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The lights are on but flickering at Video Room, where you can still rent movies and chat with cinephiles

on October 28, 2021

One of the  last video rental stores in Oakland runs on a hope, a prayer and an infusion of cash from owner Joseph Lum’s retirement savings. 

Close to 40,000 DVDs line the narrow shelves at Video Room, which Lum opened in 1983 on Broadway and College Avenue but was forced to downsize — three locations later — to a storefront on Piedmont Avenue. That the business has survived the rise and fall of corporate video stores, the advent of Netflix and other streaming platforms, the competition from free public libraries, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to its resilience and Lum’s resolve. 

Asked how he’s pulled off that feat and why he has even bothered, Lum waxes nostalgic: “I love movies. I love our customers. They’re like old friends whenever they come back.”

Lum used to employ four people, but let them go when the pandemic struck. Now he’s the sole worker. 

For cinephiles, Lum’s shop is a smorgasbord of hard-to-find titles such as “Amores Perros,” “55 Days at Peking” and several versions of “Hamlet.” More casual movie watchers might gravitate to the shelf marked “Staff Picks,” where gold stickers mark DVDs that Lum recommends  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” or Janicza Bravo’s “Lemon. 

Lum’s shop is sort of a hangout for Louis Segal, a longtime customer who praises the selection. “If I want to get an Oscar-winning performance from the 1940s, I can get it there. If I want to get some really good Chinese cinema from 2004 or 2005, I can get it there.” 

And when Segal, 72, pops in for a movie, he knows there’s a good chance he’ll meet other film buffs and end up in long conversations about genres, actors, directors and scripts.  

“It’s sort of like a coffeehouse in a way, or a barbershop,” he said. “You could talk about films with cinephiles. And, you know, people love film.”

Lum began Video Room in the 1980s when video cassette recorders hit the market, spawning the once lucrative video rental business. At first, Lum specialized in laserdiscs, which looked like albums and delivered a sharp image much clearer than a standard VHS or Beta player. As the VHS format rose in popularity, Lum switched his stock. And when the VCR made way for the DVD player in the 1990s, Lum pivoted again.  

Across the country, chains of video stores opened, with the mega and global Blockbuster setting up within a few blocks of Video Room. Lum lost a third of his business to Blockbuster, regaining a small portion of those customers when Blockbuster closed in 2012.  

Since then, keeping the doors open and the neon signs inside his store lit have become a struggle. 

“We tried all sorts of things,” he said. “We tried advertising; it didn’t work. We tried Safeway receipts, coupons; that didn’t work. We had to decrease our overhead by minimizing employees. And that took a lot out of us.” 

Video Room
The neon sign shorted out recently, but Video Room in Oakland keeps chugging along. (Andrew Lopez)

Disc rentals have continued to drop nationwide, slipping to $1.04 billion in 2020, according to Digital Entertainment Group, which tracks the market. In contrast, digital streaming and rentals generated $26.5 billion in revenue last year.

Video Room charges between $5-$6 for rentals, which are two days for new releases and a week for older titles. Since the pandemic, Lum has had to rely on his savings to keep it afloat.

Lum once told himself that when the neon VIDEO ROOM sign goes out, he’ll close the store. Earlier this year, the sign shorted out. But the store remains open. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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