The video rental store is dead… mostly. Bi-monthly reports surface that the few remaining movie rental stores (which now loan out DVDs and Blu-rays instead of videocassettes) are either gone or struggling for survival. Although a handful of legendary, vast, fan-favorite shops like Scarecrow Video in Seattle are still going strong, the multi-leveled The Video Station, a Boulder operation with a selection to match a studio vault, recently shut its doors for the last time. Locally, the ubiquitous Blockbuster Video is no longer around and neither are many of the smaller, better mom and pop video shops the corporate giant gobbled up in its heyday.
Anyone who loves movies and lived in Lahaina during the latter years of the 20th century still mourns the loss of the two-story, jaw droppingly stuffed Wave Video, which closed after Blockbuster had shelves of new releases that made the Sorry, We’re Out Entertaining label on VHS boxes highly unlikely. This past spring, the wonderful Pauwela Video–which had been open for 25 years in Haiku–closed, too.
With movie buffs increasingly turning to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, other instant streaming options or even Redbox (the McDonald’s equivalent), brick and mortar movie rental stores have largely gone the way of bookstores, record and music shops. Of course, while most people seem to prefer online means to acquire entertainment, the desire for hands-on service, a local hub for film buffs and a selection better than the sequels to Big Momma’s House hasn’t gone away, either.
Which brings us to Paradise Video, which sits humbly next to Sheiks and just outside the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Shopping Center in Kahului. It’s the last of the finest, the only locally owned and operated video store left on Maui. The store opened in 1981, the brainchild of movie buffs Jeff Yamanishi, Cal Inouye and Al Cantorna.
I met with Yamanishi and Inouye at Sheiks one recent morning to discuss the legacy of their store (Cantorna set up the interview but was on a much-needed staycation). They revealed how they manage to keep their customers happy, some favorite memories and where they stand as the last of their kind on Maui.
“I knew we’d be around for awhile but it’s been what, 35 years?” said Yamanishi. “It’s been an amazing run and hopefully it’ll continue. It’s amazing that we beat out the big boys like Blockbuster. Now we got these portable guys around, like Redbox. People still want to come into our store and browse. Touch the product, look at it. That’s our advantage over machines. That’s what I like about it.”
Inouye shared Yamanishi’s amazement. “Who would’ve thought?” he asked. “We didn’t, that’s for sure. We started just as a hobby. Who knew, 35 years later, we’d still be doing this. And we’re friends still, too, so that’s also amazing.”
They told me their store began with a single suitcase, which Yamanishi stuffed with a new novelty: videocassettes for home viewing.
“I had, like, 50 VHS tapes, like Enter the Dragon and all those early releases that came out,” said Yamanishi. “We made a plan in front of my old house about renting movies, a new idea at the time. It came to fruition but we had to find a place. We started in Happy Valley. We rented a place and took our movies home when we’d close. We tried to set up an alarm system, but we didn’t know how. So we were like, ‘Let’s just take all the movies home.’ As the movies got bigger, that became a problem. That’s when we started moving on, trying to find another place. It became Central Avenue, second floor. It was an interesting growing experience, from day one to now. It was our love of movies that started us. I bought all these movies, which were $100 each, and thought, ‘Maybe we can make some money back on it.’ So that’s why we decided to trying having them as rentals. All of us had a love for movies and that’s how we all got together.”
Inouye recalled when he knew the store was catching on and home video rental was more than a passing fad. “The way it worked out, everything we made initially went into buying more videos,” said Inouye. Our library grew from 50 and just kept growing and growing. All of us had other jobs. It was part-time for all three of us. We had to move out of the bungalow because we ran out of space. It grew because we had more people coming in and we invested whatever money we had, to the point where we couldn’t take the videos home. There was too much to load up every day. I don’t think we had any idea how big it was gonna get but luckily, it did.”
In the early days of the store, a few titles on their shelves led to customer controversy. Once, the cops even got involved.
“It was a horror film,” Inouye said. “The police came in. We had it on our shelf, for some reason they knew about it and pulled it off our shelf. We no longer have it and, in fact, they never returned it to us! They took it as evidence, they never charged us for it but never came about it. That was the only one we had problems with.”
Yamanishi recalled another controversial rental option: “Faces of Death was more of a customer movie, where they would come in and say, ‘That was terrible!’” he recalled. “I think we got the trilogy later on. We got the whole works!”
Their eclectic selection helped put them on the map. “That’s what helped us,” said Inouye. “We were able to find a niche, with movies that, One, you couldn’t see on regular TV and, Two, in our foreign and martial arts movies. Jeff found movies you can’t get online. You can’t even get them from the distributors. Blockbuster didn’t carry them, Netflix doesn’t carry them. That’s our biggest niches, the martial arts and foreign films. We do really well with martial arts.”
Yamanishi’s customer-first attitude and dedication to building an in-store library continues to this day. “I try and look for stuff like that,” said Yamanishi. “People tend to remember movies they haven’t seen in a long time, saying, ‘I haven’t seen that in years.’ We find it and it’s an advantage for us, too. There’s certain movies we find because people have come to us. It all comes back to when we first started. You remember when Star Wars first came out on VHS? They had a rental plan where the stores could rent them from 20th Century Fox and we’d have to return it to them. You could also buy copies of it. We still have one of the original rental copies of Star Wars on VHS. That’s how far back we go!”
Inouye and Yamanishi took a moment to reflect on some of their first customers, who helped build their longstanding reputation. “Our very first customer was Fred Topla,” said Inouye. “The very first one to sign up.” Yamanishi added, “It was $100 for a lifetime membership. They’d laugh at you now if you said it was $100!”
Other, slightly better-known names showed up during the early years, too.
“There are people who were there when we first started,” said Yamanishi. “Jon Voight came in and we were scrambling to find something for him to sign. We still have the Deliverance VHS box he signed. The pen didn’t work initially, which is always the case in these situations. He put, ‘Blessings, Jon Voight.’ We still have that and we didn’t rent it after that!”
Yamanishi and Inouye recalled their chain at its most successful, but also knew exactly when the climate changed for video stores. “9/11 and when Blockbuster Video moved in,” said Inouye. “Those two events affected our business. Prior to that, it was just gangbusters. We couldn’t keep up. It was crazy busy and that was our fun time. In the beginning, they’d have these video conventions and the three of us would get to go to Vegas or Washington D.C.”
“Sometimes at our Lower Main store, we’d rent the movie and throw the empty boxes on the floor, where they’d pile up,” said Inouye. “Those were the days.”
Although Paradise Video no longer has competition from local stores, Inouye and Yamanishi are respectful when recalling the competition they once faced. “We knew it once it caught on, we wouldn’t be the only ones,” said Yamanishi.
According to Inouye, “There was a one-hour photo studio at the Maui Mall. The owner carried and rented videos. He opened five days before us, so he technically was the first one to rent on the island. We came in as the first full-fledged video store.”
Although Maui soon began accumulating more video rental stores, Inouye insisted that the atmosphere was friendly. “A lot of the owners of the other store were members of ours,” he said. “They started with us. They knew how we’re doing it and they adopted the same procedures as we did. We all got along because we knew each other. At one point, there was going to be an association on the island, like a Video Group, but that never came to be. Instead, we joined the National Video Software Dealers Association.”
“They’re still around,” said Yamanishi. “Just in a much smaller capacity.”
As their chain continued to expand island-wide, the Paradise Video owners began noticing customer trends and expectations in certain stores.
“The Pukalani store customers were more into dramas, foreign and art house movies,” said Yamanishi. “Down here, it would rent once. If it was an art house movie with Chuck Norris or [Jean-Claude] Van Damme, maybe it might go out! It was sad to see the Pukalani store close. That store was doing better than the stores down here. Over the years, we learn from our mistakes. We still have people who don’t bring back the movies.” Then Yamanishi turned to Inouye. “Remember that one guy, who didn’t bring back the movies, so we went to his address and there was no house there?” Yamanishi asked Inouye. “It was an empty lot!”
“It’s a chance we take when we rent out movies,” Inouye told me. “For the most part, we’ve been pretty lucky and got a lot of our stuff back.”
I asked them how they keep the customers coming. Their old school approach says a great deal about their respect for and knowledge of their customers.
“We still feel that we can keep going as long as people still want to see movies,” said Yamanishi. “That doesn’t go away, that feeling. It just depends on how they want to do that.”
“Our customers like to look at the boxes and have it physically in their hands to know if it’s what they want or not,” said Inouye. “Hopefully we can help them find what they’re looking for. You can’t get that from Redbox. Just being there for the customer, as well as having the product there and hopefully we can keep getting them what they want. Theaters are getting expensive. We like to watch movies on the big screen but it’s expensive. We’re affordable. They come to us–we even have popcorn.”
Then Yamanishi and Inouye offered me their secret weapon. “Our advantage: movies are really expensive,” Yamanishi. “Some tickets are $15 per person.”
“[But] we offer one new release, one old title for three days,” said Inouye.
“We try to give them their money’s worth,” said Yamanishi. “We got two-day old rentals for $2.98.”
In preparing for this article, I decided to test the most popular way to get movies on demand. I made a list of 20 random movies and decided to pit Netflix Instant Streaming against going to Paradise Video and searching their shelves. After searching for the 20 titles on Netflix, I found they had just one in their database (Sunset Boulevard). But after spending 10 minutes in Paradise Video, I located 15 of the movies on my list.
That’s because their collection holds more than 12,000 titles. Paradise Video is where you go if you want to see Avatar or Avengers: Age of Ultron, but why not dig deeper? How about Picture Bride, the lovely, locally made 1995 film about early 20th century island life that was the first film to represent Hawaii at the Cannes Film Festival? Or a few well-remembered but seldom seen guilty pleasures like Stone Cold starring Brian “The Boz” Bosworth, Tom Selleck’s Indiana Jones-wannabe High Road to China or Disorderlies, the only slapstick comedy to ever star The Fat Boys? There’s also the once-in-a-lifetime Ice Cube/Ice-T team-up Trespass, the John Ritter glow-in-the-dark-condom comedy Skin Deep and the rarely seen Aloha Summer, a drama about Hawaii’s first batch of tourists. They also have every Zatoichi adventure, 36 shelves of martial arts action and, yes, all the Faces of Death installments.
“To be around this long, we must be doing something right,” said Yamanishi.
Paradise Video is located at 115 S. Wakea Ave. in Kahului. If you stop by Paradise Video and mention “MauiTime” or “Barry Wurst,” you’ll get one Free Rental during August 2017.
Cover photo (L to R): Cal Inouye, Jeff Yamanishi, Al Cantorna