Community/Organized: Vulcan Video And The Importance Of Film Fan Fellowship

How an independent video store can create a community.

When my wife, Sarah, and I first moved to Austin, neither of us had jobs.

If I’m being completely honest, the move didn’t exactly go as planned. We originally weren’t supposed to pack up and head out of Philadelphia until the Fourth Quarter of 2014. However, Sarah was laid off from her position at a big pharmaceutical company in June of 2013, and I didn’t exactly have employment that I gave two shits about (explained: I was managing a pool supply store while struggling with any form of writing). So we were faced with a choice:

Option A: Pull ourselves up by the bootstraps (to put it in horseshit Right Wing parlance) and move right then and there or

Option B: Sarah would obtain a position to “fill the time” while we padded out the savings we had already accrued and kept the ship on course.

After little deliberation, we went with Option A.

During our next trip down to Fantastic Fest (which had been our initial exposure to the great city of Austin in 2012), we found an apartment, signed the lease and hired a moving service to ferry our wares from the East Coast to Texas, regardless of the fact that neither of us were 100% sure what the hell we were going to do with ourselves once we got there. Upon arrival, we were broke, had few friends (outside of the limited locals we knew from the Fest), and zero employment opportunities. I interviewed to be everything from a toy store manager to a sex shop clerk (which somehow compensated $18/hour -- hazard pay, I reckoned), desperately hoping anyone would hire me. Sarah, on the other hand, obtained work via a temp agency, making a fraction of what she did up north (don’t worry, she has since found a killer gig). All of the sudden, Option A seemed like the zenith of Bad Fucking Ideas.

The light at the end of the tunnel came thanks to Rockie Juarez, a local ATX film scene lifer of whose presence I was aware through Twitter. We didn’t know each other from Adam, but he posted a link that local staple Vulcan Video (where he had been working for seven years) was currently hiring, and I immediately responded to the ad. The craigslist classified advert asked for not only a resume, but also required candidates to fill out a hyper-specific survey about their film knowledge. What kind of themed double features would you program? What about triples? What’s your Top Ten Films of all time? I agonized over the application, never thinking for one second that I’d be considered.

This apprehension arose from the fact that I knew Bryan Connolly managed one of Vulcan’s two locations. Bryan’s book, Destroy All Movies!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (which was co-authored with former Drafthouse programmer, Zack Carlson), had been a mainstay on my coffee table from the moment the delivery man dropped it on my doorstep. I devoured the tome from cover to cover, wanting to know if I had missed any of the wild, weird pictures the two had catalogued in their endless search to document every appearance of a celluloid Mohawk. Needless to say, when I was sitting in the back office of Vulcan South, a mere week later with him seated five feet away, I stumbled a bit when grilled about my love for Brian De Palma. When I got a call the same day from Kristen (Vulcan’s lovely General Manager) saying I had gotten the job, I was not only ecstatic, but also a bit surprised. I passed the test! Sure, the position didn’t pay a whole lot, but I was going to be working near full time at a video store in 2014, with a guy whose book I thought was endlessly entertaining. Holy shit.

Beyond a job (which I combined with a gig writing movie news articles during the day to form a decent paycheck), what I found at the duty tape depot was a community. Each one of the Vulcans had a different knowledge base and background. The median age was roughly twenty-nine, with some people having worked there for nearly a decade or over (and a particular Vulcan, who is now a talented graphic designer for the state of Texas, for the better part of twenty years). One Vulcan used to clerk at the historic Kim’s Video back in New York, and was now studying to be a nurse. She could also discuss action pictures just easily as she could Antonioni. Another was from Colorado and had been slaving away at creating R&B records (which are quite good). Purple Rain and Ernst Lubitsch ran through his veins. And yet another was a gifted film editor and improv comedian, loving up on goofy Don Johnson pictures and The Yakuza Papers in equal measure. Rockie (with whom I was blessed to share weekend 2 AM closing shifts at the start) was the mainstream Marvel Man, championing effects cinema as something to be cherished instead of despised. Uncannily friendly, not one of these characters was like the other, outside of a mutually shared love of movies.

This communal vibe also extended to the customers. Rockie and I would often find ourselves engaged in discussions that ranged from Pre-Code politics to modern blockbuster trends with those who would come in on Friday and Saturday nights to simply shoot the shit about whatever filmic insanity was on their brain. One regular named Dean could name nearly every noir heavy who ever appeared on screen, as he had devoured our entire section three times over. Then there was noted contrarian Cole Bradley, who would start fights by telling us Robert Rodriguez was clearly a better director than Quentin Tarantino (writer’s note: this is clearly untrue). It became readily apparent that I inhabited the last form of a very specific sort of haven -- the local hangout for freaks and geeks who slept under the same weathered one-sheets as I did when we were kids. There was a familial neighborhood ambiance that I never quite experienced up north, regardless of the numerous rep screenings I attended and great friends I had made. It helped cement the new city as “home” in a near record timeframe.

Recently, Jimmy Kimmel and Matthew McConaughey shot a commercial for Vulcan Video, as Kimmel’s way of “giving back” to a city that had always welcomed his show to SXSW with open arms. Outside of being a great spot for a local business in need of a boost (let’s face it, no matter how well we’re doing, Vulcan’s always going to be a video store in 2015), the clip is a reminder that these sorts of weirdo temples are important. Whether it’s a local tape shop or an old school rep house showing classic films (i.e. the New Bev in LA), they offer homes for nerds who’ve connected over an art form for the entirety of their lives. Nowadays, these communities often extend to the online world (just look at the BAD comments section for a great example of informed, connected individuals), but it’s easy to forget that a way station for transient souls with common interests is not just a valuable species in any city, it’s quickly becoming a extinct one. Logging in and talking to your friends can be great and all, but once you close that glowing screen, you’re all alone again. For those lucky enough to still have them, places like Vulcan can become a beacon in the night -- hope to those like you who are also lonely and kind of odd, just wanting a place to hang out amongst fellow cinema-loving goofballs.

I know Vulcan won’t be here forever. As Kimmel even jokes in the spot, this is an antiquated business model we’re dealing with that makes the store seem hopelessly out of touch. At the current rate we’re going as a society, media will eventually move to a platform that doesn’t require the housing of tangible objects, be them VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray (and don’t forget Laserdisc!). But I don’t care. They can demolish the building. They can sell the tapes off and melt them down into computer consoles. But thanks to the kindness of strangers in a new land, I will always consider myself a Vulcan.