A screenshot of the outside of For Your Eyes only according to Google Street View
Image via Google Street View
VICE Magazine

The Man Behind London’s Last Video Rental Store

Blockbuster might be dead, but for some people, the siren call of the DVD box sings on.
29 May 2020, 10:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.

Few things in a 90s or early 2000s Western childhood equaled the small, solid thrill of the weekend visit to the local video rental shop. Like so many other comforting rituals, its pleasure derived from its predictability. Long before the advent of streaming services, Friday or Saturday evenings were filled with studious deliberation in front of vast walls crammed to bursting with the obvious Hollywood blockbusters, half-forgotten B-movies, and forbidden R-rated numbers with names like Ichi the Killer and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Perhaps I shouldn’t try to speak in universals. After all, not everyone had the good fortune to grow up within walking distance of For Your Eyes Only on Dartmouth Road, in Forest Hill, the half-suburban outpost on the fringes of inner South East London. Since its hands-on proprietor Gulam Charania took over in 1998, the shop has served the area’s diverse viewing needs. Charania has long been considered something of a local legend; both a bona fide film enthusiast and a reliably cheerful presence. It doesn’t matter what you’re after, Charania can probably sort you out, whether it’s long-forgotten PS2 games, the glossiest of new cinema releases, or obscure cult classics.

It’s no secret that the last decade proved to be a global catastrophe for the video rental shop, as the seemingly unstoppable rise of streaming sites and on-demand TV placed intolerable pressure on the older digital way of doing things. A once ubiquitous feature of high streets across the country has dwindled one by one to almost nothing, outside of a handful of independents dotted around the farthest reaches of the UK. It’s a far cry from the golden days of Blockbuster—which shuttered its British stores in 2013 after a dismally protracted descent into bankruptcy—or the region-specific slew of franchises like the Glasgow-based Global Video, and Apollo Films, which saw its 100-plus sites put into administration in 2007. Last year witnessed what felt like a particularly significant closure, as Vogue Video, Scotland’s very last video store, shut its doors for the final time.

Still, it’s not an entirely doom-laden story. Occasional reports hint at a minor comeback of sorts for an industry that has been forced to embrace its recently acquired niche status. Every so often, a story pops up about a particular store in Bristol or Merseyside that has managed to keep its head above water. But my research points to For Your Eyes Only as one of the very last of its kind in London, by far the UK’s biggest city and the onetime epicenter for the nation’s video rental trade. When I started putting together this piece in the pre-COVID-19 world of early March, it seemed simple enough to report on. I would spend an afternoon in the shop’s familiar environs with Charania and then walk the couple of miles it takes me to get home in a state of dreamy reminiscence.

Charania’s venture into the video rental business was far from preordained. Before For Your Eyes Only, he was in dry-cleaning with his father. “My father had 20-odd shops [in Greater London]. We had a partner of ours decide ‘I’m not interested now,’ and we had to sell the shops off. So he started wholesaling and leasing videos to vendors—remember when all the little newsagents were [renting them out] for a pound a week? He was supplying. He had around 500 customers… [until the] recession in 1988. We were absolutely massive, but all of a sudden that was it. Good job we were a limited company, or we’d have had everything taken off us.”

After a few more years of getting by, the Charanias had the opportunity to purchase the current space from its previous owner, who had also run it as a video rental. Now For Your Eyes Only is one of the last in London, though he noted that the company that supplies him with movies also stocks a couple hundred other stores around the country.

The years have brought many different challenges, but it was the early days of Netflix’s streaming dominance that gave him the most sleepless nights about the shop’s future. I told Charania that I’m of an age to remember the days when he sat sandwiched between the two behemoths of Apollo and Blockbuster, each store a few hundred yards from his front door. “Oh God yeah, I had some hard times mate, I’ll tell you that,” he said, laughing. “But it was also good for me, because Blockbuster was very expensive, so people would come to me.” It wasn’t just economics. Somehow, you’d always find the newest releases in his store, something Charania says provoked the envy of Apollo in particular.

“They tried to find out [how] and reported me to the film companies, who said ‘Well, if you can find out who’s supplying them we can stop it,’ but obviously, they didn’t know.” Pre-lockdown, Charania told me, he was still averaging 400 rentals a week, solid enough numbers but nothing like the early-2000s glory days. “We used to do 700 to 1,000 back then,” he said with a trace of melancholy. Still, he added, the rate of new members is a cause for optimism, with around 20 people signing up each month.

It’s an encouraging trend, and one Charania chalked up to people’s frustration with the ever-growing cost of streaming subscriptions. With so many competing platforms demanding money and attention, it can often feel like more of a chore than a convenience. What a DVD offers is a steady, physical kind of reliability. “Some people are having internet problems trying to watch something on Netflix or Prime,” he said, alluding to Netflix’s struggles during lockdown, while the lack of real choice is another factor. He recalled going on holiday and staying in one night to watch the streaming platform. “I’m sorry, there were all the little dramas and documentaries, and I was like, ‘Where are the movies?’”

It isn’t just the technology that has changed over the past decade. Forest Hill itself is a vastly different place from the slightly shabby inner suburb of the recent past. Along with Blockbuster and Apollo, several of the pubs and chain shops are also long gone, replaced by their upmarket independent equivalents. It’s been an ambiguous process, broadly made possible by the reopening of the old East London Line as the Overground in 2011. In some ways, the new, monied type of resident has proved a shot in the arm for Charania, even if he’s still very much attuned to the needs of his long-term customer base. “Property prices have gone up. Different faces of people.”

It wouldn’t be right to say I can remember my first visit to For Your Eyes Only, way back in the long submerged and irretrievable past. But I can recall many subsequent trips throughout the years. Nostalgia can often be a futile, painful exercise, but that’s not the case when I cast my mind back to the excitement of standing in front of one of the shop’s walls, staring at all the latest video covers. I wonder if the new clientele find their visits as comforting, without the benefit of their past experiences to draw from? Perhaps it’s impossible to fully explain to anyone who didn’t grow up in the area, or during the golden age of the video rental store, but I’ve never quite been able to understand the idea of Forest Hill without For Your Eyes Only. Like so many other small-business owners, Charania doesn’t know what the future holds. “You don’t know mate, you just don’t know,” he said, right at the start of our call. Maybe his newfound customers have more of an idea.

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