You don’t need a hot tub time machine or DeLorean to dial back the years; just step through the doors of Movie Town in Anaheim. Customers roam the aisles on a Saturday night in search of their weekend entertainment while the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” plays overhead. Kit Kat chocolate bars, Sour Punch candy and Popz microwave popcorn await at the checkout counter. It’s as if you’ve been transported to a time before Netflix, but wait—the posters framed by neon lights on the store’s front windows are for newer releases: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and The Hateful Eight. A cardboard cutout of the Minions greets people making their way through the shelves, on which there’s only a handful of copies of Star Wars: The Force Awakens left.
It’s still 2016 after all. There’s a handful of hole-in-the-wall businesses like it, but Movie Town, which opened in 1993 and continues to stock a selection that would rival Blockbuster’s in its heyday, is the last of the great video-rental stores in OC. The world around Movie Town has definitely changed in recent years. Chains such as Hollywood Video and Blockbuster shuttered stores across the United States after going belly-up; on-demand streaming services now allow people to rent the latest movies at the push of a button from the comfort of their own homes.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Movie Town owner Steve Park carries boxes of new movies from the trunk of his car into the store. It’s the only day of the week the Anaheim businessman drops by, so Park spends some time in his office before heading out on his next errand. “A friend of mine had a video store,” Park says. “I got into the business…with Movie Town, and it started with a bang.” He counts the Brookhurst Street corridor in Anaheim where the store makes its home a key to its longevity. It’s been the neighbor of various supermarket chains and a very busy In-N-Out Burger, which has provided the store with good foot traffic for decades.
“The golden age was back in the early 2000s,” Park says. Back then, VHS cassettes were being phased out and DVDs started filling shelves. Movie Town had established itself as an independent store for nearly a decade, but technological advances at the time proved to be helpful in cutting costs. “VHS cassettes were about $70, whereas DVDs came in around $20 or so,” Park recalls. “It was much cheaper, so we could get more copies to offer to our customers for rentals.”
A few years later, technological innovations continued, shifting industry practices. A newcomer to the scene, Netflix, started to gain traction with its innovative business model of delivering DVDs by mail in little, red envelopes for a monthly subscription rate. By 2007, the company reached a milestone, having mailed out a billion DVDs since its inception.
But the rise of Netflix didn’t close Movie Town down. Rather, it was a fire in June 2005 that burned the store and the shopping center around it to the ground. “Movie Town was closed for a year and a half,” Park says. When the store reopened, business picked back up, but it was never quite as successful as before.
Park is no martyr for the cause of video rental stores against the surge of on-demand streaming services; he doesn’t have to be, as Movie Town still carries its own weight. “We do okay because we still have loyal customers,” he says. Movie Town has been around so long that it even has a multigenerational appeal, with kids who grew up going there starting families of their own and continuing the rental tradition. He also credits a number of longtime employees who have helped to create an inviting atmosphere that no on-demand service can mimic.
Mark Dressen started working at Movie Town in 1995 and now manages the store. He’s seen the shelves shift from holding VHS cassettes to Blu-ray discs. Rental fees there haven’t changed much, slightly ticking up from $1.99 to $2.50 for new releases. And the hours continue to be 10 a.m. to midnight daily. “We’re open every day of the year, even on Christmas,” he says. “Weekends are really busy. Families come in, rent movies, buy some popcorn and go home.”
Now that places such as Movie Town have become a rarity in OC, Dressen has noticed a change in the customer base. “We get a lot of people coming in from Irvine, Fullerton and Whittier,” he says. “They’ll drive a ways just to come and rent.”
And the store’s regulars don’t plan on changing their ways. Cherie Collins has been renting from Movie Town for the past 17 years, enjoying a laugh or two with Dressen while checking out some flicks. “Everybody knows me, pretty much,” Collins says. “My family says I’m old-school, but it’s cheaper!”
She usually drops by after visiting the Stater Bros. grocery store next door. That store hosts a Redbox movie rental kiosk, but Park’s not worried. “Actually, a lot of people like to look at the back of the DVDs,” he says.” It’s not the same when you’re at a little machine and you’re trying to flip through.”
The only endangered part of the business is the store’s adults-only red curtain section, a true relic of the past. Aside from that, the Movie Town legacy is the very thing that keeps it alive, a point underscored by the closing of its smaller, family-owned competitors nearby.
“We’re the only one left, right?” Park says with a smile. “I’m going to keep Movie Town going as long as I can!”
Movie Town, 618 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-2121.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!