Happiness could only be found in two places in the city, and one of them is closing. Happiness the movie, that is. Yes, yes, Whiz Bam!, that oasis in the video desert that seemed too good to be true, perhaps was it will no longer be, at least in its storefront identity.
The video store at 3206 S. Grand Blvd. has already closed, but it will reopen Friday at noon for a "partial liquidation" sale until 10 p.m., according to Geoff Kessell, who, along with John Rutledge, owned the store. Where else could you check out the Noam Chomsky documentary Manufacturing Consent, Rude Boy with the Clash, The White Sheik by Federico Fellini, and a wide range of legit gay and lesbian movies? Nowhere in this funky town. In the shutdown, some of the videos have been siphoned off by Webster University and many titles in the gay and lesbian catalog may be going to another outlet in the neighborhood. But Kessell promises most of the rest of the stuff will be sold for less than 10 bucks a copy.
The decision to close seems to be a strategic one, because Kessell says the Web site (www.whizbam.com) will still be active, and plans are afoot for cyber expansion. Kessell talks about renting videos online, like two stores in Seattle and New York City do: You order the flick through the Web site, and it gets delivered by courier, like a pizza. The return is then made to a drop box at a local coffeehouse, music store or eatery. To get those types of angles to work, the pair needed more time to work the concept and not be tied down behind the counter.
"Business hasn't slowed down, it just hasn't picked up either," says Kessell. "We're swimming upstream in this industry. The video-rental industry is in awful shape. We're surviving a lot better than a lot of the others, but when we opened there were 50 or more independent stores in the city; now there's about six. We have fewer allies, less support."
Companies supplying the video stores are giving price breaks and friendly deals to the big chains buying 20,000 copies, leaving Whiz Bam! to borrow posters from the Tivoli and do without discounts and advertising subsidies for the four or five titles it may buy. In one instance, Kessell says they bought six copies of Beautiful Thing, which was the most copies of any store in the country.
"The studio said, "Well, if they want to buy 20 copies at $89.95 apiece, we'll give them $200 in advertising money.' So the fact that we bought more copies of Beautiful Thing than anyone else didn't matter to them."
Most videos are about $75-$85 per copy, though the recent 8MM cost $106.99, Kessell says. The price war between Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, where many titles go for $3.75 for five nights, has hurt the smaller stores, even if they carry films no one else does.
"I don't care how hip a customer is, the bottom line is $3.75 for five nights or $3 for one night," says Kessell. "They're going to do the math and say, "It's a lot more expensive here,' even though they didn't say that five years ago."
Down South Grand at Hartford Street, another independent video store, Star Video, closed Saturday, soon to be replaced by a Hollywood Video, a national chain that Kessell sees slightly as the lesser of two evils.
"I guess I'd rather see Hollywood down here than Blockbuster only because at least Hollywood doesn't cut the movies, they're not quite as fascist about it," says Kessell, adding that not only does Blockbuster not carry NC-17 movies, it sometimes requires special edits of movies (e.g. Lolita) before agreeing to handle them.
So what began in July 1994 ends with a bam!, not a whimper, and lives on in cyberspace.