Larry Mayday of Video Adventure.        Photo by Tom Benz

Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Somehow the closing of Video Adventure feels like the end of an era. Despite its plain, even stark interior, perhaps Humphrey Bogart in the “Maltese Falcon” could have been referring to the store’s vast archive when he said “this is the stuff that dreams are made of.”  

The showroom is little more than a maze of shelves filled with blue boxes, with a few vintage posters along the walls. The last two phases of video technology, VHS tapes and DVDs’, are mixed with one another, though there are now gaps from the titles that have been borne away in a clearance sale. It has never been much to look at but for decades this has been a place where people could go at all hours to talk passionately about movies and figure out which ones they wanted to watch next.

The original shop was located on the north side of Central Street, opening for business in 1982. It moved across the street in the mid 80s to 1926 Central St. and expanded its operation with a store on south Chicago Avenue.

The only direct competition back then were grocery stores that might rent a few cassettes near the checkout lines or the odd record store like Argosy that rented a few on the side. Then more “mom and pop” video stores appeared in the area. It was the emergence of the Blockbuster chain that became the new 800 hundred pound gorilla.

The entrepreneur who started Video Adventure was Brad Burnside, a film student who wanted to bring his love of good cinema into the burgeoning commercial landscape of home viewing. Larry Mayday was an avid movie fan who often found himself browsing the aisles of Video Adventure and was later hired onto the staff in 1999.

“From the beginning, Burnside had an inclination to stock good films even if they weren’t the most popular ones, and to have a broad selection that included foreign and independent movies,” Mr. Mayday said. “He came to understand that people in the community were interested in thoughtful films, not just the action movies and ones that did the most box office.”

To choose inventory, the staff would meet with distributors, read reviews and seriously consider customer suggestions. Many small films were only screened at a festival or maybe would get a showing at a theater for a week to get a review. “So talking to customers who had actually seen the films would often be very helpful,” he added

Customers found they were able to get movies that could not easily be obtained elsewhere and encountered a staff that went out of their way to get a clear sense of particular tastes. When asked how the enterprise had managed to compete with the big chains, Mayday explained that the area had a history of supporting independent businesses, many of which can currently be found along Central Street. He said that many in the neighborhood sought out films that were perhaps not so widely known, as the chains concentrated more and more on stocking the trendy selections. 

When Netflix arrived on the scene with a new business model, it was the beginning of the end for brick and mortar rental stores of all sizes.  

Mr. Mayday said that DVDs will eventually give way to streaming and pay per view. If there’s a silver lining, he said that the new technology enabled independent filmmakers to make digital movies much less expensively than years ago, and thus give that opportunity to a whole new range of artists.   

Still, there is a sense of a part of the recent past being lost, the disappearance of random encounters that could lead to something interesting. Anyone who has ever sought movie guidance from the algorithm of a search engine knows that questionnaires are not going to replace a knowledgeable human being any time soon. 

“It wasn’t just a paycheck,” Mr. Mayday said. “I’ll miss my coworkers quoting lines from movies and the back and forth with customers. It didn’t seem like a business. …  My guess, we’ll be closing by the end of the week,” Mr. Mayday added.

One wonders if, like drive-in theaters, such movie galleries will be remembered with a certain wistfulness, as another inevitable casualty of progress.