When Steve Chambliss and his family opened their National Video Superstore in West Monroe, Louisiana, 20 years ago, it took six employees running registers simultaneously to keep up with the traffic.
The 6,000-square-foot store had a flashing theater-like marquee, movie-themed carpet, a 5-foot-tall Gumball Wizard Spiral machine and wall-to-wall titles, still mostly VHS tapes at the time. (Remember the rewind fees for slacker customers who returned their movies unwound?)
“It was booming,” Chambliss said. “It was still the heyday of the video rental store.”
Those were the days when there were more than 27,000 video rental stores in America, and Blockbuster alone operated 9,000 of them.
Today, the stand-alone video store is as rare as a phone booth.
Consumers shifted to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon or video-on-demand rental options from their cable companies without ever leaving their couches.
Only one Blockbuster store remains, in Bend, Oregon.
“The glory days are gone,” Chambliss said.
One customer wandered into Chambliss’ store this week and acted as if she’d stumbled through a time portal. “I didn’t know places like this still existed,” she said.
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The West Monroe National Video store is among the last stand-alone video rental stores in America, a dinosaur battling extinction.
“I think we’re the last one in Louisiana, but I can’t be completely sure,” Chambliss said. “My buddy says I should charge a museum fee.”
Though consumer spending on home entertainment rose to a record $25.2 billion in 2019, video rental stores accounted for a minuscule $250 million of that amount, according to the Digital Entertainment Group.
But somehow Chambliss has maintained a viable, if not booming, business.
“We still do enough to stay open and hire college kids to work at night,” he said, pulling out a handful of sign-up sheets from new customers acquired this week. “And we’re still pretty busy on Friday and Saturday nights.”
Chambliss supplemented the store’s video rental business by offering services such as transferring old home movies to DVDs and adding a line of games to attract younger customers.
The bulk of the store’s profits come from a core of loyal, long-term customers such as Les Dykes of West Monroe, a customer since 1989 before the Chambliss family acquired National Video Superstore, and Ervin Clark of Monroe.
“I’m shocked they’re still here, but I’m glad,” Dykes said.
“I still love coming into the store and browsing and looking at the walls full of movies,” Clark said. “It’s really one of my enjoyments.”
There is something exciting about the experience of walking into National Video and being able to browse among 35,000 titles, searching the “New Releases” wall to see what’s coming out this week or the “Classics” shelves featuring past masterpieces.
There are shelves stocked with movie box candy classics such as Goobers and Mike and Ike and a movie-style popcorn box display with sleeves of microwaveable popcorn attached inside each carton.
Just like the children who came to the store when it was new 20 years ago, little Juan Perez, 4, was excited to watch a giant red gumball roll out of the machine twice his height.
It’s all just enough to keep the red carpet rolled out at National Video Superstore in West Monroe.
“You never know what’s going to happen, but we’re doing fine right now,” Chambliss said.
Greg Hilburn is a movie buff who usually covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1