As far as Conrad Bejarano knows, I Luv Video was the last of its kind in Austin.
On Sept. 1, Bejarano announced that the indie movie rental store at 4803 Airport Blvd. was closing for good, just like several cultural landmarks already claimed by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic pressure. After almost four decades, I Luv Video takes with it a certain Jiffy Pop-friendly avenue of keep-Austin-weird-ism.
I Luv Video touted itself as the "oldest and largest video store in the world" and held about 120,000 films. There might be a few other businesses around town still renting movies on a smaller scale. The Airport location of Bejarano’s homegrown chain, though, was the last major video shop where Austin film fanatics could rescue cult classics from long shelves of discs and tapes, if only for the few days before late fees hit. It wasn’t anything like Blockbuster, but of course, all those are gone now, too. Vulcan Video, I Luv Video’s nearest local analogue, in April permanently closed its sole remaining store on Russell Drive.
"Being a video business this long, I feel very fortunate," Bejarano says.
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I Luv Video’s history spanned Bejarano’s whole adult life. He and former business partner John Dorgan founded the first location in 1985 at Menchanca Road (then called Manchaca Road) and Slaughter Lane. The pair previously had opened London Video in 1984 inside Dobie Mall.
Bejarano has been the sole proprietor of I Luv Video since the beginning of 2019, he says, following sexual misconduct claims against Dorgan from employees of Spider House Cafe and Ballroom; the Fruth Street bar also was founded by the pair. Those allegations were reported by the Austin Chronicle in December 2018.
I Luv Video has had nine Austin locations over the years, including as many as five at once by 1989. A Guadalupe Street location, opened in 1997, shut down in 2015, leaving only the Airport Boulevard location until now.
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The end of I Luv Video is a familiar sounding story in 2020. Bejarano says the pandemic and the real estate market hit the store from both sides. His landlord, looking to liquidate, notified him that the property was on the market in late July, he says. There once was a time when he would have tried to avoid closing because of that.
"I could have bought the real estate 20, 30 years ago for a couple hundred thousand dollars," he says.
The price tag he says he eventually was quoted, about $2 million, was "unaffordable," especially when he considered the potential mortgage payments and property taxes.
"You're looking at a significant amount of money per month, and it's completely unrealistic," he says.
I Luv Video’s neighbor on the property, ColdTowne Theater, will be without a physical space for now while it focuses on digital programming and on finding a "forever" home, says Dave Buckman, the theater’s executive producer.
It wasn’t just the prospect of having to find a new home that influenced Bejarano’s decision. As the pandemic persisted, he didn’t think the store could continue operating in the way he wanted.
"The irony of the situation was that our business — January, February, March — was busier than it's been in years," he says. "It was up by 30-40%. It was so busy, it was making the staff uncomfortable (as the pandemic hit). And you know, understandable. You're constantly right in front of the public. There's only so many precautions you can take with that whole sort of situation."
Curbside service just wouldn’t be able to capture the magic of a video store, he says. It’s not like ordering food off a menu. The "classic brick and mortar" is part of the experience, he thinks — browsing the aisles and finding something new you hadn’t even considered before you came in.
Bejarano’s not interested in playing the blame game, as he puts it; ultimately, businesses are responsible for themselves, he says. But he thinks there are systemic issues that squeezed people like him out of business — rising property taxes, insufficient pandemic safety compliance among the public, inadequate government aid. I Luv Video didn’t get coronavirus relief money from the city, Bejarano says.
"All the little guys get thrown under the bus," he says.
Still, for decades, I Luv Video and its vast library provided a rare service to Austinites. Bejarano doesn’t pick a favorite or most notable entry in the collection. There are the flicks that bombed theatrically but found cult success through rentals, like "Repo Man" and "Big Trouble In Little China." He also remembers when, in the 1980s and ’90s, cinephiles had to contact directors to get copies of certain films, or look for ads placed in niche publications, or make cross-country road trips to find what they were looking for. The "avant garde" films available at I Luv Video that didn’t hit mainstream theaters are the ones of which Bejarano is most proud.
He says it’s hard even to put a monetary value on I Luv Video’s archive. The death of video stories also is about film preservation. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have limited libraries, Bejarano points out. Any time there is a popular shift in home media formats — from VHS to DVD to to Blu-ray to digital, for example — a lot of films never make the transition.
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Bejarano has plenty of examples of why that made a store like I Luv Video so crucial. If you want to see the theatrical cut of "Blade Runner" or a film from the original "Star Wars" trilogy without edits that happened years later, good luck. Are you looking for the original version of 1977 Paul Newman hockey comedy "Slap Shot"? Well, the theatrical soundtrack was altered in some subsequent releases due to rights issues, Bejarano says. If you are, indeed, looking for the original version of 1977 Paul Newman hockey comedy "Slap Shot," you might begin to understand what’s lost when a video store closes for good.
"How are you supposed to learn about these weird, avant garde films? They’ll get lost in time," Bejarano says.
Some owners of shuttered video stores might resign themselves to the tides of time and sell off their stock to whoever’s buying. Bejarano, instead, is trying to find someone to continue what I Luv Video started.
"It would bring me the utmost joy to pass the torch to a group or individual that has the financial capacity to preserve our immense catalog of films," he wrote on social media in the announcement that the store was closing. "My only stipulation is that whomever does so gives the community access to our vast film library." Bejarano included a phone number in the post for interested parties to contact him.
"It’s been unbelievably overwhelming," he says of the people who have reached out from "all over the world." He likens it to a full-time job, sorting through the phone calls and emails. Not all expressions of interest are equal — he doesn’t want to chop up the videos into private collections, and his goal is to preserve the entire library in Austin.
"A lot of people don’t really understand the intensity and importance of such a collection," he says.
For now, Bejarano is going through the inventory. His parents, Carlos and Sally, are lending a hand. Rentals are no more, but fans looking for one last memory can still buy a T-shirt from the store’s website. Bejarano would love for a local to buy the library. Some inquiries have mentioned only preserving the collection, he says, and some have expressed interest in keeping the I Luv Video business going in some fashion. He can imagine the possibilities for a new owner — a drive-in theater, maybe, or a "micro theater" where people can see the rare gems on an exhibition screen. But he’s content to put everything into storage until he’s found a deal he’s comfortable with.
The response to I Luv Video’s closure from customers and fans, though — Bejarano says it’s "heart-throbbing." There’s been an outpouring of support on social media. Old employees have reached out to wish him well. Being a "misfit video nerd," he says, and seeing the effect that I Luv Video had on the community has been amazing. He wants Austin’s eclectic spirit to live on. He’s always seen the store as a stepping stone to "culture and community."
It’s in the name, Bejarano says. "It’s in the heart. It’s all about the love."