Rewinding

V ideoLab on the Post Road in Orange is indeed a laboratory, where anachronistic yet sophisticated equipment is used to convert old media—mostly home movies—into new. But the business is also a sort of incubator, with a small warren of rooms where other ventures can spring up according to the curiosities of owner Ron Davis.

One room is a showroom for foldable three-wheeled electric scooters. When he found out the manufacturer had stopped making them, Davis struck a deal for their small remaining inventory because he likes them so much. Another room is an award-winning art gallery he had opened with his daughter, then closed a few years later, with unsold, unclaimed paintings still hanging on the walls. VideoLab was itself seeded in just this way. It began in the back room of another Ron Davis venture further down the road—a long-defunct but once spectacularly successful movie rental store called Video Box Office.

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Davis looks back on those days with some amazement. “That place got so busy, you wouldn’t believe. People were double parking on the Post Road. It was crazy. Cops were in there constantly making people move. I had lines and lines and lines.” A Business Digest profile published in March 1988 described Video Box Office as one of the largest consumer video stores in New England, with 16,000 members hailing from 85 Connecticut towns and cities.

If you’ve read yesterday’s story, you know that Davis has a history of being a visionary in the realm of media technology. He saw his first VHS player on the raffle table at a party he attended with his wife and was immediately fascinated. “This thing had dimensions, like, three or four cubic feet. It weighed a ton, with these big buttons and a top you had to press down and it popped back up. They had this VHS for five dollars a ticket. So I bought a hundred dollars’ worth and I won it. I think there were only 10 other tickets in there. I had pretty good odds.”

Davis’s subsequent search for videocassettes to put in his newfangled machine made him realize that soon many others would be searching too. He bought a video rental business with an inventory of 600 videocassettes in 1982. By 1987, he had moved the business twice to progressively larger spaces, eventually stocking it with 25,000 videocassettes.

The sheer quantity of movies was what distinguished Video Box Office from the rental chains that came later. “People came there because I had literally everything that was in print,” Davis says. “I made a point of having all of the Oscar winners from day one that were on tape. I had Beta. We had an adult section. It was a very big place.” Also, other than the adult section and the children’s section, there were no sections. No “New Releases” display. No genres. It was all alphabetized.

Rechelle Radcliffe, Davis’s assistant at VideoLab, remembers encountering this sorting system as a new Video Box Office clerk in 1989: “When I got there, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest setup.’ People come in and go, ‘Where is the new stuff?’ That’s all they want. But he made it all alphabetical so, if a brand new movie came out, you had to go in the rack and find it.” Davis adds, “And they ended up taking all kinds of other stuff on the way back. That’s why they put the milk in the back of the convenience store.”

But here, we must rewind to the beginning, when Davis was scrounging for videocassettes for his new VHS player, generally finding only old black and white movies and how-to videos. That’s because Hollywood was initially resistant to allowing others to rent its movies, to the point that the studios lobbied Congress to keep it from happening. The First Sale Doctrine had already been applied to copyright law to allow purchasers of a copy of a book or other media entertainment to loan it, sell it or give it away as they see fit. It is the foundational protection for public libraries, allowing books to be borrowed for free. In 1983, the Consumer Video Sales/Rental Amendment bill began circulating through Congress to make videocassettes an exception, which would have erased the familiar habit of renting a movie on a Friday night from the late 20th-century experience.

To stop the amendment, the Video Software Dealers Association called Davis at his store one day, urging him to lobby Bruce Morrison, then a new congressman for Connecticut’s 3rd district. Davis complied like a Frank Capra everyman. “I go see Morrison and he basically threw me out of his office. So I put six or eight phones on my counters. If you pick them up, Bruce Morrison’s phone would ring. And there was a slate there for what my members could say to him. ‘Save the First Sale doctrine or we won’t vote for you.’ It wasn’t long—about a week or two—before Bruce Morrison called me up and said, ‘Turn off the damn phones!’

Davis eventually helped defeat the bill as part of a band of VSDA lobbyists roving the halls of a Congressional office building in Washington. (He remembers arriving early to the office of John Dingell and inadvertently waking the Michigan Congressman, already 30-odd years into his tenure, from a leather wing chair slumber.) But the downside of the video store’s vindication as a business model was the arrival of other players in the market. Davis remembers Blockbuster stores beginning to pop up around him in 1991. At the same time, Hollywood was responding to First Sale Doctrine protections by charging as much as they could get away with for the first sale. Davis says, “Blockbuster was buying 30 or 40 copies in each store—of a new release. And I was buying 15 or 20 or 10. [The studios] decided they were worth a lot of money so they were charging a hundred dollars per tape. So I had to invest a thousand, fifteen hundred dollars on a single title.”

Now we fast forward to 1996, when Video Box Office closed its doors. By that time, the business had incubated several other ventures. Davis was marketing his self-designed video display cases to other video stores, selling video equipment in his own store and converting videotapes in the back room using three machines that had cost him almost $10,000. Davis says that European expats with home videos in their native PAL format were coming in almost daily to justify the investment. He decided this was his escape pod, and he invited Radcliffe, his best employee, to join him. “Rechelle and I came in here and started buying equipment, most of which you can’t find anymore. Even then. So we got busy on eBay and started gearing up.”

VideoLab contains mementos of the old business too, as if Davis had had room in the escape pod for a few choice items. A dusty Space Invaders arcade console still bears the paper signs inviting customers to play for a chance at a free movie rental. A drawer in the lab contains a few wooden tokens for new members; others are no doubt still lurking in the kitchen drawers of many of his former customers. The best memento is one that Radcliffe had recently discovered at her workstation: a video of Davis, sporting a fuller, darker head of hair at the Video Box Office counter, a dense wall of videocassettes behind him. It had been recorded on a Betamax tape and, appropriately, converted to a digital file for posterity.

VideoLab
200 Boston Post Rd, Orange (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-4pm* (*please call to confirm)
(203) 799-7017 | RDVideoLab@aol.com
www.videolabct.com

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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