He opened a new one in Lincoln in 2017. After one break-even year, he sold out. The second owner closed it.
That’s a scene Troy Small can’t bear to watch at his favorite video store.
He has fond memories of going to Logan’s store with his dad. The best one involves a movie described as a “dumb low-budget British comedy horror about a guy who ends up trapped in a toilet cubicle during the zombie apocalypse.” His father rented it five times but never actually watched it.
The title: “Stalled.”
Last year, Small, 25, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, returned to Norfolk with a friend who had never set foot in a video store. Afterward, he went home and built a Facebook page for the social-media challenged Logan. Small bought Facebook ads for Logan’s Call Video and helped brainstorm a new $10-a-month pricing option.
“If just 1,000 people did the monthly deal, Chris would be doing great,” Small said. “The place is a landmark. It should be a tourist attraction. There’s really no excuse not to support this community staple.”
Is it possible to hit rewind on something like consumer preference?
Profits have been thin for a long time. Over the past year, Logan said he’s lost money more months than not. He’s had to borrow to pay the bills. If he were making a movie about his situation, it might be titled “Unsustainable.”
He’s giving it one more winter.
“A lot of people tell me they hate to see it go, but if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it,” he said.
If Logan closes, he’ll miss his customers. He enjoys helping people remember a title, and the feeling when someone thanks him for the perfect recommendation.
He’s 61. With weekends free, he would probably hit the flea markets to sell his movies and games. Plus, he’d have more time to maintain the four houses he owns in Norfolk.
Yes, of course, they’re rentals.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.