Unbeknownst to the higher-ups who probably wouldn’t have cared anyway since that’s the kind of bosses they were, we held a secret farewell party in the empty husk of the Spring Garden Street TLA Video store the night before its doors closed forever. It was attended by customers and staff alike, past and present, from our store and others. It was a memorable night, albeit an emotional one. My family, the ragtag group of film nerds and social deviants I was left working alongside during those final few months, was disbanding and my home away from home for the past six years was being taken away from me. It was a feeling shared by most of my fellow employees that night, the fear of being forcibly thrust into a new world, the real world, where it wasn’t prudent to be rude to whoever you wanted and where jobs required actual work. Customers seemed to feel the same though their primary concerns revolved around whether or not the West Coast Video around the corner would be a suitable replacement for our store. Certain customers certainly took the closure harder than others, as was the case with Michael Zavala.
Michael and his father, Dave, had been loyal customers since long before my arrival at the store in 2003. They would come in a few days a week, browse the shelves for literally hours, and usually head home with anime porn or a direct-to-DVD children’s film. They were quiet fixtures of our customer base, slightly strange, but easy to deal with. Michael arrived at the closing party sans invitation, he was a frequent fixture at the ice cream store on the corner and must have gotten wind of our celebration from someone who worked there. Michael brought some equally strange friends along, one of whom sat down in the chair I had brought for myself and promptly fell asleep for the next three hours. Another one of his friends demonstrated karate moves for the amusement of the party guests. Michael went around all night telling people that he was building a UFO, no joke, he had the plans drawn up and an eye on a hot eBay listing that would make everything possible. At least a dozen groups of attendees listened to his story that night, all amused, but no one rude. A few months later, I received a text from VID 2 manager Dan. “DID YOU HEAR ABOUT MICHAEL ZAVALA???” A quick Google search turned up a CBS 3 article that explained how, one week prior, Michael, who had turned his home into a sort of boarding house following his father’s departure to Delaware, had beaten one of his roommates to death with a baseball bat. He then, predictably, constructed a coffin out of spare doors and cardboard and placed the body within as a reminder to his other tenants that rent was due.
I’m left forever wondering if Michael wouldn’t be doing 25 to life had the store stayed open for business. It obviously had to close eventually, what with the new film distribution methods as well as the gradual decline of the brick and mortar retail model in general, and it’s not like a guy who believes in UFOs wasn’t going to snap at some point anyway. But still I wonder. When I look back on my time at TLA, that closing night party immediately comes to mind, as does Michael and a million other nonsensical memories, fond yet uncomfortable. I can’t be bothered to search for underlying meanings, it hurts to even dwell on some of these things, so instead I’ll hide behind anecdotes and the occasional truth. Enjoy.
The first film I rented from a TLA Video store was The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. It was my third day in Philadelphia, fall of 1997, and I’d been tipped off to the store by a fellow film major at Drexel University. I spent at least an hour marveling at the store’s inventory that day, which was a world away from the selections offered by my childhood video shops in upstate NY. I immediately assumed that the store’s employees were the coolest people in the city and was, of course, desperate to become one of them. It wasn’t until five years later that I joined the staff of the Spring Garden Street location where I learned that TLA employees weren’t necessarily the coolest people in the city, but they were definitely some of the most interesting.
The staff lineup upon my initial employment was a memorable one, perhaps the most memorable due to its sheer diversity. One of the many perks of working at a TLA Video store was that we would take turns playing the in-store music and thus I find it easy to characterize my fellow employees through their musical preferences. Manager Dan Creskoff (X, The Cramps), professional and seemingly straight-laced with a rock and roll attitude, was already an 11 year veteran of the stores at that point. Max Brinck (Pink Floyd, Brian Eno), the elder staff member whose previous life as an LSD-fueled Indiana Jones led to his then current state as a paranoid claustrophobic. Doug Collins (Bone Thugs-n-Harmony), a Temple U. film student whose tastes leaned more towards Adam Sandler than Alain Delon. Roger Petersen (Tom Waits, Grandaddy), a local comic book artist with the driest of humors who served as my opponent in a long-running game of Marvel Comics trivia. Jen Sweeney (Electric Six), an extremely likable and cultured young woman who once informed a customer and her young daughter that “Anne of Green Gables is the balls!” Margaret Barton-Fumo (Jump5, Chord On Blues [U. Penn’s a cappella group]), another Temple U. student whose musical tastes pretty much summed up her sense of humor. Frank X (the Summer of Sam soundtrack, the only CD he ever played, which was hidden from him numerous times over the years though it would always resurface…one night Roger reached his breaking point with that album and stormed out of the store), a local theater actor who was the most pleasant person you could ever imagine working alongside. Sam Johnston (R.E.M., Dead Can Dance), served as the store’s resident sci-fi expert, his Star Wars knowledge was second to none (I’m reminded of the night that Sam reached his breaking point and stormed out of the store following a fellow employee’s relentless mocking of the film Pearl Harbor, which Sam had enjoyed). And finally, night manager Dean Galanis (Adam Ant, Strange Advance), a former marine and instantly likable guy who I have to thank for my love of Sparks, a band that we saw together in L.A. just a few months back (more on that here).
Dean was a transplant from Locust Street who, if I remember correctly, was assigned to the Spring Garden Street location as a sort of punishment following a drunken late night in-store incident in which he attempted to FAX beer to the head office (you can imagine what that involved). I went into the TLA with the assumption that my movie knowledge was about as vast as it got, and while certain employees definitely had their niches (Roger was fluent in classic Hollywood cinema, Doug specialized in SNL spin-off films), Dean was and continues to be the most knowledgeable film lover I’ve ever met. I used to name random films from the store’s Videohound and Dean would always be able to identify their plots, directors, and so on. I was on his team, as was Margaret, when he pretty much single-handedly won the Khyber’s movie trivia night, achieving a far superior score than the members of our city’s film press who were present that evening. The films that he introduced me to are far too numerous to mention though there are several standouts: The Ninth Configuration, Starcrash, The Humanoid, Day of the Animals, Viva Knievel!, Demon Seed, the Hercules film where Lou Ferrigno throws a bear into outer space and it explodes and becomes a constellation. It was with Dean that I saw Koi… Mil Gaya in the theater, an achievement for those who care. It was also alongside Dean that I experienced my favorite customer-related incident, which I’ve told a million times over even though it may be one of those you-just-had-to-be-there-type of stories:
We were working together on a Sunday night when an effeminate young African-American male entered the store in a frenzy. He was followed closely by a squinty-eyed, West Philly squatter-type with dirty, patch-covered clothing. The young man walked straight up to the counter. “You’ve gotta help me! This guy,” he frantically motioned to the squatter who was now standing about a foot behind him, “has been following me all over the city.” “I’m not following you, maaan,” replied the squatter in a slow, unconvincing drawl. He retreated behind one of the nearby video shelves to prove his disinterest as Dean suggested to the young man that he escape through the back door, which he did. The squatter returned to the counter a few seconds later. “Did you see which way that guy went?”
My first year at TLA seemed to move slowly, but in a good way. Everything is a blur of faces and feelings after that. Throughout it all, I will admit to feeling rather cool behind that counter, like I was one of the Philly film elite, despite the fact that I spent most of my time there emptying the drop box, filing away application cards, and hanging tags on hooks in the adult room. I was extremely protective of my job and demanded that all aspects of it be treated with the utmost respect. I was defensive in a way, constantly sticking up for employees, bad movies, the store’s inventory. I valued the family dynamic between both staff and customers and would react in anger if it was in any way threatened. This attitude led to a lot of regrettable drama, conflict, and hurt feelings. It also led to a lot of intimate relationships between myself and both staff and customers alike, not to mention a memorable long-term girlfriend. It’s all a wonderfully sad blur of section cleaning, drawer counting, and late night backroom movie watching though I can certainly relate some choice memories.
I remember Dean’s immediate trips to the beer store at the beginning of every shift. I remember the time that hard-nosed Ernie, a transfer from VID 2, entered the backroom where Dean and I were watching Starcrash and subsequently fell to the floor in laughter when he saw the space soldiers pop out of their rocket ships. I remember the F5, SHIFT-F3, and ALT-N keystrokes (I especially remember the ALT-N, which is what was needed when clerks wanted to write notes on customer accounts. The note screen served a number of roles including that of a record of past indiscretions, a source of warning to the clerk considering a customer’s physical abnormality, as well as a place where clerks could simply vent their true feelings about that particular person. I remember my most finely crafted note, which I’m slightly hesitant to relate as it’s another case where you really had to be there, but for the benefit of the VID 5-reading alumni: There was one particularly attractive punky young woman who used to come into the store on a daily basis. Everyone talked about her. This was the note that I wrote on her account: “ERIC: What can I get for you tonight? ALISON: Can I get Screwed? ERIC: Um…”). I remember repeatedly saying “There’s a drop box up front,” “Wait, the case is empty,” and “Your movie is due on…[whatever day I felt like saying].” I remember a beautiful Sunday when we decided to have a sidewalk sale so that we could sit outside. I remember four hours spent trying to get a bird out of the store (Andrew eventually captured it in his baseball hat and set it free). I remember driving up to Kim’s Video in NYC with Kristin after a Sunday morning shift to rent Black Devil Doll from Hell, which we then watched in the store that night with Dean (possibly the hardest I’ve ever laughed). I remember a countless number of Max’s stories, both impressive and hilarious and always related in a personal manner that illustrated his experience and wisdom (I’m still amazed that I know someone who attended that first U.S. Joy Division>New Order show). I remember the night that Margaret introduced us all to Trapped in the Closet. I remember listening to Pixies, Sparks, Morrissey, ABBA, Matthew Wilder, Chord On Blues, “Reanimate Your Feet”, and those weird mix CDs of Top 40 mashups that Dean’s friend would mail to the store on a weekly basis. I remember being annoyed by Film Festival season and having to deal with those typically snotty customers in addition to our usual ones. I remember setting up the white Christmas tree for six consecutive years (a donation from Margaret, it’s now in my basement, waiting for December). I remember unsuccessfully holding it together when Dean left the store in favor of a new life in Hollywood. I remember having to fire someone, a terrible experience that will always haunt me. I remember Donna roller skating to the drop box, and it brings tears to my eyes.
I was recently speaking with longtime Philadelphia Film Festival programmer/TLA Video customer Jennifer Steinberg who told me that managing the Temple Cinematheque was the best job she’s ever had. I remember feeling the same about the TLA just a few years into my time there, which led to my acceptance of the store manager position in 2007 even though Dan’s relocation to VID 2 was an obvious sign that VID 5’s days were numbered. I just didn’t want it to end. Family and friend dynamics aside, the perks were endless: free rentals, purchasing CDs/DVDs at cost, $4 reimbursement per movie ticket (research), getting to watch the new releases the weekend before they hit the shelves, the London flat (an impressive apartment located just off of Piccadilly Circus that allowed me to make low-cost visits to both the Salford Lads Club and the village from The Prisoner).
Everyone worked hard during those final months, milking the late fee list, selling off the dead rentals, sprucing up the inventory, but to no avail. That last year was a strange one and I quite frankly don’t like to think about it though the thing that is least difficult to recall was the constant banter between Andrew Collins and Chris Ludovici, who I would always schedule myself alongside as a form of self-torture. These guys never stopped talking, whether they were ranking the films of Renny Harlin or discussing the intricacies of the Bad Boys films. I often got sucked into their madness, take for example the night that we played a game where we ranked Woody Allen films in the order that we felt the others would rank them. So Chris and I would make a stack of DVD cases with what we guessed was Andrew’s least favorite Woody Allen movie at the bottom ascending to what we felt was his most favorite at the top. Madness. These nights were comforting as these were the types of conversations that dominated my early time spent at the store albeit with an added dose of nerdiness. It was alongside Andrew and Chris that I left the store at the close of our farewell party. I remember it feeling like a movie.
This month marks the three-year anniversary of the store’s closing. I continue to lament not only its closure, but the closure of all of the TLA locations and the widespread downfall of the brick and mortar video store. I lament the employees turned friends that I’ve lost touch with over the years and the passing of a loved one who I never would have met if it weren’t for TLA. It’s three years later and I have yet to move on, an impossible feat for the true TLA alumni. At least I’m in better shape than Michael Zavala.