John Dorgan and Conrad Bejarano were young and eager and dreamy when they opened their first video store in 1984 in the Dobie Mall. They were idealistic, these college dropouts. They were ambitious, these high school chums from El Paso.
'We were completely clueless,' Dorgan says from the safe distance of 26 years — more than a quarter-century that has watched Dorgan and Bejarano go from wobbly entrepreneurs to benevolent potentates of a mini-empire that includes Spider House Cafe, Ecoclean, the United States Art Authority and twin I Luv Video stores that together have mushroomed into the largest video outlet in Texas and one of the biggest in the country.
The Dobie store was called London Video (a nod to Dorgan's love of the Clash) and boasted 198 videotapes (tapes!) across 1,000 square feet. Ah, the '80s: 'Splash,' 'Purple Rain,' 'Against All Odds' — these are titles Dorgan and Bejarano mentally dust off during a recent reminiscence at Spider House, the funky food and coffee joint they opened in 1996 on Fruth Street, directly behind the I Luv Video store at 2915 Guadalupe St.
The occasion of their recollection is the 25th anniversary of I Luv Video, which was born in late 1985, a few months after they sold the somewhat successful London Video for $65,000, when Bejarano was 22, Dorgan 21.
'It was a hard battle slogging it out in that lonely mall, so we were delighted to sell it,' Dorgan says.
London Video was supposed to lure the thousand or so University of Texas students who lived in the high-rise dorm above the mall. It didn't work that way. The students simply hadn't leisure time for tape watching, Dorgan says. In fact, business would boom when the students left town for break. Parking was easier and the mob scene of campus life cleared out.
Video stores were novel back then. Many shops rented VHS players as well as the chunky tapes, because not everyone owned a machine. Franchises were exploding across the country. While Dorgan went to UT to study physics (great fun, until it wasn't), Bejarano went to Arizona, where he worked for the video chain Sounds Easy. Visiting Dorgan in Austin, Bejarano lighted on the idea of he and Dorgan opening their own store and capitalizing on 'this new thing.'
Bejarano sold most of his stuff and moved to Austin. He chipped in $8,000 and Dorgan borrowed $7,000 from his family for the Dobie lease. Dorgan had quit UT and had time on his hands, dreams in his head.
'I thought we'd be rich by the time we were 22, 23,' he laughs.
The owner of the mall gave the two young men free room and board in the dorms for six months as part of the lease deal. They worked at the store from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 'We'd go months without seeing the sunset,' Dorgan says.
After selling London Video, the pair decided to jump into the video-store franchise fray and compete with chains such as Video Barn and Blockbuster. Their youth and relatively small inventory made it hard to be taken seriously and they were 'kicked around' before opening the first I Luv Video at Slaughter Lane and Manchaca Road. The store was 600 square feet. They had no computers; everything was done manually with pen and paper. It was 1985. 'Back to the Future' was knocking folks out at the multiplex.
I Luv Video today is famous for its punky aesthetic and unreconstructed slacker vibe. That image took time to cultivate. It evolved with organic certitude because of the kinds of guys Dorgan and Bejarano were and are — creative types with facile business minds who like things vibrant and progressive, a little noisy and totally laid-back, boho and broad-minded.
'We've always gone in with a sense of freedom of information,' says Dorgan. 'Our goal has been to give people full access to the full palate of films' — be it 'Faces of Death' shock videos, porn, banned titles or Japanese tentacle erotica.
(Are they film buffs? Not at all. They leave the shape and content of the shops to the employees and customers. Very egalitarian. So very Austin.)
They opened a second I Luv Video on Airport Boulevard in 1986. By 1989 they were running five stores at once, on Airport Boulevard, Slaughter Lane, Burnet Road, Ben White Boulevard and Braker Lane. For six years, two of the shops offered pizza, beer and video delivery, a way to stand out among the generic chains. They called it I Luv Pizza.
Each new store cost roughly $30,000 to open. 'I remember that whenever our bank account got up to around $30,000 we'd open another store,' Dorgan says.
Things were going swimmingly for a couple of mid-twentysomethings. Together they bought a three-story, cliffside, art deco house for $134,000, hefty change then. They had roommates. They had a jacuzzi, a pool table and the vintage arcade games Asteroids and Tron. Dorgan still beams about how he mastered Tron.
'We had a blast,' Bejarano says. 'We worked hard and partied hard.'
Eventually, it was time to consolidate and downsize. Things were 'working OK,' Bejarano recalls. 'But the business model was too big for us and it collapsed on itself.'
By 1995 warning shots were being fired about the imminent demise of video stores. People were starting to buy DVDs cheaply online. Nervous, Dorgan and Bejarano diversified, opening Spider House, an arty student-slacker hangout. They still had two I Luv Videos. They closed one, kept the Airport Boulevard shop and in 1997 opened another on Guadalupe Street in the old Antone's nightclub building — shouting distance from eclectic indie video store Vulcan Video on 29th Street, where it has thrived since 1988.
Dorgan and Bejarano didn't come to squash Vulcan, contending that the location was just too perfect. Anyway, they say, the stores have different missions.
'Vulcan was always more the film-school and art-film store, which I totally respect,' Dorgan says. 'We were always pushing indie and cult movies' — be it trash cinema or bootlegged psychotronic obscurities, with high deference to foreign and classic films.
'It's a more family-friendly environment here,' says Joe Shivers, general manager of Vulcan Video. 'We have brighter lighting and we don't have a porn room. Vulcan has always been more about cinema culture. I Luv is more '80s schlock and exploitation. We have an older crowd. Luckily, the city is big enough to accommodate two independent video stores when the rest in the country are closing.'
The former Antone's spot was split in half by the building's new owners, who opened Ecomat laundry on one side. Dorgan and Bejarano filled up the south side with tapes and DVDs. (The duo eventually bought the Guadalupe space from the Ecomat owners, took over the laundry and renamed it Ecoclean.)
Soon after, they bought the plasma donation center around the corner from the video store on Fruth Street and turned into the United States Art Authority, a roomy bar, art gallery and theater for cultural events, from comedy and burlesque to the new Feral Cinema Series on the third Thursday of each month. (Their devotion to sustaining local art has led them to help out struggling groups such as ColdTowne Theater and Art Seen Online.)
I Luv Video's 25th anniversary party will be thrown Saturday at the United States Art Authority, with a slew of bands featuring video store employees.
Rock 'n' rollers running the store? Naturally. That's been the flavor of the franchise since the start. It's why free beer flows every Tuesday at I Luv Video and why workers are allowed to 'run wild' with what the shops carry.
It's been a blast, if not entirely easy. What with online rental giant Netflix and the ascendancy of video on demand, 'We've only just barely survived,' Dorgan says. He wonders if video stores will be necessary 10 years from now.
Entering a store as gimongous as the flagship I Luv Video on Airport Boulevard eases that fear. Shelves, shelves, shelves, rows, rows, row, boxes, boxes, boxes. It's sensual overload of avalanchian proportions. You can't leave with just one movie.
'We've got several lifetimes worth of media on hand, with a staff that watches 80-plus hours of movies a week,' says Eric Mendell, a longtime employee of the Airport Boulevard store.
'Walking into the Airport store for the first time, it was like a movie wonderland I'd only previously dreamed of: two stories packed wall to wall with movies. ... It can be a bit overwhelming, but luckily there's a few shelves up front with some employee recommendations that give you a good place to start. The store is like an entertainment treasury. I've had many people tell me that this is what Austin was like 20 years ago, and I can tell that it means a lot to them. And that in turn makes me proud to be a small part of Austin history.'