Randall Sellers (VID 1, 1996-1999)
I worked at VID 1 from 1996-1999. Back then the internet was still an awkward child and streaming video was a long way off, so video stores were busy hubs of community and culture. South Street was still “happening” and it was exciting to be down there slinging videos and chatting with local characters like Charles Burns, Terry Gross, ?uestlove from the Roots, Jay Schwartz of Secret Cinema, Garrett Brown the Steadicam inventor, Zoe Strauss, lots of folks from the bar/restaurant and music scenes, all the shops along South and 4th Street, Society Hill, Old City, South Philly — a thousand cool people who I remember and adore; too many to name.
Ann Yarabinee was the manager and Steve “Khyber” Simons was the night manager. Mark Henry was there, along with the inimitable Kennie Bowen and Marianne Fahey, Erik Shut, drummer and 700 Club soccer enthusiast Ed Farnsworth, marble artist John Gartanutti, Jeremy Hugo, Ciro Nieli and Steve Wilson both now in LA. When Ann left, I managed the store for a year. Jimi Mooney, Clariza Samonte, John Ziemba, Dimitri Coates from the Burning Brides and others joined the VID 1 crew along the way.
We had a reputation as the “rock’n’roll” video store, and the music was pretty loud in there after 10pm (yes, back then we were open seven days until midnight). We gave attitude as well as we got it. We all LOVED movies, and watched and discussed them, recommended or condemned them, passionately. We were lucky to have access to titles now difficult to find in the US: Ettore Scola’s wonderful Italian films, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating and many others. It truly was an education in film. The porn room, with its zebra-striped rug, was grist for countless jokes and “quirky customer” situations best left unsaid.
I left VID 1 in late 1999 and moved on to the Book Trader, Mambo Movers, drawing every day at the Bean Cafe, and now I own a used book shop in Jim Thorpe, PA. I still recognize and greet old TLA customers who come through town. I made some lifelong friends at VID 1 and remember those youthful video clerk years with great fondness. What a fun job!!
Tracy Levesque (formerly Bannett) (VID 1, 1992-1994)
I was a refugee from an awful job at a West Coast Video when I started working at TLA.
During one of my first nights, when Kennie was training me, I turned to him and said “I always had a fantasy of meeting a customer who becomes my girlfriend.” The next moment a cute girl walked in and came up to the counter.
Over the next few months I learned her name was Mia, she was definitely a lesbian and according to her rental history (yes, I looked it up and yes, we judge you by your rental history) she had good taste in movies and never EVER returned a video late. I tried being friendly and flirty, but she always kept her head down as she slid her return tapes across the counter.
This went on for a few months and finally, just as I was about to give up, we had a funny conversation about the movie Dress Up for Daddy starring local dykes. After that she started talking to me when she came in. One day she asked if we had Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit on video (knowing that it wasn’t). I told her we didn’t, but I had a friend who taped it off TV.
After she left, I frantically tried looking up my friend’s account on the computer. I couldn’t find it…he must be under someone else’s account. I gave up the search, but later that day that very friend came in! I hadn’t seen him in the store for awhile, so it was really a stroke of luck. He was happy to loan me the tapes.
The next time Mia came in I handed her the tapes. She said to me “I know you saw it already, but if you didn’t I’d ask you to watch it with me.”
I enthusiastically replied “I’ll watch it again!”
Since that first movie-watching date, almost 19 years ago, we’ve barely spent a day apart. Now we are gay married, have a 5 year old daughter and a business together.
I was sad when Vid 1 closed. It was not like we went there often anymore (although we still dutifully kept a punch card), but it was such a part of my history. That’s where I met the love of my life.
Chris Ludovici (VID 5, 2007-2008)
This was my favorite thing about the TLA: it was the only place I’ve ever worked where you were supposed to be a little bit of a prick. Not a big one, but a little bit of one. It was important for the whole atmosphere of the place, like we were working to keep the snide slacker clerk cliche alive in the 21st century. It was also the only place where I’ve ever worked with people who would take the time to have ridiculously serious discussions about the filmography of Phillip Noyce, whether or not Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was one of the top 5 films of the 70’s (no Andrew, just, no.), or how Wong Kar Wai and Jerry Bruckheimer do basically the same thing (they both make lush, atmospheric, hyper-romanticized, very carefully visually designed movies starring beautiful people and don’t shoot with much of a script. Bruckheimer uses a lot of commercial directors, Wong Kar Wai was a commercial director…it hurts to admit it I know, but you’ll feel better once you do). When i interviewed for the job I had to have a reasonably lengthy discussion with the manager about what directors i liked and why. And they hired me anyway.
It was the only real job I’ve had where I’d go hang out there when I wasn’t working.
Honestly a lot of the crazy customers kind of all blur into one another or are too specific to a time and place to really be worth talking about. The ones that jump to mind are the dude who wanted to return festival tickets and, when we told him we couldn’t actually do that, jumped up and sat on the counter Indian style until Eric [Bresler] told him he was “acting like a child, sir” and threatened to call the police. The “sir” was what made it awesome. Another time, a guy wanted to buy a used Irish movie and when he asked if there was an English version Rob [Wash] told him it was in Irish with English subtitles. That was pretty funny.
But there’s one customer I will talk about for the rest of my life.
Michael Zavala was this little guy who came in all the time wearing the same one piece garage employee jumper and almost never rented anything. He was friends, I guess, with the weird guy who ran the ice cream place a few stores down and he’d just sort of hang out on the block, for hours at a time, going from one store to the next. He’d lurk around in the kids section and follow various teenage girls out of the store. I followed him while he followed a girl once, just to make sure he wasn’t, like, going to stab her to death or anything, but nothing really came out of it. Another time he tried to talk to this girl we knew into renting a room in his house by telling her he’d recently soundproofed the room and he could “kill someone down there and no one would hear a thing.” Because that’s a big selling point to young single women looking for a place to stay, I guess.
So, we had this little closing party the last night of the store and somehow Zavala got wind of it and showed up with two of his friends. They were all wearing button-up shirts, ties and sports coats. One of the friends was this shlubby older white guy who said he’d been a wartime photo journalist in the 80’s and made me try and attack him with a baseball bat so he could put me in headlocks. He smelled too. The other guy was this real skinny dude who sat down in one of the only chairs we had and slept through the whole party. As everything was winding down, Eric finally got the nerve to actually go and talk to Michael and see what he was all about. He finds us afterwords, eyes as big as dinner plates, refusing to say what he’d heard, insisting we go ask ourselves. So Andrew goes and talks to him, and comes back positively giddy. When I get to hear what this guy has to say it totally lives up to my expectations. He tells me (in a hushed voice, so as not to be overheard by Big Brother or something) that he and his friends are in the process of building a Tesla coil-powered UFO that they got the blueprints for off a top-secret government website and they were financing the project using a cache of Illuminati gold they found in Ben Franklin’s secret library.
He says they’re near completion, but one of the members of his team disappeared after visiting another, different, top-secret government website so they were down a man and asked if I knew how to weld. I told him I didn’t, which was true. I also told him I couldn’t give him my cell phone number because I was changing networks and it wouldn’t be good much longer. That one was less true. Eric and Andrew, however, did give him their numbers and I know he at least called Andrew once.
That was the first and only time I ever talked to Michael Zavala, but, a couple of weeks later, we were all coming out of a bar around one in the morning and saw him walk by and decided to tail him. Andrew on his bike and me, Desi (my wife), and Eric in Eric’s car. Andrew peddled a safe distance behind him and stayed in constant phone contact with those of us in the car, updating us on his non-existent, totally uninteresting activities. Nothing happened that night either except we drove past the prison where they were filming Transformers 2 and all the lights shining out from behind the prison wall were as bright as any I’ve ever seen. It was really surreal and kind of beautiful.
So that’s where I’m leaving it.
There’s more to the story, things take a turn, but to say more would be telling, and I don’t want to hog the whole story myself. Check back later in the week to learn the sad, strange fate of Michael Zavala, courtesy of Eric.
E-mail me if you are a former or current TLA Video employee and would like to share your story. Additional memories will be posted this Friday.
Tomorrow we’ll be hearing the humorous recollections of TLA MVP Dean Galanis, a former marine and alumni of both VID 2 and VID 5.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.