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When Lou Bohl and Chuck Hanson opened Discount Video in 1981 on the corner of 27th Street and Hennepin Avenue, snowstorms were their friends. "People would ski down the middle of Hennepin Avenue, put their skis and poles in the [snow] bank, and come in and get some films and ski back home again," says Hanson. They'd often rent one of the store's 30 VCRs, too, which were too expensive for most people to own. "It was a lot of fun," Hanson adds. "We were very well received. We were immediately known for being careful with what we purchased and what we stocked."
Back in 1977, a onetime stuntman in Los Angeles, George Atkinson, had opened the nation's first video rental operation with 50 movies and a one-inch ad in the Los Angeles Times. Bohl and Hanson, co-owners of an Uptown-based carpet-cleaning business, believed the neighborhood that Prince had recently celebrated in song was ripe for a similar venture. In the years to come, Discount Video would become a Mecca for film freaks and independent curiosity-seekers in Minneapolis, and one of Uptown's cultural landmarks.
It's silent at Mecca on a recent weekday morning. Bohl and Hanson sit in the store with a visitor before opening the doors at noon. Time has marched on. Netflix has made it easier and cheaper for the next generation to sate its film needs. Video on demand looms on the horizon. As a result, "Going Out of Business" and "Everything Must Go" signs fill the Discount Video windows.
"We basically got people into films that they never would have watched, that they simply passed by," says Hanson, balancing his Dancing Bear frame on a stool next to a counter stuffed with filmland collectibles. "It was always fun to see the happiness when they'd come back."
"I'm going to miss the customers who were the most confrontational," says Bohl, who has the bittersweet countenance of a man who knows too much. "The ones that said, 'I thought it stunk!' And we'd of course defend whatever we thought was good, and it just becomes a fun round robin of insulting each other back and forth. Those are the ones you like. You don't like the ones that go, 'Yeah, it was great. Thanks a million.' You like the ones who say, 'Well, you know, it was good, but I don't buy that ending one bit.'"
It wasn't hard to find yourself arguing with the men behind the counter at Discount Video. Bohl and Hanson have long been the kind of tastemakers who make the lads from High Fidelity look like customer-service reps of the month. Renting a movie at Discount could be like trying to check out nuclear secrets from the National Security Archives. There were cards to punch and forms to fill out and then return. For years, Bohl and Hanson stubbornly refused to stock DVDs, as if the format itself were a personal affront. It could be enough sometimes to make you want to hug the anonymous clerks at Blockbuster down the street.
A manager of the Blockbuster down the street, in fact, was a Discount Video member ("because she said there's nothing in her store to watch," Bohl says). So were Louie Anderson, Joel Hodgson, Jason Robards's granddaughter, and hundreds more. Walker Art Center was a client for many years, and likely curated at least a few of their film fests after visiting Discount Video. Catherine Deneuve came by in her limo one day. Billy Joel stopped in to pick up 10 Three Stooges movies.
"Some of our customers have 2,000 to 4,000 movies in their own personal collection," says Bohl. (Discount Video stocks approximately 16,000.) "One customer brought in the Oscar for art direction for Best Years of Our Lives that she'd somehow picked up on the collectible market. Another customer upset a few passersby with a real shrunken head that he left on the counter when he came back from an overseas trip. He somehow felt compelled to bring it in and put it on the counter for us to see, because he'd been renting all these movies before his trip. You never know what's gonna walk in.
"One Friday night this woman came in. She'd rent three videos and say, 'I pick all the videos, all the time. I don't let Stanley pick the videos.' She'd say this all the time. So this time she says, 'I let my husband pick one tonight.' I picked up one of her films and said, 'Is this the one?' It was A Man of No Importance, starring Albert Finney. She got huffy and walked out."
They haven't seen that woman for a while, but it's her loss. Same goes for anyone who ever stood by while the pair held forth on the history of video stores, studios, Hollywood, independent directors, films, or commercials in movie theaters. This last subject inspires Bohl to quote Alfred Hitchcock: "Commercials are the moth holes in the tapestry of entertainment."
"You can download last night's episode of Monk onto your iPod now, and that's just the tip of an iceberg," says Hanson. "You're going to see things change very quickly. The difficulty now is that browsing will be a thing of the past. Everything will be via the internet and via computer. Cost, convenience, and speed--that's the thing of this generation. We have a different kind of client now. You won't have that experience of walking in to individuals like Lou and myself, who..."
"I'm not one bit sold on this technology thing," interrupts Bohl. "First of all, if it's a download internet and/or cable satellite download, you not only lose the selection, but the ability to make intelligent decisions based on coming into a storefront. People are not going to sit and scroll down lists of reviews on a website and really come up with any good decisions, in my opinion."
The movie fans of Minneapolis have voted, and they have not voted in favor of Bohl's opinion. The "Going Out of Business" signs went up a couple of weeks ago. Bohl is 54 years old. Hanson is 56. Neither man knows exactly what they'll do next, individually or together, though if they had their druthers, they'd stay on the corner forever, bullshitting about film and life with their customers.
"This is no hype, because we're closing. I could care less," says Bohl, his otherwise blank eyes welling up in the moment. "We really did love our customers. The joy of being here was dealing with the customers. That's not some fabricated thing to try to get people through the door, because the door's gonna be closed. Dealing with the people was fun, because they're all lovers of film, as we are."
"This is our 25th anniversary-dash-funeral," cracks Hanson, whose standard greeting to customers has been, "And how can I make you smile today?"
He unlocks the door. Within five minutes, half a dozen people are browsing the aisles. Hanson and Bohl put their heads down and get to work, filing, chatting, grousing. They're sending their beloved videos out into the world. There will be no late fees this time.
A regular walks in with a gift box of Girl Scout Cookies and cups of coffee. Another came by yesterday with a batch of brownies. Outside, a window-washer glides a squeegee over the storefront windows.
"Still cleaning the windows--that's a good sign," says Hanson.
"Gee, haven't they got something on the internet for that?," says Bohl, with a stage wink worthy of Jimmy Finlayson.
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org