Bringing down the curtain on more than just a store

Having seen the ups and downs of the movie rental biz, he calls it a day at Lazer Video in Elmira

Harold Taylor removes the last of window decals off his video rental store after more than 30 years operating in downtown Elmira. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

There was a time, not too long ago, when video rentals were big business. People would regularly stop by the store to browse the catalogues and pick up the latest theatrical release for movie night. Usually, you were reliant on those behind the counter to dispense advice about the most popular flicks available, while at the best places, you could depend on them knowing exactly what you were after.

Even after the advent of the internet, and the rise in popularity of online streaming services, the video rental store continued to have a small but steady demand in the community, says Harold Taylor. People like to get out, he explains, particularly in a small town like Elmira where for more than 30 years Taylor operated Lazer Video: Video Rental and Variety Store.

“It’s true. Like 15 years ago, 20 years ago, it was at its peak. So I would order 20 to 25 copies of a good title,” recalls Taylor, who opened his business in 1986. “Then in the last five or six years, I’d maybe order two or three of a good title. Maybe four of a good title. So you budget for what the market wants there.”

But those looking for their movie fix for a night in will have to try elsewhere, as after three decades in business, Taylor decided to close down his store for good. He’ll be renting the Arthur Street location to Kitchen Kuttings, who plan on opening a small, take-out café there soon.

“Almost 33 years, not that I physically worked hard, but it’s very time-consuming, seven days a week. And I decided to close and live life before they dig the hole,” says Taylor with a laugh.

Standing outside the store on the Elmira sidewalk, Taylor scrapes off the last of the lettering on the store’s now barren windows – part of a large ‘S’ that used to say ‘Soft Serve’. As he works, people stop by the store and chat with Taylor like old friends.

“Obviously, the big thing was summer ice cream. Crazy. We would scoop about 40 11-litre tubs a week. Providing you didn’t get a week of rain,” says Taylor with another jovial laugh.

“They would line up. Two tables full inside. And that was the nice part, seeing the kids, the parents bring their kids down, the smiles on their faces because they know they’re coming for ice cream. And that’s what I miss,” he says. Taylor even decided to keep the store going one more year, closing down this September after the summer, just to get in one more ice-cream season.

“And I miss the customers. Ninety-eight per cent of my customers were repeat customers, and you develop a real friendship, relationship with them. But I’ll see them around. I’m not going too far away.”

Taylor started renting movies in 1986, during the era of the betamax and VHS rivalry in the ’80s. Eventually, the standard became the DVD in the 90s and 2000s, followed by the high definition Blu-ray. Now, the physical disc is facing another rivalry of sorts from entirely digital video formats and high-speed broadband.

Thirty years also covers a lot of ground in cinema history too, but looking back, Taylor thinks his biggest film to date at Lazer Video was the classic Steven Spielberg film E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

“E.T. was probably the most incredible, and I remember having 30-some copies of E.T.,” says Taylor. “And that was all VHS.”

For 33 years, Taylor and the crew at Lazer Video rented out thousands of movies to the people of Elmira, Woolwich and beyond. While demand has declined in more recent years, he notes that customers still appreciated the experience of it all. Getting out and going into town on the weekends and visiting the stores and meeting with people – something the convenience of the internet hasn’t been able to replicate.

“I think it’s probably better in a town like Elmira because people still have that country life,” he notes.

But with the closure of the store, Taylor is looking forward to having a lot more time on his hands and perhaps enjoy some more movie nights of his own.

“There are lovely people who have told me they are really going to miss coming down and getting a movie. Because that’s what they want to do: take a walk downtown, or a drive, see what’s going on downtown and actually pick that movie up. Read them, chat, and then go home and watch it at their leisure.”

While the store is closing down, the ice-cream at least won’t be gone. Kitchen Kuttings will be moving into the location, where they plan to continue the tradition, as well as offer soups, sandwiches and salads.

“We’re planning on it. It’s going to be in two phases. First we’re going to be opening up a take-out café. And then Kitchen Kuttings will be moving, but not until probably about a year from now,” said Elmeda Weber, co-owner of Kitchen Kuttings. “We’re hoping the café will be open by New Year’s.”

The new location, once Kitchen Kuttings moves the whole store, is expected to have more room and extra parking compared to the current digs up the street.