Independent film: a video store lives on thanks to this “funky town”

Opera theater

Video of the Belfast Opera House. Photos courtesy of Denis Howard

First, an apology.

Some time ago when I was writing about the exciting news that Brunswick’s Eveningstar Cinema was opening a video store as a side venture to that theatre’s excellent arthouse cinematic experience, I I may have lamented the sad fact that the days of the video store are over. Well, I should have known better.

The day after this article was published, I received an email teasing me for not knowing that there is a full, long-running, and still viable video store that has been in business since 1995, right here in the Maine. It’s Opera House Video in Belfast, which through three owners, 27 years and a business-threatening pandemic, is still doing the damn job of renting videos, all at just (check Google Maps) an hour and 55 minutes north of Portland.

Anyone who has read this column knows my long and rich history of working for 25 years behind the counters of various video libraries. (Including Portland’s defunct, ever-beloved Videoport – RIP.) So the news – to me – that there’s still someone carrying the torch for physical media here in Maine made my day, although owner Denis Howard had a little fun with me during not knowing that Opera House Video was still fighting the good fight. (Howard reprimandingly mentioned “the imaginary line between southern Maine somewhere around Brunswick.”) Again, sorry.

Still, I wanted to know how this supposedly dead and buried form of entertainment venue could remain viable in a world of ubiquitous streaming services, especially in a city like Belfast (about 6,000 people). It turns out, at least according to Howard, that Belfast is a pretty special place.

Denis Howard behind the counter at the Opera House Video.

“We’re a funky town,” Howard said, taking intermittent breaks from our phone conversation to wait out the Opera House Video Wednesday crowd. “People here have tons of pride. We have three bookstores, three active theater companies and our own independent three-screen movie theater (The Colonial), all in a town of 6,000 people. But we are also a working-class city. Not to paint Belfast as a utopia, but there’s just a different feel here than other places.

Paraphrasing former Belfast resident, poet Bern Porter, Howard explains: “Belfast is made up of 17 groups of people. There’s no reason most of these people have anything to do with each other. Yet, as Howard said of Opera House Video’s clientele, “there is an acceptance and tolerance of people here that are completely different from you. I’ve seen debates in the aisles between completely opposite people, politically, who then ask each other advice on film and TV. I don’t mean to sound corny, but in the big world where tolerance is decreasing and there’s less reason to interact with people who don’t like you, this is a place where movies and TV are what account.

Like any great video store, Howard stocks Opera House Video with an eclectic and varied variety of movies and TV shows. “When (the widely derided anti-abortion drama) ‘Unplanned’ came out, I ordered it, thinking anyone who wants to rent it can do it. I’ve heard arguments about abortion over the counter, and he there are a lot of people who will never rent it, but we offer any film, any controversial type.

Of course, lovingly stocking your video library to the rafters with everything people might want to watch ultimately hasn’t helped Videoport, or any of the once-ubiquitous rental stores that once improved all of our lives. (OK, I’m still bitter.) So I ask again – how did Opera House Video survive?

On a practical level, Howard has some interesting thoughts. “We’re in the country, and for some people who don’t have the best internet connection, streaming is problematic,” he said. “The other day I overheard a customer complaining that Disney-Plus is dabbing terribly for him. Another customer brought up an issue I hadn’t thought of: In a town where everyone buys local and drinks craft beer why are we spending money on amazon it just clicked in my head there is hypocrisy in making the richest person in the world rich when you do everything locally except rent.

(Brief interlude of me nodding in “I told you so” so vigorously, I gave myself a headache.)

It hasn’t been easy for Howard and Opera House Video, no matter how well the people of Belfast seem to be able to see the big picture. The pandemic was crippling, seeing the devoted Howard spend 50 straight days perched on the doorstep of his COVID-shuttered store, dealing with loyal, entertainment-deprived customers through the mail slot.

“I know people like to browse, so I plastered every square inch of the windows with artwork from movies and TV shows. It was a weird time. People started renting things because they saw them on that window – the UK TV show ‘Vera’ remains one of our most popular rentals, simply because people saw it there and rented it.”

Still, Howard (who splits his time at the store with his only part-time employee) has relied on the support of the Belfast community.

“Things are tight, trying to make it work,” Howard said. “During the shutdown people were coming in to put money in their rental account which was incredibly helpful. The summer visitors are there now which helps because they love our novelty. I’d like to think it’s our selection and how we treat people that keep people coming back.

The sci-fi shelves of Opera House Video.

The Opera House Video Instagram page showcases the store’s collection with over 17,000 titles, which is truly impressive. And while Howard is all too happy to talk about the store’s colorful past (complete with revealing rumors about the mysterious original owners’ possible connections to the CIA, fake names and romantic intrigue), he’s clearly thrilled to be there. one of Maine’s last holdouts in an industry he’s always loved.

“On the ides of March 2018, I bought it,” laughs Howard, whose sister was one of the previous owners (but not the mysterious possible spies). Another family was going to buy it, and it bothered me emotionally. It took me to the guts. So Howard, who had been laid off from his longtime job at Maine Public and worked a few nights a week at Opera House Video, took the plunge, convinced his sister, and started a video store in the 21st century. passion. Well done, I say.

You can learn more about the store (hours, weekly highlights and general appeal) on the store’s Facebook page, Instagram page and Twitter account. Sure, it’s a long way from Portland, but as Howard reminded me, there’s a bigger and much more interesting world north of Brunswick.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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