On a recent Friday night, Movie Town in Anaheim bustled with more customers roaming the aisles than usual. It appeared that the video-rental store enjoyed the kind of foot traffic needed to continue making it an OC rarity in an era of digital streaming. But far from a display of resurgence, loyal customers began bidding farewell. After 25 years in business Movie Town, named “Best Place to Rent a Video” by the Weekly in 2016, is closing down for good this week.
Since first opening its doors in 1993, Movie Town stayed in business even as the way in which people watched movies at home changed. Netflix, Redbox, jailbroken fire sticks, pirated movies and online streaming; it survived all of that only to be felled by a rent hike by the property owner. “Business had been great,” says Daniel Rappelhofer, Movie Town’s assistant general manager. “Ironically, when all these other video stores closed, we’d been getting their members. We never saw it coming.”
The news arrived in December when the staff found out Movie Town’s address popped up on a commercial retail site. They called longtime owner Steve Park who confirmed the worst. He tried to negotiate the terms down so that the business could continue, but didn’t succeed. The lease expired in February, but the property owner gave Movie Town another 10 days to try and sell off its massive inventory.
For the past few weeks, customers have rummaged through the rows of a collection that Rappelhofer estimates topped 70,000 films at its peak. Movie Town’s closure shocked its loyal base. They’ve all been trying to take a keepsake from the store home with them since then–be it a movie poster, a classic case or red $10 Movie Town work shirt. “It’s just better to go out on top than to fail,” Rappelhofer says. “Even if we signed the minimum lease-which is three years–it would kill Movie Town in six months because we would have to raise the prices so high.” The video-rental store only previously raised its rental fees all of 50 cents in 2006 when it re-opened after a fire and switched its inventory over to DVDs only.
Movie Town’s imminent shuttering follows the loss of another iconic OC video-rental store. A “For Lease” banner now hangs over where Video Town used to make its home in La Habra for decades. The business closed down in December when property owners there raised rent, too. They called Movie Town in January to see if OC’s last great video-rental store could buy their inventory. But by that time, Movie Town already knew it had two months to get rid of its own stock. It’s now selling remaining movies from $1 to $5 dollars apiece.
In a recent opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, writer Greg Jackson pondered if people are made to trade happiness for convenience when places like video-rental stores shutter. Rappelhofer agrees a sense of community will be lost next week. “I don’t want to call it nostalgia, but at the same time it’s just that feeling of going to get that movie,” he says. “Sometimes you’d have the whole family come in and not only were they happy to get a movie, they were also happy to see whoever was working behind the counter.” Having first started at Movie Town in 1996, Rappelhofer has seen the store’s loyal customer base become multi-generational. He’s even raised two kids of his own during that same time. “I’ll never forget this place,” he says. “I’ve spent half of my life here.”
Movie Town stands to be replaced by an incoming craw fish boil restaurant. It has no current plans to relocate to a smaller storefront with a more manageable lease. “A store this size, which matched right up to any Blockbuster or Hollywood Video at that time, for us to last this long and not be a corporation relying on other stores, that was quite a feat,” Rappelhofer says. “We wouldn’t have stayed that long if it wasn’t a good place to work for. The owner took good care of us.”
Where life takes Rappelhofer and seven other staffers next is uncertain. The video-rental market is left to small mom and pop stores dotted throughout OC. “We’ve been a such a staple here for so long–literally a quarter of a century–and now it’s coming to an end,” he says. If Movie Town is allowed to stay open and sell on Saturday, that will be the final time for customers to step through the doors. Rappelhofer is dreading the day when he has to lock the doors for good.
“It’s not just a video store,” he says. “It’s a legacy and an end of an era.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.