Perhaps you have heard, Videoscope is closing on July 14. Wife and husband owners Nona and Odon Sy are liquidating their inventory of over 20,000 DVDs, 20,000 VHS tapes and 10,000 LaserDiscs. Mountain View’s last video store has outlasted Hollywood Video and Blockbuster after first pioneering the video store model 31 years ago. Palo Alto Daily News and NBC Bay Area covered the story with headlines like Rents, Netflix kill Mountain View video store and Final Video Store in Mountain View Closing. These news reports cover the basics and give good information with a tragic “mom ‘n pop business pushed aside by big business growth” angle, but as an actual customer of Videoscope for years, I want to showcase their achievements as kind-hearted community members with dreams in action, not as tragic figures crushed by changing times. To be fair, Daily News staff writer Jason Green’s article is a respectful tribute and Kirstina Sangsahachart’s photography is stunning, but the only place you will find the long form version of Odon and Nona Sy’s Videoscope journey is right here. Odon and Nona and their employee Erica Dulin (a film school graduate who calls herself “the blonde clerk”) are some of the most genuine people I have ever met. They were generous enough to let me spend last Saturday night with them to talk about their 31-year odyssey.
As a family man living in Mountain View there are times when it’s after 8 PM, the kids are in bed and there’s nothing to do. In comes a trip to the local video store… a visit with a friend and guaranteed conversation that skips small talk and goes right to something meaty – new releases, dead filmmakers, the worst film of the year, etc. Videoscope provided this and Netflix never will – a place to go hang out and talk to a friend whose expertise will enrich your own enthusiasm for a subject. And in life, what else is there.
I talked to Odon, Nona, their son Brian and Erica the Blonde Clerk during business hours right at the counter while customers browsed and bought their inventory. The Sys also have a daughter named Donna who is the director of the Rare Books School program at the University of Virginia. When I interview small businesses for this blog or a new design project, I bring my RadioShack CTR-120 cassette recorder, press record and then just talk to people, rather that bust up the groove of our conversation by taking notes. In the case of Odon and Nona, this turned out to be serendipitous as Odon gave one of these cassette recorders to Nona as a present during the early days of their courtship. They were both smiling when I pressed play and record.
Why did you go into the video rental business?
ODON: “I was laid off from my aerospace engineering job in 1982. At that time Betamax was becoming popular and my brother had the idea of importing Beta tapes to the Philippines.”
NONA: “The tapes were prerecorded. We were like a forwarder of the tapes. We were pioneers when we first started, people were just beginning to watch movies at home.”
ODON: “So I was helping my brother and Beta is a better quality, but VHS was taking over. RCA marketing was better than Sony marketing, and VHS had a longer tape. So VHS won.”
Tell me about your first store.
NONA: “We started with 15 tapes, and they were all horror. Eraserhead and An American Werewolf in London. And these people were original customers. (Points to a man in store, he looks like an artsy type with expert goatee and black frame glasses. He looks like a film buff. His name is Victor.)”
VICTOR: “You should give them some publicity when they are in business, not when they are going out of business. Whenever I can’t find something, I come here and ask them. They’ve got it, or they can get it.”
If I’d only known they were leaving us, I would have talked to them a while back. I take things for granted; assume they will always be there. Victor and I converse about how progress and development are pushing out small businesses, changing the landscape. He says this is nothing new, that it’s been this way ever since the area went from being called Santa Clara Valley to Silicon Valley. Clearly there is another story here.
I get back to Odon and Nona. I want to know more about the Philippines.
Odon, where are you from?
ODON: “I was born and raised in the Province of Rizal, Philippines, came here in 1967 to find a job. My sister was here ahead of me. There were so many jobs everywhere. Oodles and oodles of jobs.“
NONA: “and 9 years later I came in.”
ODON: “The jobs section of the San Jose Mercury News was that thick.” (Gestures, about 1 inch.) I started as a draftsman, then circuit board designer. Then went back to school at San Jose State and got a Bachelor of Science summa cum laude in Electrical Engineering.”
NONA: “then he got scholarship offers for Masters Degree from Berkeley and Stanford, but he’s afraid I might divorce him if he devote his time to this.”
She’s not joking, but she might be. One thing that’s becoming clear from this conversation, Odon and Nona are in love and have the constant light-teasing vs. calling each other out on BS thing down, the kind of camaraderie that is only present in couples that have been together for years and whose affection continues to grow. They are starting to remind me of my own parents.
Nona, when did you meet Odon?
NONA: “2 weeks after I arrived in the US from the Philippines in 1976. I was working as a CPA and was looking for a job, but then got crazy with this guy. We got married in 3 months, had a baby right away. So, I stayed home for 20 years.”
She underplays the fact that she also started the Videoscope business during her “20 years at home” and that this is their 4th location. In fact, the business was primarily hers, but she handed it off to Odon full-time about 10 years ago and has been working as a life/health insurance agent since then. She is present in the store now to have a chance to say goodbye to customers.
NONA: “We started in Alma Plaza Palo Alto with 800 square feet and 15 movies, then a second store in Palo Alto, then we moved to 6000 square feet in Los Altos. The Los Altos location was 4546 W El Camino Real in Los Altos, where Pho Vi Hoa is now.”
Wait, Videoscope used to be where Pho Vi Hoa is now?
NONA: “Oh yes my store was there for 6 years. We had 6000 square feet and filled up the whole space with movies. Then the landlord raised the rent by 4k a month, so we found a good deal here at our current location but it’s 1/3 as big so it’s crammed.”
To be in business for so long, you have to love what you do. What is it about the movie rental business that you love?
NONA: “ I love movies. In the Philippines, in the summertime, I went to the movies every day. I saw movies like Forbidden Planet. Where I lived in Bacolod there are 11 movie houses, everyone goes to the movies all the time, it’s everyone’s favorite pastime. Theaters are air conditioned and luxurious, even in small towns. They are like opera houses. So, at Videoscope, we were pioneers. To have a VCR in the early ‘80s was a novelty, before anyone knew what video tapes were. One of our first customers came in and thought the tapes were books. I didn’t know how to display the tapes. How far apart should they be?”
Right then, a customer walks up with a stack of DVDs to purchase. He is annoyed when he finds out the boxes he’s carrying are empty. At Videoscope, they shrink wrap the empty boxes and the real inventory is behind the counter.
ODON: “Before when we were not doing that we lost a lot of movies.”
NONA: “Like 35 movies in one day were stolen. The kids would come in, one with a backpack, another talking to me and another one would fill the backpack with movies. Odon is very meticulous about these movie boxes. He keeps them clean with shrink wrap.”
Anyone who has been in Videoscope knows that, aside from the stacks of movies, the floor space contains impenetrable zones of empty boxes, half empty boxes, boxes containing shrink wrap, all part of Odon’s collection. It makes a man that much more interesting to be meticulous about an item, or series of items, and then not so meticulous about the greater, larger area. This has become part of the Videoscope charm over the years. I like to think this unique “organizational system” is Odon’s special method of keeping the gold diggers away.
A customer walks in.
ERICA: “Here comes Nona’s boyfriend. He’s her favorite customer.”
CUSTOMER: “Do you have any VHS players?”
NONA (talking to me): “After VHS then LaserDisc came out, so we had to buy all new inventory to keep our customers.”
By LaserDiscs she’s talking 12”, as collectors of this format are well aware. Videoscope has 10,000 of these in their inventory; they’ve sold 2 since announcing their liquidation. Odon is still looking for that special someone to make him an offer on the whole collection.
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?
CUSTOMER: “The Beaver”
ODON: “even bad movies, I like them, so I couldn’t tell the worst one, because I like them all.”
I rented the entire Columbo TV series from Videoscope and have seen all episodes twice. The late ‘60s – ‘70s episodes are top notch, but it gets really bad around season 9 in the late ‘80s. About a year ago, I inserted a note with my rental return after watching episode #50. “This is some of the worst television I have ever seen. You should watch 10 minutes just to see how bad it is.” The next time I came into the store, my note was on display at the counter with other customer notes. I remind Odon how bad that one Columbo had been.
ODON: “even this one, I like it too.”
What are some of your favorite movies?
NONA (without hesitation): “Brief Encounter 1945. I’ll sell it for $200 if you want it.”
ODON: “The Sound of Music is one of my top 5. Also, My Fair Lady.”
NONA: “Five Fingers…
ODON: “…1952 with James Mason.”
What’s the longest overdue rental in the history of Videoscope?
ERICA: “Oh, I know, I know. Somebody did 3,095 days.”
CUSTOMER AT COUNTER: “Wait, was that me?”
ERICA: “No, yours was just 700 days for Piglet(‘s Big Movie).”
NONA: “I don’t want to tell you who, but there is the son of a famous actor. He kept the movie under his bed, and then he went to college…and the title is Microwave Massacre.”
ME: “Wait, you won’t tell me who this was? How about a hint?”
NONA: “That’s my secret (laughs). His sister returned it eventually.”
What is your most memorable customer story?
ERICA: “The guy that comes every day. He pays full price ($3.45 is a 5 day rental) but returns the movie the next day and does this every day for 20 years.”
NONA: “We have one customer here who only checks out 1 movie, Tora! Tora! Tora! Every time he walks in the door, I don’t have to ask him. He gets embarrassed, but I say ‘no it’s OK.’ He tells me stories about when he was 5 yrs old and he can remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor vividly. He’s so cute, he’s an old man. I don’t see him anymore.”
NONA: “Then one guy who wants The Vikings. Every time he comes in it’s ‘I want The Vikings.’”
BRIAN: “There is the one guy who walks in at 3:45 every day to rent movies. He gets different ones, sometimes he repeats, but 3:45 EVERY day he walks through that door.”
ME: “At least you are going out knowing people love you.”
NONA: “the thing is we are appreciated and we have a very good rapport with our customers, they are like family. I don’t think we have a bad reputation, we are just honest with everybody and we try to serve them well. Odon’s here until 11 PM every night, he never turns anybody away.”
This, I know, from experience.
I’ve been dying to ask Odon why he hired Erica? This is because Erica hilariously says exactly what’s on her mind and has a strong opinion about all movies even telling you how bad she thinks “that” film is as you are paying for the rental. Odon, conversely, is softer-spoken with dry wit, but appears to have thick skin and a great tolerance for ball-bustin’, zinger-slingin’, irreverent types.
Why did you hire Erica?
ODON: “I’m not sure.”
ERICA: “I was working at the Aquarius movie theater and it was during this huge rush because of Brokeback Mountain and it was, like, busy on both sides and there were only 3 of us working. So right in the middle of the crowd of people I just screamed and ran out. Then, I came right to Videoscope and said ‘I love Werner Herzog movies and I totally just quit my job’ and Odon’s like, ‘OK, you can start on Tuesday.’ I’ve worked here for a long time, he’s a pushover, you see how I am with him.”
NONA: “This is the only country where the employee is making fun of the employer. No respect.”
Uproarious laughter from customers as Nona punctuates Erica’s story.
What is the most popular rental in the history of Videoscope?
NONA: “There are so many.”
ERICA: “Mall Rats. or The Big Lebowski… for some reason people don’t buy The Big Lebowski, but they always want to watch it.”
NONA: “I think it’s Mall Rats.”
ME: “Mall Rats? Even more popular than Star Wars?”
NONA: “A lot of people bought Star Wars, so they don’t rent it as much.”
Is there any genre of movie you refuse to carry?
ODON: “Almost ‘No’, the only thing that we do not carry is The Last Temptation of Christ. That’s the only thing we said ‘No’ to. My wife is offended by this movie. We will not carry it for rental.”
Go to Videoscope before July 14 and get to know these honest folks while you still can. Check out a real video store while you’re at it and make them an offer. You could also bring them a delicious chicken dinner or a tray full of brownies as a thank you for 3 decades of local representation. Videoscope carries all categories of movie: drama, action, children, horror/mystery, comedy, sci-fi, documentaries, special interest, pop/operas, music and adult. They are at 2290 West El Camino Real #7, Mountain View, CA 94040 (650) 965-7800. Email Odon if you want to buy something or know a Los Altos recluse with mad stacks and room for a LaserDisc collection in the guest house. firstname.lastname@example.org.
ARTICLE UPDATE: The original closing date for Videoscope was June 30, but they will be extending their stay until July 14! So, it’s not too late, go buy Les Diaboliques on LaserDisc RIGHT NOW!!!