North Vancouver's Odyssey Video holds steady in uncharted waters

Lonsdale shop last video store standing

They’re still renting movies at Odyssey Video.

Around the corner there’s old Central Lonsdale; newspapers blacking out the windows of what used to be a dry cleaners and a restaurant. Down the block there’s the new neighbourhood, characterized by a shimmering monolith of glass and steel. But beside Lonsdale Avenue’s Masonic Temple, Odyssey is still going.

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“We love to compete,” says Hossein Gulchin, the store’s manager and co-owner.

If Odyssey is The Last Picture Show, Gulchin is its Sam the Lion, beating back against the current of streaming with each romantic comedy and gritty cop movie he rents.

Gulchin’s eyes widen as he recalls the DVD release of The Force Awakens.

“There were lineups here,” he says. “Like the old times.”

Gulchin pulls out pen and paper to chart Odyssey’s voyage toward financial stability on the countertop beside the rental returns.

In the early aughts Odyssey built a $30,000-website and established a thriving, cross-Canada mail-order business that paid for their rent and the wages of seven employees.

“We were laughing,” he says. “We have no rent and our staff cost is zero and you’re coming to compete with us? Good luck.”

They were constantly expanding their collection, scooping up movies by decade: Forest Whitaker as a noble samurai, Harvey Keitel as a Bad Lieutenant; Apocalypse Now and Cinema Paradiso.

But around 2009 they hit the bad time.

“In three months we lost 12 grand,” Gulchin says.

But as big chains faltered, Odyssey righted their ship.

“Our business took off,” he says.

No longer just another video store, Odyssey was, as Josh Brolin put it in No Country for Old Men, “Ultimo hombre. Last man standing.”

Everyone with a bent Blockbuster card in their wallet was showing up at Odyssey for four years – or roughly until “Netflix and chill” entered the lexicon.

“People still had the habit of going to the video stores but it was eroding.”

Business dropped about 15 per cent every year. If their rent had risen they’d have been finished. If the release of DVDs and Blu-Rays had been delayed, they’d be dead.

But their rent is stable (something Gulchin attributes to gentlemanly landlords) and every week they stock new movies and specialty items.

“We’re not sliding,” he says. “We’re holding.”

While they’re not seeing more customers, Odyssey is managing to generate more per transaction, Gulchin says.

A decrease in DVD production has created a new market based on scarcity. So if you want an X-rated, animated cult classic from the 1970s or if you need a copy of Dr. Strange in 3D, Odyssey is the place. The store’s slogan is The First Choice, but for hardcore collectors, it’s become the only choice.

“We’re not really a typical video store, we’re more like a speciality store,” he says. “I’m constantly chasing after movies that are hard to find.”

Any money saved goes toward stocking the shelves, Gulchin says.

“You step out, I’ll shut the heat off,” he says. “Whoop, another movie comes in.”

For collectors, money is often secondary, Gulchin says. “First is feeding that passion.”

He’s talking about his customers, but he could easily be talking about himself, recalling Sundays spent watching westerns on a tiny little TV in Tehran, Iran.

“You associate your childhood and the fun you had with the movies,” he says.

At 14, he took the bus from south Tehran to see Cross of Iron, a war movie seen through the eyes of doomed Nazi soldiers in the dying days of the Second World War.

He recalls the bumbling, aristocratic Prussian officer seeking a war medal and James Coburn cackling like an existentialist in an asylum, but what he remembers most is going to the movies without parental permission.

“I had to make a stand on my own that I’m a man,” he says with a laugh.

Twenty years later he found the DVD. He still has it.

“It’s a nice world, the movie world,” he says.

Sorting through a DVD collection he likens to a 20,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, Gulchin discusses movies when they’re at their best, when they show the consequences of war and prejudice and promote inclusion and equality.

“Every one of these has their own lives,” he says, holding up a stack of discs.

The poster for Avatar holds a place of honour outside the store, Gulchin notes, recalling his chagrin when The Hurt Locker beat out James Cameron’s science fiction epic at the Oscars.

“These men are courageous,” he says of the characters in The Hurt Locker. “How about let’s not have a war so we don’t need the courage to slaughter each other?”

Gulchin’s background is in engineering but he got involved with Crazy Mike’s video stores when he lived in Nova Scotia.

It was the right path for him, he says.

What else am I going to do, he asks. “Dig a hole? Build a house?”

“Even though I’m not making a lot of money I’m part of something that’s great,” he says. “Try to compete with that.”

The business is still borderline, Gulchin says.

“If we were a typical video store we would be gone.”

In an essay written for the book I Lost It At the Video Store, writer and director Richard Linklater suggests we’re living in the “Only Lovers Left Alive stage,” where the video stores still renting movies are: “the ones that were special to begin with, that clearly loved movies more than anything and created special environments and communities around them.”

The development at 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue has helped expand Odyssey's community, Gulchin says.

“I don’t know the politics of it. Some like it, some don’t, but as far as we’re concerned it’s helped us quite a bit,” he says, noting City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto is a long-time customer.

“Thanks for the density, Darrell,” he adds.

About 70 per cent of his customers are female.

“They’re not as impatient as guys,” Gulchin says. “The guy wants it and wants it today.”

While the store is in “totally uncharted territories,” Gulchin is adamant that they’ll keep renting movies as long as they can.

“This is a force that is good for humanity,” he says of the movies.

“Put that in if you want to get a bit emotional,” he adds with a laugh.

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