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How Jamaica Plain’s Video Underground rental store is surviving the streaming era

It’s almost exactly like you remember.

At the Video Underground in Jamaica Plain, there are the shelves of DVDs ready to rent: the new releases, the oldies, the animated flicks. There are the individual candy boxes of Raisinets and Whoppers, and the popcorn machine behind the counter. And, of course, there are the film-buff employees, ready to offer you a movie recommendation — no algorithm necessary. On one recent Wednesday afternoon, the 1978 horror movie “The Swarm” played on an overhead monitor. Movie posters of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Clueless” adorn the walls.

But at this Egleston Square video rental store — a vestige of what was once a thriving industry — some things are different. There’s a café slinging fare like crêpes, smoothies, flatbread pizzas, and house-roasted coffee. There’s an adjacent 15-seat theater-style screening room, available to book for private events. And the 16,000-plus movies, which customers once rented by the day, can now be checked out only by those who get an annual or monthly media subscription. Monthly, flat-fee, unlimited rental memberships range from $20 to $60, a sliding scale that reflects how many DVDs customers can check out at a time.

“Nostalgia will absolutely make someone come in,” said Video Underground owner Kevin Koppes, but he knew the shop needed more to keep people coming back.

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Video Underground, which now bills itself as a “cinema café,” opened in 2002 on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. Koppes took it over in 2013 when he found out it was in danger of closing, and moved it to its current location on Washington Street in 2014. He opened the café shortly after, and took over the space next door to add a screening room in 2019. The shop used to host weekly public movie nights in the screening room pre-pandemic. Now, it’s reliably rented out a few days a week for private viewings. (For non-members, rentals start at $25 with an hourly fee.) “We do a lot with a pretty dinky space,” said Koppes.

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Koppes is not under the impression that he’s competing with services like Netflix or Hulu or HBO Max — for almost nobody is Video Underground “their primary means of seeing movies,” he said. Instead, the store fills in the gaps left by streaming giants. While some movies may be taken off of streaming catalogs after a period of time, “our collection only grows,” Koppes said, adding that they invest in the catalog every week. Some customers seek out the special features of a DVD, like a commentary track or deleted scenes, or are on the hunt for titles that never made it to streamers.

“Even though I helm a catalog of thousands of DVDs, I don’t think streaming is inherently bad,” he said. “But I still strongly believe that there is a place for physical media.”

Other customers, like Dan Thomas, 69, like the human interaction of the rental store. Thomas has no streaming services. “Sometimes I have to wait for things, but there’s always something else to see,” said Thomas, who picked up “Solaris” and “The Eight Hundred” on a recent Wednesday.

Despite Koppes’s dedication to physical forms of media, the switch to the subscription tier model for movie rentals was partly to emulate streaming services, he said. That means that for the 700-plus current subscribers to get the most bang for their buck, they have to come in often to swap out their DVDs — which Koppes hopes will get them to eventually try a coffee or pastry. Or vice versa: A regular coffee customer might see a DVD title that catches their eye and decide to try out a subscription.

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“The more times the little bell rings on our door, the better we are off generally, and the more likely someone is to try something out,” he said.

For locals like Thomas, the Video Underground is pretty much the only place around (besides libraries) to get their DVD rental fix. Most video rental store survivors — MovieWorks in Brookline, Hollywood Express in Cambridge, and Chet’s Video & Candy Shoppe in Marblehead — have all shuttered in the last decade. The last Blockbuster video store in Massachusetts closed in 2014. In general, DVD sales have plummeted in recent years, dropping from 6.1 billion physical video transactions in 2011 to 1.2 billion in 2021, according to market research reported in a Wired article.

The store’s eclectic catalog has titles ranging from French New Wave films to arthouse movies to current Oscar nominees. The floor displays only a fraction of the selection, arranged into offbeat categories like “Best of the Worst” and “Experiments in Gnarly.” The store has more than four times the number of movie titles on Netflix reported by streaming service aggregator JustWatch.

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Carlos Troncoso, who came in on a Wednesday with his two young sons, played the store’s “dice game,” where $1 buys a mystery DVD based on the outcome of a six-die roll. They ended up with an eight-feature Charlie Chaplin DVD, “Foul Play,” and “Spectre.”

“A place like this, you need it for every generation to learn to appreciate film and movies,” said Troncoso, who, in addition to his VU membership, has a number of streaming service subscriptions. “It’s about being able to expose them to stuff that they won’t click on.”

And yet, there will always be one way that Koppes can’t one-up the streaming services: “No brick-and-mortar anything can match the convenience of just sitting there in your SpongeBob pajamas, hitting the button over and over again,” he said.

But dedicated clientele don’t care. Sarah Tuttle, who came in with her boyfriend, Will Tao, checked out “Super Mario Bros” and “Zardoz” on a Wednesday afternoon. “I just think it’s cool that this type of place can still exist,” said Tuttle, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “It’s more of an experience, rather than convenience.”

Somewhere along the line, the shop became something of a community hub. The café has its regulars, for whom the employees know their usual order. There are dozens of DVD swaps every week, and renters often ask Koppes for his two cents on a title before they commit to it. Right now, the longstanding Oscars contest is in full swing: People fill out a sheet to guess which movies will win, and the person with the most correct predictions gets a $25 gift card. The person with the fewest gets a five-minute lecture from Koppes.

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“In the way that I think mom-and-pop video stores used to be enmeshed in people’s lives, I think we’re still kind of enmeshed in people’s lives,” he said, “in a different time, for different reasons.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com