VisArt Videos

Written by Brandon Lunsford

By : Brandon Lunsford

  VisArt Videos

When I was growing up in Salisbury my best friend Jason worked at Doorstep Video, an independent video store not far from my house and quite close to a nearby Blockbuster.   Even as a kid I was pretty contemptuous of Blockbuster as a chain store, but the main reason I preferred Doorstep wasn’t because I recognized I was supporting a small business or even because my friend worked there; they just had better stuff.   Doorstep had the actual sleeves to their VHS out on the shelves instead of a case with a Blockbuster logo, and walking through the store I was fascinated by the lurid covers to movies called A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Toxic Avenger, and Ilsa She Wolf of the SS.  I discovered a lot of the cult classics and horror films that I still devour today by walking through that store and scanning the covers, and sometimes I didn’t even need to read the back of the boxes to know which one was coming home with me.  I was sort of a solitary kid and I wasn’t into a lot of sports or anything, so my hours spent exploring Doorstep Video were some of my favorite times growing up.  It was also a communal experience with other nerds who loved films as much as I did, and the magic of the video store has been potent enough to inspire former employees like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith into making movies themselves. 

VisArt VideosFast forward (that’s a VHS joke) to 2014, and any kid in my shoes would have a pretty tough time finding a nirvana like Doorstep Video.  Netflix and its like have led most people to get their movie fix online instead of in brick and mortars these days, and there’s a new generation of kids who will never understand how much fun it is to wander through a video store.  Even if someone does desire a physical copy of a movie, they could just stop in at the Redbox at their local grocery store if they want to.  Video rental sales peaked in 2001, and by 2010, they had dropped by 28% to $6.2 billion.  The share of industry spending at physical stores dropped from 92% in 2004 to 36% in 2010.  Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery filed for bankruptcy that year, and the final nail in the coffin for many came in 2013 when the DISH Network announced that it would shutter Blockbuster’s remaining 300 retail stores in the US and cease its DVD mail distribution service.   A funny thing has happened on the way to the video store’s funeral, however; while the big chains have indeed all disappeared, independent rental spots are actually alive and well in many communities with a loyal and rabid enough desire for those lurid covers and weird undiscovered films.  There aren’t many of them left, but Charlotte is lucky enough to have one of the very best:  VisArt Video. 

Gina Cernigilia is the manager and co-owner of VisArt, where she has held court since 2003.  She has also been one of my very best friends even before that, and like most people in Charlotte I know her better as Twiggy.  Like me she’s a devoted movie fan, and she rented at Hollywood Video at Eastland Mall and the local Pic-a-flick before switching to VisArt because it had a better selection and lots of dollar rentals.  She applied for a part time job there and was asked to become the store manager within a few weeks, and I am proud to say I still have a close friend who works in (runs!) a video store to this day.  Everyone knows that you ask Twiggy if you want to know anything about movies, and she’s even more of a local institution than the store is.   

The Charlotte location is the lone survivor of a small North Carolina chain opened by Andrea Kubachko and her husband Clay Evans in the mid-1980s, which started in Durham and expanded out to Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Raleigh.   During the home rental boom in the 1990’s VisArt ran six video stores with sales at almost $2 million annually, and it managed to outlast stores like Blockbuster by cultivating a loyal following and providing the independent and art-house flicks the mega-chains didn’t.   Eventually the rise of Netflix and Redbox made it impossible for VisArt to compete, and they started closing branches around 2007.  The beloved Carrboro store next to the Cat’s Cradle closed in 2010, leaving the Charlotte location as the last one standing.   Kubachko offered to sell the Charlotte store to Twiggy for the price of inventory, about $100,000, in an effort to keep it open.  She collected donations, arranged some local benefit concerts and screenings, and even sold some of her personal beloved collection of rare action figures but only managed to raise about $5,000, resigning herself to the inevitable.  I was personally crushed when the store announced it was selling off their inventory and closing down in January of 2011, but I wasn’t overly surprised: VisArt to me was a sadly dying breed, and I was surprised I had been able to enjoy it this long.  I went up there and bought a few amazing films to add to my personal collection, and thankfully a Charlotte lawyer who had been coming to the store for years with his family showed up as well.   Mickey Aberman had come in to rent some movies as usual and was stunned when he heard about the fire sale.  He asked the staff what was going on, and was told to call Kubachko himself.  He made the call on the spot, and five minutes later Twiggy was told to call off the sale and lock the doors.  Aberman put up the $100,000, and he and Twiggy became partners.  I gladly gave all the movies I had bought back to her and rejoiced at the extremely rare story of a local business saved from doom at the last minute by a Good Samaritan.  It was almost like something out of a movie, in fact. 

VisArt VideosShortly after the sale, Twiggy received a phone call from an employee of Vidiots, a video shop in California, who was searching around for other indie rental stores that were still open.   He encouraged her to stick it out because the small stores would thrive after the fall of the chains, and he was largely right.  Netflix took a dive soon after by raising its prices and separating its physical and streaming services, and that month VisArt had 200 new customers sign up for memberships.  Its biggest draw is its inventory of more than 30,000 titles, and the store’s focus since it was saved has been to seek out films that aren’t readily available online or in Redbox.   I have Netflix and Amazon Prime, but if I want to watch Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers or rare local treasures like Uncle Goddamn, I head to VisArt.  You need 1950’s training videos on how to be a real man or a double feature about gender bending biker gangs?   You’ve come to the right place.  You also get something at the store that you don’t get online, which is Twiggy and her right hand man Matt Christiansen recommending good movies and leading you through the maze of aisles where I still manage to find some hidden gem that I didn’t know they had.  The decline in physical rentals has compelled many surviving indies to diversify, realizing that being merely a video store isn’t enough to survive in the current landscape.  Since Twiggy and Matt have always been rabid collectors they sell lots of rare action figures and authentic movie props, as well as T-shirts, original posters, and other amazing stuff.  VisArt also has two online stores on Amazon and eBay that generate money on the side selling rare movies and collectibles.  They benefit from the 28 day embargo that movie studios impose on Netflix and Redbox before new releases are added, and the continued rise in Redbox prices makes VisArt the cheapest place in town to rent the majority of films.  Their average rentals are between $1.25 and $3.25 for five days, and their wide collection of TV shows on DVD is a huge money-saver for customers who don’t want to pay for expensive seasons online at sites like Amazon and HBO to Go. 

Still, the future of the store and others like it is uncertain.  Netflix has more than 100,000 choices on its DVD-by-mail plan, and although its streaming service doesn’t offer nearly that many due to licensing restrictions, industry insiders believe it eventually will.  Redbox recently inked a deal with a subsidiary of Verizon Communications to develop a streaming platform, and new such sites seem to pop up every week.  Twiggy says that all she can do is keep trying to get customers in the doors any way she can, and as that as long as the store is making enough money to stay afloat she will do whatever she can to keep these movies in circulation.   The lease on the VisArt building off Pecan and 7th streets in Elizabeth is up in August of 2015, and the future depends on how the next year goes.  If they can’t afford the rapidly rising rent at that point, they may have to share space with another local business or move solely online.   It will certainly be a shame if that happens, because Charlotte would be losing one of its most wonderful and unique spots and, for me and for many others, a blast from a very nostalgic and happy past.   Since much of the stock is so rare and out of print there would be no way to see some of these movies in Charlotte any longer, and I would be losing a place I can come in and chat about films with some of my favorite nerds in town anytime I want.   It hasn’t been easy for the store to survive, and it’s not getting any easier; every time I count VisArt and Twiggy out though, they manage to keep those doors open.  Let’s hope for all of our sakes that they can continue to do so. 



Brandon Lunsford   Brandon Lunsford
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