To paraphrase that old adage about not crying because it's over but smiling because it happened, don't cry because Viva Video is going out of business. Smile because it outlasted nearly all of the world's other video stores by nearly a decade.
Yes, the video emporium known as "The Last Picture Store" officially closed its doors on August 29, 2021, after nine years on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. Viva Video had announced July 7 that they were shutting down, kicking off weeks of clearance sales, as well as a series of final outdoor screenings.
After Viva Video survived both the near-total collapse of the video-store industry and the pandemic, the reason for the closure was that they lost their lease.
"Ardmore's changed a lot," store owner Miguel Gomez said in an interview. "And it basically priced us out." He also determined that it wasn’t practical to move to a new location.
Gomez, who works as a nurse in his “other life,” acknowledged that the store hadn't been profitable for quite some time, but that "I was more than happy to be a volunteer for years here doing whatever, because I want to live in a world with a video store.”
Beating the algorithm
Viva Video had long held screenings of movies projected onto a wall behind the store, and the night of closing they showed UHF, the zany 1989 cult comedy starring "Weird Al" Yankovic. Before the movie, the store hosted a karaoke session of different Weird Al songs.
Like that of the Viva crew itself, UHF is the story of a close-knit group of creative underdogs trying to beat the odds. Gomez said before the showing that UHF was the sort of movie that flopped at the box office but went on to become a cult sensation essentially because of the video stores of the 1990s. And while it wasn’t quite “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse” or “Raul’s Animal Kingdom,” the Viva crew had their own TV moment back in 2019, when a pilot about the store aired on the Syfy cable network.
Gomez had managed the Bryn Mawr location of the beloved local chain TLA Video, and after TLA closed in 2012, Gomez obtained the bulk of the inventory and opened his own store. Joining him was Bryan Way, a longtime Viva Video clerk and assistant manager. Way first met Gomez as a TLA customer, when he asked the manager which David Cronenberg film to rent next. The two would work together for the next 17 years.
"Being able to be an expert in this field, and furnishing people with perfect recommendations just from looking at movie boxes for years and years and years is a valuable skill that streaming giants and algorithms will never be able to master," Way said.
“The canon of weird stuff”
During the final clearance sale, one customer told the Viva clerks that he was buying a certain movie on DVD because he didn't trust that it would always remain available to stream on Disney+. With the closure, and industry changes brought by the pandemic, the Viva crew has some fear about the future of physical media.
"The canon of weird stuff," Gomez said, will likely remain available on discs, although he expects rediscovery of movies like UHF will become more difficult in a world dominated by streaming.
About 40 people attended the UHF screening, including current and former employees of the store, and many others who were longtime customers. The importance of that community—which for some people dates back to the TLA days—was something repeatedly referenced throughout the night.
Video for all
Viva Video was one of those places where every time I was there, I felt bad that I wasn't there more often. I once brought my kids inside, almost certainly their first and only time setting foot in a video store.
But the appeal of the store isn’t completely lost on the young. Roxy Snavely interned at Viva Video near the end, and is likely one of the only teenagers in 2021 with a vast appreciation for video stores.
"I'm sorry Scarecrow [in Seattle], I'm sorry Last Blockbuster in Oregon, I'm sure you're lovely, I'm sure you're great—you've got nothing on Viva Video," Snavely said. "I wouldn't know they existed without Viva Video, but this place is entirely different from anything else in the country. You'll never find a group of people who are more strangely interconnected. It makes no sense, it shouldn't make sense…but it just does, and that's what's wonderful about it."
While the store is closing, there will be one final screening in the backyard. On September 5, the store will host a showing of Man With a Movie Camera, the 1929 Soviet silent film. Composer Terry Riley's 1964 "In C" will serve as musical accompaniment, to be provided by a group of the store's regulars.
Always more to discover
Meanwhile, Gomez, Way, and Dan Santelli, a clerk at the store for the last several years, aren't quite done with movies yet. They're teaming up with the Media Arts Council on a screening and discussion series, which they hope to get going this fall. In addition, some documentarians making a film called Rent This, about the nation's surviving video stores, were on hand and filming Sunday night.
"Hold your heads high, Vivans! We did a great thing, we did it together, and though it may be painful to let go, nothing can diminish the warmth and dignity of what we accomplished," the July closure notice said. "Stay curious and be sure to look beyond an algorithm's recommendation or an aggregated score. Cinema is vast and there is always more to discover."
Miguel Gomez echoed that sentiment on Viva's last night.
"I hope people remember us, and people stay curious about movies," he said. "I hope that we provided the toolkit to go out and explore on your own…I think what we provided was a form of learning how to look at cinema…I'm sorry we won't be there for more generations for that, but I think we'll live on in the folks that came here."