Walk into VisArt Video nowadays and you'll see a donation jar next to the checkout. Charlotte's last video rental store is going nonprofit, and it's joining a growing number of video stores elsewhere in the county that say the model is a way to survive in the age of streaming.
It also marks a major new step for the decades-old independent video store, which has been working on getting its 501(c)(3) status since fall of 2018, and just had its paperwork approved by the IRS this month.
The Lord Of The Tapes
On a recent weekday, longtime employee Briana Kalbach was unlocking the drop-box outside the storefront and fishing out some returns from the night before. She plucked out two DVDs from the box -- an old western ("The Outlaw Josey Wales") and a late-'90s action flick ("Absolute Power").
Kalbach has been working at VisArt for several years now, and she's what other employees might call a "VisArtian." She's got neon-blue hair, beat up Chucks, and a deep knowledge of movies both popular and obscure.
She's also in charge of maintaining the store's vast collection of nearly 40,000 videos. Most are DVDs, but lots are VHS tapes too.
"And they actually do rent, which is kind of wild," she says.
Some videos were donated, others bought, and while the store does carry current releases, manager Gina Stewart says most customers are coming in for the older stuff.
"Eighty percent of what we send out are things in the collection," she says. That includes stuff like cult films, BBC programs, documentaries, and obscure foreign flicks from more than a dozen countries.
There's also lots of stuff you can't find online, like old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Nickelodean shows, and other limited releases. They even had Spike Lee's college dissertation tape -- of which there are only two known copies -- until a museum came and snatched it up one day.
From Durham With Love
Rare and obscure titles have always been a part of VisArt's zeitgeist. The business got started in Durham in the mid-1980s when its founders, Andrea Kubachko and Clay Evans Jr., couldn't find a copy of the Japanese drama "Seven Samurai" at any local stores, but could find any number of overhyped mainstream flicks.
Their small empire of VisArts once included locations in Chapel Hill and elsewhere in Durham, but none
remain today except the VisArt in Charlotte. That's part of its significance. It was on the brink of closing, but was saved by local attorney Mickey Aberman. He walked in on News Year's Eve 2010 and found out the store planned to close.
"And I said, 'Well, that's terrible.' I liked having VisArt. I thought it was a good thing for Charlotte," he says.
Employees had been trying to raise money to purchase the store, but had been unsuccessful. So Aberman called up the owner and ended up buying the store on the spot.
"Linda, my wife, was really good about it," he recalls, "I called her up from the store and I said, 'You know how you told me to come down here to pick up a few movies?' And she said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, I kind of bought the whole store.'"
A New Hope
Since making the purchase, Aberman has tried to keep the store running, no matter what. That included moving it from the Elizabeth neighborhood to a new location at the corner of Eastway and Central in 2015, and then in the fall of 2018, starting the process of becoming a nonprofit.
"It made good business sense because we had people who wanted to volunteer, and you can't have unpaid volunteers for a for-profit business," Aberman says.
It also allows the store to apply for grants and accept donations, and it means the store will be hosting more community events and screenings for local groups and up-and-coming filmmakers -- something they've already been doing since adding a screening room.
Aberman says the business needed to change because while the store might have more titles than Netflix, it can't compete with the online giant's convenience. Regardless, he's excited for the new step, and he sees the store's future as a cultural organization, one that will have to survive in part on others.
"We're going to have to rely to some extent on the generousity of people who appreciate what we are and what we do, and want to keep it going," he says.
He hopes people won't just stay on the sidelines eating popcorn, but actually come in and contribute to the store -- if not in a leading role, at least in a supporting one.