For the past 33 years, Friday nights for many in the Niagara region meant heading out to rent a movie.
The destination for those loyal customers still choosing physical copies over streaming was the area’s last video rental shop — the epicentre of nostalgia in St. Catharines, Ont., with the smell of fresh popcorn in the air, iconic checkered floors and aisles of movie covers.
But after three decades of service, outlasting rental giants like Blockbuster and Jumbo Video and surviving an impressive time into the streaming age, That’s Entertainment is closing.
It’s hard to say goodbye to a community that is sad to see the end of an era, “because it was assumed you’re gonna be there tomorrow,” said Greg Switzer who has been general manager for 20 years and worked at the store since it opened in 1989.
“But things can change, especially now.”
The store is part of the final wave of video stores across Canada.
Vancouver’s beloved Black Dog Video, one of B.C.’s last shops, announced it will close its doors this summer. Movie World in Stony Plain, Alta., west of Edmonton, has a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to help keep the store open. Cyclops Video in North Bay, Ont., closed last year.
Since That’s Entertainment announced its upcoming closure on the store’s Facebook page on Wednesday, the community has offered an overwhelming amount of support, said Switzer.
The store will be sharing more information on sales and the closure date in coming weeks, he added.
Lockdowns the final push toward streaming
Pandemic shutdowns for non-essential businesses took too high a toll and has forced That’s Entertainment to close its doors, Switzer said.
Traffic was steady at the store before provincial lockdowns, but Switzer said any momentum they had, “just kind of dropped off.”
The temporary closures drove the last loyal customers to streaming services, said Rob Maxwell, who has worked as a store manager for 10 years.
“That forced people to go home and get Crave or get Netflix and all that kind of stuff. And then they realized, “I don’t have to go anywhere and it’s a lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” Maxwell said.
“But it’s just not the same,” he added.
Switzer said still, they’ve been happy to hold the title of last remaining shop.
“I would have liked to have been the last video store 10 years from now, but it feels pretty good,” he said.
That’s Entertainment employees were willing to go above and beyond to make customers happy, which meant ordering in titles at a customer’s request and maintaining a huge selection to satiate nostalgic customers, he said.
“We weren’t cookie cutter or corporate like Blockbuster and those guys, so we could bring in whatever we wanted,” Switzer said.
“If we heard customers asking for stuff, we could always order more copies of things.”
They kept customers coming back by also selling popcorn made fresh daily, and unique drinks and candies.
“You can get a Mars bar anywhere,” Switzer said. “You can’t get a Whatchamacallit or Payday just anywhere.”
Coming to the store was also about the experience and sense of community.
Niagara Falls resident Erin Ronfeld, who has been coming to the store since she was a young girl, was at the store with her mom on Friday afternoon to take in her favourite movie rental spot while she still can, she said.
“It was always nice to come down and be able to rent and play,” Ronfeld said, referring to the arcade terminals that used to be set up.
“When I was in high school, as teenagers, we would come here and grab movies and hang out,” she said, “so it’s sad to see it go.”
“I think a lot of it was nostalgia,” Maxwell said, “you look at the floor even, it’s iconic. It’s the one thing that’s never changed.”
“It’s still almost like the parquet floor of the Boston Garden right? If you ever watch any basketball, they’ve always had that iconic looking floor. Same with us,” he said.
Looking back at when he started working at That’s Entertainment in September 1989 when Switzer was just 16, he said the space has always had a look that really stood out.
‘Sistine Chapel of video stores’
“I remember when the walls were all pink and we had a completely different setup,” Switzer said.
“Or we had our kids section over here by the wall. It was a raised little platform with a big screen TV at the end and little cars sitting on there for kids to sit like they’re at the drive-in.”
In 2000, the store commissioned a Toronto artist to create paintings that pay homage to the entertainment industry and filled all the blank space on the walls.
“We wanted to be the Sistine Chapel of video stores,” Switzer said.
He said customers have been asking to purchase the art, so the store will be getting them appraised and then put them up for auction to the public.
“I think there are 34 or so, all different sizes to fill the different holes in the walls,” Switzer said.
From Hitchcock to Spielberg and comedy to action, the paintings feature a variety of entertainment tributes that represent a vast collection of film, music and video games that every customer could see their interests reflected in.
“This is a place you come in and you could find just that, that special movie you want that you can’t find to buy,” Niagara resident Bill Battersby said.
Battersby was also at That’s Entertainment on Friday looking for a copy of Hacksaw Ridge to add to his war movie collection, but he said it’s a “real shame” to say goodbye to the store.
‘Got to be part of their evening’
Switzer credits the store’s ability to stay open for so long to the breadth of product offered and a dedicated team of employees.
“Having the selection that we had, having lots of selection of copies of things and just having staff that were passionate about the product was always important,” Switzer said.
Staff were always willing to chat and share recommendations, helping to offer some insight for customers looking for their next rental pick – which you don’t get from a streaming service, Switzer said.
“You got to be kind of a part of their evening that night if someone took your suggestion,” he said.
After a decade with That’s Entertainment, Maxwell said his favourite part of the job was the community surrounding the store.
Following the closure announcement, Maxwell said he had a customer come in to say goodbye who he issued a client card to on his very first day on the job in 2011.
“I absolutely love the people. Everybody here has been great, the customers and staff,” Maxwell said.
“I’m gonna take these people with me for the rest of my life,” he said, “I spent 10 years here. You can’t just sweep that under the rug when it’s done.”