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The latest in our Toronto Pillars series, Bay Street Video is one of the last bastions of a pre-Netflix era
Video stores are not dead in Toronto. There are still a couple left, holding the torch for physical media of the moving picture variety.
There’s Eyesore Cinema, which is both a peddler of DVDs and a 40-seat cinema.
And then there’s Bay Street Video, which might be the last remaining bastion of the old-school video shop.
Walk down an unassuming hallway on Bay, just south of Bloor, and you’ll find shelf after shelf of DVDs and Blu-rays, in sections for action, sci-fi, comedy, horror, television, musicals, classics, the Criterion Collection, staff picks.
There are TVs playing whatever film the staff are thinking about that day.
There are boards tracking critics’ five-star (or Ns – hi Norm) ratings, even almanacs full of movie recommendations. There are Post-it notes sticking out of movies with bite sized reviews and jokes, some dating back to the 90s and 2000s.
Under those transporting fluorescent lights, it’s like Netflix never happened.
“It hasn’t always been sunshine and lollipops, but we’ve weathered some tough times and we’re still here,” says owner Michael Bernick. “In some ways, we’re stronger than we’ve been in quite some time.”
Bay Street Video opened in 1993, but the store actually dates back to 1982. Before Bernick took ownership that year, it had a handful of different names – one was Mr. Video, but he can’t remember the others – but it was always a video store.
In those days video stores did good business, enough to create an uneasy relationship with cinemas and film distributors. There were stores all over the city you could walk into and browse through the movies (then on VHS) and pick something to rent for a few days or a week.
Blockbuster and Rogers Video were the corporate behemoths, the places to find a ton of copies of whatever box office hit studio action film or romantic comedy had made its way to home video. There were also smaller chain shops that felt a little homier with popcorn machines and carpeting, but with similar models. And then there were the indies, shops like Queen Video and Suspect Video where film nerds could congregate, talk about the French New Wave or spaghetti westerns and rent their favourite cult films.
Those were the spots that stuck around the longest, providing two things that streaming services couldn’t: community and selection. Even if you subscribe to every service – Netflix, Crave, Amazon, Prime, even Shudder or Criterion Channel – there are things you can only find in video shops.
But Bay Street Video survived, outlasting changing film culture, gentrification and now even a pandemic.
“I think we made a very smart choice a long time ago,” says Bernick. “When stores were deciding whether to rent or sell, we made the decision to do both, and be really good at both.”
Compared to other now-departed shops in the city, BSV was never the snobbiest one, nor the nerdiest one with the rarest collectibles nor the one with the most copies of new releases. But it did have everything you could possibly be looking for – and it still does. Product manager Mark Hanson estimates their stock is somewhere in the realm of 36,000 or 37,000 titles.
That number covers films for rent and for sale – including Blu-ray and ultra-HD, which they’ve massively expanded in the last few years as the formats have taken off. They’ve kept a copy of pretty much anything they’ve ever had in the store, including things that have long gone out of print. And if there’s something they don’t have, they’ll order it for you. They even have a direct line to studios – which will sometimes print a DVD for them on demand, including some never manufactured before. Organizations like TIFF, production companies and rep cinemas will sometimes come to them just to see if a certain title is available.
“It’s libraryesque – almost like an archive or a museum,” Hanson says. “We have a curated collection that continues to grow but never gets smaller.”
You definitely can’t get that on Netflix.
“On Netflix, for anything prior to the 90s, the selection is poor,” says store manager Dwayne Aylward. “We have movies that go back to the beginning of filmmaking, from the first silent films ever made to stuff that was just in theatres – and everything in between. We have the history of cinema.”
The BSV brain trust has nothing against Netflix or any of the other services, they say. Instead, they can easily co-exist. Like Spotify and the concept of lean-back listening, many people who settle in for a night of streaming aren’t looking for a specific movie or TV show – they’re just looking to watch something, to be entertained for a little while in a relatively passive way. But if you’re taking time to walk into a physical place, grab something and take it home, you’ll be at least a little bit invested.
The majority of their customers these days, though, are looking to buy. And many of them are hardcore collectors. It’s a trajectory similar to the vinyl resurgence. You can find the majority of recorded music on Spotify, but many people want something tangible they can hold. They want to own it. When it comes to movies, they also want the special features, the commentaries, the attractive packaging, the books and posters. Many niche labels and manufacturers have stepped up to make special editions catered to them.
It was so lucrative that prior to March 2020, business was booming. The last Boxing Day before the pandemic was their single biggest day in store history. Bernick says it was a 69 per cent increase in sales over the previous best day ever.
“People still want this,” he says.
Then, the pandemic happened. It wasn’t easy to pivot, but eventually they got their curbside pickup up and running, as well as shipping by post. They stepped up their social media game to remind the city they’re still here. And they leaned into nostalgia a little bit.
“People were cooped up at home, they’d gone through everything on streaming and they’d find us online,” says Aylward. “They’d say ‘Wow, there is still a video store. Wow, they have all these titles not available.’ All these people have been coming in with stories of how they used to be regulars a decade ago, about how much they miss the experience of going into a video store.”
The support of both the new and returning customers and the long-time regulars – many of whom made a point of getting their movies from BSV to support local – kept them afloat until they were able to reopen for in-store browsing in step 2.
It’s given them a new wind to keep it all going. Hanson hopes they can evolve to become even more of a hub for film-lovers in the city, beyond just buying and renting – if they can find the space in their cramped and overflowing store.
“We’re humbled by the support we’ve received over the last year and a half,” Bernick says. “Without [the customers], I’m not sure we would have survived the pandemic. As long as they keep coming, we’ll still be around.”
Richard Trapunski and Norm Wilner discuss the history of Bay Street Video and the enduring appeal of physical media with product manager Mark Hanson in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.>