VisArt Keeps Afloat As A Nonprofit With Microcinema And Plans For Outdoor Merger
Back in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Gina Stewart thought she might have one of the few virus-proof businesses.
VisArt rents movies. Actual, physical movies – DVDs, VHS tapes – that customers can take home and watch. When everyone is forced to stay home, that should mean a thriving business, right?
“Of course, we felt that way, too,” said Stewart, VisArt’s executive director. “We were like, ‘OK, people need us. People's mental health needs us.’ They need to be able to come in and get 10 movies and go home and watch them because they can't find what they want on Netflix, or they don't have Netflix, they don't have cable. Everybody's financially pressed.”
But when stay-at-home orders went into effect in March 2020, VisArt wasn’t sure what to do. They called city and county officials for some direction.
“What is the nature of your business?” they asked.
“We’re like what Blockbuster used to be,” Stewart told them.
“We didn’t know we even had anything like that still left,” they told her.
VisArt opted to close for two months just to be on the safe side. In that time, it focused on fully becoming a 501(c) (3) nonprofit, a process it began in 2018. Staff inventoried the nearly 40,000 DVDs and VHS tapes in the store.
And they plotted what they could do when they reopened.
“Basically my take on it is we're pivoting into what we really probably should have been doing to begin with,” Stewart said. “There's a real call right now — people miss going to the movies. But they want to go to the movies safely. And a lot of people are really nervous about doing that because that's indoor space for the most part.”
In the fall, VisArt projected some movies outdoors on the wall of Tommy’s Pub, their neighbor at Eastway Crossing. They were successful but limited by weather.
This week, in honor of Valentine’s Day, they’re giving a trial run on something they’re going to soon make permanent: rental of the shop’s screening room, what they’re calling a “microcinema” for small, private functions.
In the past, the room could hold 29 people. With coronavirus restrictions, capacity is at four to five. Stewart thought it might make a perfect date night.
You rent the room – right now, it’s $35 per hour – rent a movie for $3.50, then you can have dinner ordered in -- either from any of the nearby Eastway Crossing restaurants such as Portofino or EastSide Local, or delivered via a food delivery service. Popcorn and candy are available, as it would be at any movie theater.
A VisArt host – masked, of course -- is at your disposal for the evening to make it as special as possible.
“And the response to that was a little bit overwhelming,” Stewart said. “We put it out on social media and we got overwhelmed with people wanting to do that the week of Valentine's Day. And so we're full now and we're also really excited about what that can mean for the future.”
In the future, use of the microcinema might be a perk of a level of membership plan that VisArt hopes to implement.
But the store also has other plans: VisArt recently was awarded a Center City Small Business Innovation Fund grant of $40,000 from Charlotte Center City Partners and Honeywell. It plans to use the money to install a garage door that will connect VisArt with neighboring EastSide Local, the vegan restaurant next door.
The idea is that VisArt will then have access to a patio and open-air seating, while EastSide Local would have access to indoor seating and entertainment.
“And we got this grant, and I am so excited about it,” Stewart said. “It is truly innovative because once we got the grant everybody went, ‘Oh boy, oh boy, we got a great idea. Is everybody going to be OK with this?’ You know, in terms of building code and zoning and all of that stuff.”
They're working on all that, now. But the biggest immediate issue? Stewart is worried she won’t be able to find an actual garage door to install because so many businesses are converting to open-air settings that they’re on backorder for 12 weeks.
“But it is just a win-win for both businesses,” she said. “And I think for Eastway Crossing and for the east side in general. We're just really excited about it. I don't think there's anything in Charlotte like what we are getting ready to do. And it involves this little microcinema and the restaurant next door.”