STILL STANDING: Movie rental stores
Video stores are rare beauties that have survived the digital killing fields
Northcliff Corner — the now grotty face-brick shopping mall that has lurked at the intersection of Milner Ave and Beyers Naudé Drive in Johannesburg since forever — was, for a (white) child in the 1980s, a pretty nifty place.
There was a Milky Lane. There was a putt-putt golf course. You could go to the FNB ATM and flash your own Bob-T bank card. You’d eat the best jam doughnuts in the world at Café Albrecht, and you could blow all your pocket money on a BA Baracus jewellery set at the Hobby Horse toy shop.
At some point, from about 1987, there was a Steers — and for as long as I can remember there were at least two video stores within 300m of that mall of pleasure in the pre-M-Net era of home entertainment. It was a simple time and we had simple tastes.
Flash forward to 2018, and in my family not much has changed. But everything else has: after M-Net came DStv, then Showmax and Naspers’s fiendish assault on the video store of my youth — BoxOffice — and finally Netflix.
That is how the ubiquitous corner video store of the past has, for the most part, simply melted away.
DStv may boast that it is movie mad, but if you’re not tech-savvy and rely on its basic satellite offering, you’re probably watching Lethal Weapon 3 yet again, mentally composing furious letters to Naspers chairman Koos Bekker.
But if you happen to live in Johannesburg’s older suburbs, there is still a real-life film lover’s oasis to be found in our cold digital world. It’s a shop called The Majestic.
Owned by Henni Erasmus and his business partner, Niel Schoeman, the Greenside store is a homage to a good old neck-cracking movie browse and the pleasure of a film-inspired natter with your local fixer. Altogether 12,500 films are packed onto the shelves.
The shop itself is named after the Jim Carrey movie The Majestic, about a father and son who own an old cinema in a little town. Its plot is a little like that of the shop: son goes off to war, is declared missing in action — presumed dead — comes back and helps Pa resurrect the failing cinema. "This is what this was all about: the resurrection of something that had almost died. And we just built it up," says Erasmus.
He has spent his life in the video store business, and worked at The Majestic’s first incarnation in Parktown North — a video store owned by Wits English professor and movie, ballet and opera fundi Stan Peskin. Then the shop moved to Greenside, a few stores down from its current location; but it started failing.
Unable to replace all the old VHS video stock with DVDs, Peskin hit hard times.
At that point, Schoeman approached Erasmus and suggested the two make a go of it, "which we did. We managed to save Stan’s house; and we’ve just celebrated our 10th anniversary," says Erasmus.
How have they withstood the great digital combine harvester that has felled so many others?
"Customer service, first and foremost," says Erasmus. And he’s right — if you find yourself vacillating between the latest Shirley MacLaine (The Last Word) and Tom Cruise’s Medellin drug cartel biopic (American Made), Erasmus will help you decide. He is a consummate salesman, and movies and music are his first loves, followed by theatre. He is always game for a gossip and it’s the community aspect of The Majestic that has garnered a high degree of loyalty from his customers.
And the movies, too. "We’ve got the whole history of Hollywood in this shop. All the classics, the horror movies and the Oscar winners, going back to the beginning."
School setworks do a brisk trade, and Erasmus says the shop holds the biggest selection of SA movies in the country, "which is what I’m probably the proudest of ".
The Majestic still has some competition, from Johannesburg’s other movie bastion, Video Spot in Craighall Park. And elsewhere in the country there is a smattering of equivalents, such as Infinite DVD & Game Rental in the Durban suburb of Glenashley, which is a bricks-and-mortar trip back to the 1990s, complete with peach walls and row upon row of DVDs and games to peruse. And there’s DVD Nouveau in Cape Town’s hipster-filled Bree Street. It stocks some of the best cult, arts and documentary films around, and has a sister store in Joburg.
The digital threat
Is Netflix the death knell for these stores? Erasmus says it’s less of a threat than one might think. "I find that a lot of people come back three or four months after having turned to Netflix. Its selection seems overwhelming in the beginning, but once you’ve seen what you want, [you find] it doesn’t change that often," he says.
The Majestic, on the other hand, specialises in what Erasmus calls "good-quality stuff" — a lot of British and European films, as well as the addictive Scandinavian "Nordic noir" series.
Every film is rented out for R30 – less than what you’d pay for a BoxOffice rental.
"We’re a film-lover’s shop," says Erasmus. "We haven’t increased the price in seven years, and I have no intention of upping it."
Happily, The Majestic has a relaxed returns policy – seven days for older films, and if you don’t return that latest release by noon the next day they’ll forgive you.
Unsurprisingly, their biggest client base is people in their mid 50s. "They’re not downloaders and Showmaxers," says Erasmus. The store has between 500 and 1,000 regulars and Erasmus says he signs new customers up "daily" as they find their way through Joburg’s DVD rental desert.
Erasmus has also worked to incorporate other aspects of entertainment into the shop, such as theatre bookings. "We do block bookings for all the major musicals and because I’ve been doing that for 25 years I get enormous discounts."
This began in 1994 as a swap between Erasmus and a friend who worked at Computicket — she’d give him her monthly free theatre tickets in exchange for his movies. From that Erasmus has nurtured a crowd of theatre lovers. "It grew and grew. To Priscilla, Queen of The Desert we took about 500 people," he says.
Erasmus decides on a day and starts punting the outing through his Facebook page and in the shop. The "older tannies" among his customers get a phone call.
The success of Erasmus and Schoeman is also in knowing what their customers like. "For example," Erasmus says, "the Nataniël crowd are probably not in the market for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (a rock musical about a fictional band fronted by an East German transsexual singer).
A Joburger by birth, Erasmus began working in a video shop when he was in high school at a time when stores still rented out reels and projectors. Then came Betamax, VHS and LaserDisc. "I’ve seen all of them come and go."
It costs between R150 and R350 to buy DVDs with rental rights, and Erasmus says he and Schoeman make a decent living out of the business. "I take it seriously: we give service; we give quality — it’s a loving shop, but it’s professional."
Erasmus himself enjoys the gentle indulgence of taking time to pick a film. "As a child I remember the pleasure I used to get in a record or movie shop. I like the old-fashioned way of doing things."