Fiscal cliff: Sneak Reviews may not last the month
It's a beautiful, 70-degree December day, and that's killing Mark Tramontin, the owner of Sneak Reviews, a virtually extinct type of retail establishment– the video store– and one that is a beloved Charlottesville institution.
Because it's so warm, the door is open to the movie mecca, perched on a knoll overlooking Ivy Road, with its vintage posters and unparalleled catalog of art, indie, and foreign films. There's not a customer in the shop.
Remember the days when people flocked to the video store on Fridays to grab movies for the weekend? Since Netflix and streaming video appeared on the scene, it's certainly been a tough slog for video stores. Once-powerful national purveyors Blockbuster and Hollywood Video both closed their doors here in 2009.
By the Hook's count, besides Sneak Reviews, there are two other video stores in business in town and one in Crozet, and none of them are raving about how great business is.
Upstairs at Sneak Reviews, the 32,000 DVDs and videotapes– yes, they still carry video– are arranged by director, or country and director.
"We don't have a comedy section," mentions Tramontin. But there is a Shakespeare section, a kids room, and a documentary room.
"We can find anything in five seconds," he boasts.
Tramontin and a partner bought Sneak Reviews from Ragged Mountain Running Shop owner Mark Lorenzoni 20 years ago. Now Tramontin says, "I don't know if we can make it through December."
Despite holding on for years, Tramontin says he's seen a downturn since September.
"Summer business was good because it was hot and humid," he says. "September was beautiful. People were doing everything except watching movies."
Tramontin has a staff of five who are highly knowledgeable about film. "The entire staff is movie smart," he says. "We can connect customers with what we know that they will like."
Sneak Reviews regular Audrey Dannenberg agrees. "I prefer to rent from someone who knows movies, has a great selection, and can identify movies that I don't even know I want to see."
Dannenberg also says she's a big believer in locally owned. "It's not a big box," she says. "It's one of a kind. It's convenient, and it's open 363 days a year."
"What I love about going there is that often I don't know what I'm going to get," says filmmaker Chris Farina. "Sometimes I pick a room. You can't get that with the Netflix experience."
Farina compares Sneak Reviews to another nearly extinct entity, the local bookstore, for instance, the fondly remembered Williams Corner, where everyone there really loved books until it closed in 1996.
"That love of film," enthuses Farina. "For me as a customer, I share that love. It's a passion, not a number."
Sneak Reviews supports local filmmakers and carried his 1995 documentary, West Main Street, adds Farina.
"When I was younger, that's where I'd find all my art films," he reminisces. "Now I get kids films there."
Of the possibility that Sneak Reviews might be forced to close, Farina says, "That's terrible news. That really would be a loss for the community."
Even the remaining video store proprietors are not rejoicing at news of a possible shuttering of Sneak Reviews.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," says Ken Meyri, owner of Videos Etc. on Fontaine Avenue. "You should feel good about competition going away, but it doesn't work that way."
Meyri has been open since 1985, and he concedes that his own business is not that great.
"I feel," he says, "like the last buggy whip manufacturer on the Santa Monica Freeway."
He describes the plight of the video store owner as "death by a thousand cuts," which include Redbox, the DVD-vending kiosks.
Videos Etc. has a "ridiculously big number of general and adult movies," he says. But with the advent of online porn, "the adult industry isn't what it used to be," he observes.
Tom Browning has been the manager of Universal Video on Mill Creek Drive for 12 years. "It's a tough struggle, but we're still hanging in there," he says.
Action movies, family fare, foreign films, and TV series do well at Universal, according to Browning. Still, he feels the creep of obsolescence.
"I hope we're still here next year," he offers.
At Sneak Reviews, Downton Abbey is a brisk rental, as are many other British television series not broadcast on this side of the proverbial pond. It's also the only place in town where you can find the Dogme 95 oeuvre–in the Danish section.
It's a place where friends run into each other on a Friday or Saturday night, and talk about movies.
It's a place that may not exist for too much longer.
"I think there are a lot of people who don't know we're here," worries Tramontin. "Maybe it's inevitable we can't stay open, but we want everyone to know we're here."