I’m in France.
Truffaut, Goddard, Malle stand before me, asking me to pick them up and maybe take them home. Swooning in front of an entire wall of French film VHS boxes, I ponder the names, the drama, the possibilities. The unknown. A whole world is opening up to me right here on 4th Street in Philadelphia.
The year is maybe 1991 and I’m spending countless hours in a Philly video rental store called TLA Video.
Over the last few days, as we’ve watched Netflix get in bed with Philadelphia’s own Comcast for even faster, beat-that-buffer, on-demand streaming, we thought we’d “be kind and rewind” to a time when video store browsing was as good as the film itself.
Just off South Street, the once punk haven (in the ’90s you’d still spot the occasional blue mohawk stroll by), the TLA was a cultural hub. The shop opened in 1985 as a subsidiary to the Theater of the Living Arts, then one of the country’s leading repertory movie theaters. There’s a whole separate piece to be written about the movie theater alone — where, in high school, we screamed Rocky Horror lines, watched Repo Man, saw the seedy David Bowie-scored Christiane F., a film about a German teenager battling heroin. There’s also a whole other piece to be penned on the Theater of the Living Arts origins as a theater group in the ’60s, which was founded by My Dinner With Andre’s Andre Gregory and included Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch. Today, the building lives on as a concert venue, owned by concert behemoth Live Nation.
But I digress…
The video rental store was imbued with the same high-minded, eclectic sensibilities of its independent forbearers. Spending time at the TLA was like getting a doctorate in cinema. Everything was categorized with notes, suggestions and labels as detailed as a fancy wine or cheese purveyor. There were the basic genres, foreign films and then sub-sections by country of origin, directors and actors. TLA specialized in alternative or hard-to-find titles, cult classics and gay cinema. There was their favorite director section and a wall of rotating TLA staff favorites — you always checked that section first.
For me, this was nirvana. As a kid I adored movies — cheering to Shirley Temple’s escapades (may she rest in peace), thrilling to a creepy Creature Double Feature or Dr. Shock on a weekend, or even vainly attempting to adjust the rabbit ears to try and get in Channel 57/ SelectTV and watch the dirty, dirty Swept Away. In Philly, we were one of the last cities to get basic cable so TV and videos were all we had. TLA was a film nerd’s salvation.
A hot date might start at the TLA, where you’d spend an hour perusing your choices, talking to the staff, wondering what flick would suit the evening best. A quirky Hal Hartley film? A sweeping drama like Atlantic City? A kooky Almodóvar pic? Do you plan to really watch the movie? No? May I suggest Ishtar?
There were directors that I’m certain I’d never have known about were it not for the TLA, like Eric Rohmer, Hal Hartley, Russ Meyer. Meyer was categorized in a section called “Midnight Movies” alongside Roger Corman and John Waters.
“It was a real cultural hub,” says former store manager Dan Creskoff, who worked for the TLA for 19 years, “We’d get everyone from the Mayor to the Breeders dropping by. We’d bring in directors for special events. That’s when I met Russ Meyer, or when I got John Waters to sign an airplane sick bag I brought in. He thought that was funny.”
As you’d imagine, the staff was informed to a fault — real-life Clerks. There was even a fabled test to win a coveted job.
“The test was for real,” says Creskoff. “They’d interview you and ask you to name at least three movies by specific directors. But over the years it got harder and harder to give people the test, the younger generation just didn’t seem to know the directors as well. People couldn’t name a single John Sayles movie.”
Creskoff worked at the South Street branch and then at some of the other locations they opened across the city — and one in New York. They even opened a TLA in my hometown neighborhood of Chestnut Hill.
Double Rainbow Nirvana.
I’d come home for holidays and invariably suggest that instead of having family conversation, “Hey let’s rent a movie!” Everyone would groan. This wasn’t today’s in-and-out Redbox. It meant Margit spending a full hour wandering the aisles, learning about new directors, cross-referencing actors. It wasn’t a store — it was a museum.
It also meant that I would choose the world’s most obscure film that no one else wanted to watch. My sister liked to say that she preferred the oeuvre of John Candy to the “strange” flicks I’d choose. Like the time we rented Al Pacino’s Cruising when my Dad, strolling in from a party, stood in front of the set talking to us, not realizing that right behind him a fella was giving it to someone in a gay bar.
Oh they had everything at the TLA.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the South Street TLA closed its bricks and mortar in 2009 with the rest of the branches falling soon after. The final TLA in Bryn Mawr closed in 2012. The TLA entertainment group still retains their online video store, one of the largest retailers for gay and lesbian films.
But for Creskoff the dream of a specialized movie store hasn’t died. He plans to open up a cafe-meets-video store hybrid in Philly this spring with the too-perfect name Cinemug. And another former TLA store manager Miguel Gomez has opened Viva Video, reportedly thriving in Ardmore, PA.
How and why on earth would you open a video rental store in this day and age?
“Yeah, I’m one of those crazy people,” he laughed. “I’m going to have a much more stripped-down, more curated inventory. There are still a lot of movies you can’t find on Netflix or instant streaming — cult movies that fall through the cracks. You still can’t stream any of the Indiana Jones movies. There was always a social aspect to the TLA — people would just come there to hang out. So I figured why not recreate that that, get some coffee have something to eat while you get a film education.”
Why not, indeed. And maybe I can rent Christiane F. from Cinemug — because you can’t get it on Netflix.