Black Dog Video: Why one of Vancouver’s last surviving video stores still matters

Thursday 19th, January 2017 / 14:03
By Axel Matfin

VANCOUVER — In the age of full 4k streaming and multiple online entertainment service providers, to most people the notion of a video store has become almost entirely esoteric.

Around 2010, the Blockbuster empire began to crumble, along with many other independent rental outlets. However, in Vancouver, there is still a dog in the fight for personal home video curation. Black Dog Video (located on Cambie Street since 1996 and Commercial Drive since 2005) has held the standard for what a video store should be. And why not? We don’t blink an eye at the notion of going to record stores or book stores these days for other aspects of our commercial entertainment, yet the video store has become an unfair punchline for something dated, when in reality these purveyors of entertainment are deserving of much higher respect.

“We had tons of bootleg tapes when the place opened, you know, movies you couldn’t get anywhere else. Bad Boy Bubby, Cocksucker Blues, that Rolling Stones doc. I bought them out of the back of a van in New York City, you know, really shitty quality,” laughs Darren Gay, owner and operator of Black Dog Video, as he sorts through new releases.

Gay indulges my need to gush over films that I’ve recently watched: the classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, as well as the bizarre serial killer thriller set in the ghettoized leather daddy scene of 1980s New York City, Cruising, starring Al Pacino and directed by William Friedkin. “That’s the best thing about having a store like this, we have all that old and weird stuff. It’s nice to go back and check it out,” says Gay, gesturing around the store which is filled with an expansive selection of classics, cult, underground, and Criterion Collections of film that are not simply acquired digitally. Black Dog is filled wall-to-wall with DVDs and a tight collection of Blu-rays, so when I press Gay about the most enduring format, it doesn’t surprise me when he says, “DVD, no doubt. With DVD, there was just such a jump in quality. Too bad they scratch. Blu-rays are a lot tougher.”

This is what film culture used to be — stepping into a room full of film titles, picking them up, looking at the covers, reading the synopsis and credits, then talking to someone about the movies. Gay is a far more intuitive and reliable taste-deciphering algorithm than any streaming service. He recommends the Turkish film Mustang as the best he’s seen in 2016. This is the job of a video store owner or employee and, before the world was at our fingertips, it used to be a coveted position. Those with a deep knowledge of cinema and the correct disposition for customer service were considered more than just a clerk — they were valuable tastemakers in the community. Much in the same way that record stores hire those with a depth of musical knowledge, video stores are staffed by those who know more than the average person about film and television.

“It’s sad, we had so many great stores in this town, and within a year they all went away and nothing worthwhile has replaced them,” sighs Gay, lamenting the closure of the old Videomatica of West 4th Ave., a former world class library of film in all formats which has since shuttered it’s doors, providing the bulk of it’s rarities to UBC and maintaining a pop-up style storefront inside Zulu Records. Gay waxes poetic about the thrill of the hunt that went with visiting stores like that. “They always had new stuff and they had everything from, every era,” he says. “Stuff was a lot harder to find in the VHS days.”

Black Dog maintains a faithful clientele base made up of cultured folks, film industry professionals, people on the hunt for a specific film, and, interestingly, children. “Little kids love the video store,” says Gay. “They love to drag their parents in here, whether they get anything or not.” It makes total sense, as I find myself drawn into the store with a youthful sense of curiosity for all the films I haven’t seen.

Black Dog matters to me. It matters to me that I can go somewhere and pay for a piece of art with the intention of watching, enjoying, and understanding it. A slow and challenging foreign film that you downloaded can easily be shut off and dismissed because it was free, but the same film that you rented is a conscious choice of your time, money, and brain power. As a culture, we are obsessed with media consumption; film and television has become the shorthand for our society’s identities — the water cooler small talk of pop imagery dominating our conversations. If filmic entertainment is as important as it seems to be, then we should attempt to truly appreciate it, not just literally binge on it. Not to mention, the experience of going into a video store and casually browsing through the galleria can be a far more satisfying experience than clicking through the on-demand menus of a computer browser — just as taking a date to the video store before curling up on the couch can be a far more appealing way to get close to someone rather than inviting them over for “Netflix and chill.”

Black Dog Video is located at 3451 Cambie Street and 1470 Commercial Drive.

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