In an age when TVs feature baked-in access to video streaming and movie kiosks are mushroom-thick in shopping centers, a brick-and-mortar rental store with the lights still on might seem as out-of-time as Bill and Ted.
Chattanooga once was home to dozens of video rental outlets, but the only remaining traces of their passing are outdated Yellow Pages entries and Internet searches results. Of the 11 listings for local stores in the phone book and on the Web, nine have long-since been disconnected; the remaining two were for adult video stores.
Video renting might seem like a relic of a bygone era, but in smaller communities beyond the Scenic City bustle, there are a handful of mom-and-pop anachronisms still in operation with packed shelves and loyal customers.
"From what I've heard, everybody is tired of Redbox [kiosks]," says Chris Bodwell, the owner of Video Stop, a rental outlet in Dalton, Ga., with an inventory of about 3,000 titles. "I've talked to people who have driven to five or six Redboxes and not found what they want. You've got a better shot of finding something with me.
"And Netflix? Not everyone has high-speed internet. Not everyone even has Internet."
The last decade has been unkind to the rental industry, big and small stores alike. Once the video rental king with more than 9,000 locations worldwide in 2004, Blockbuster shut down its final store in January 2014, six months after shuttering its last Scenic City outlet on Highway 58.
Twelve years ago, between jobs and living in Oneida, Tenn., Bodwell spent $32,000 to purchase Video Stop from its previous owner. With an inventory of 1,000 discs -- supplemented by some from his personal collection -- he earned more than $100,000 the first year.
The second year, however, the economy in Oneida bottomed out, he says, and his sales plummeted while businesses around him closed. Three years ago, seeking better prospects than were available in a town he describes as "dying," Bodwell relocated to a Georgia shopping center off Cleveland Highway.
Since then, he's tripled his inventory of DVDS -- "Blu-rays didn't go over good here," he explains -- and sales have been steady, if significantly lighter than his banner first year. On average, he pulls in $500 to $600 a week after covering the cost of new discs, utilities and other overhead.
"I pay my mortgage every month and save money and everything else," Bodwell says. "I do all right. That surprises a whole lot of people when I tell them what kind of money I'm making."
Largely through word of mouth, Bodwell has rented to more than 2,000 people at his Dalton store, tacking on about 30 new customers every month. He says about 80 percent of the people who walk through his door decided to return to the brick-and-mortar fold after dissatisfying experiences with streaming services or at Redbox, which has more than 20 kiosks in Dalton.
In response to a post on the Times Free Press Facebook page, many readers expressed a host of frustrations with automated movie rentals and streaming services.
The selections online or at kiosks sometimes aren't robust enough and frequently have delayed access to new releases, says Chattanoogan Kevin Lance.
"Netflix movies are horrible; Redbox is a hit or miss," the 26-year-old says. "Also, movie stores had new movies when they came out. You have to wait a millennium for Netflix, and Redbox has movies no one really cares for."
At some video stores, readers say there was a sense that an under-the-radar title they'd never heard of was just waiting to be discovered.
"You could find all sorts of hidden gems [at the store]," says Aimee Barron of Summerville, Ga. "On Netflix ... the potential to find some random-yet-awesome musical or documentary is a lot lower.
"It also is kinda lame when a movie's contract runs out for instant streaming. Some of my favorite movies are no longer available."
Many say they found the renting experience at a store to be less rushed and, consequently, less stressful.
"There is something nice about being able to go to a video store with no clue in your mind what movie you want, being able to stroll down the aisles and see everything new you can choose from," says Justin McArthur, 27, a student at Chattanooga State Community College.
At a brick-and-mortar store, the renting process was more personal, which made it feel like more of an experience. While Redbox and digital services have made the renting process more convenient, they've sterilized it in the process, says Carmen Headrick Phifer of Cleveland, Tenn.
"I was sad when our Blockbuster closed here in Cleveland because I knew my children would never know the feeling of going into a video store," she says. "By the time they're grown, they'll never have to leave the house for anything."
The survival of mom-and-pop rental stores like Video Stop lends weight to recent news pointing to a slowdown of the explosive growth experienced by kiosks and streaming services in recent years.
According to rental industry analyst Rentrak, there are only 6,000 brick-and-mortar stores left nationwide, compared to 44,000 automated rental kiosks. About 80 percent of those are owned by Redbox, according to the company's self-reported company statistics.
But at least a few kiosks are being put back in storage. Last May, the Wall Street Journal reported that Redbox had plans to uninstall more than 500 of its kiosks after the company released sales reports showing a profit increase of 3 percent in 2014, a stark decline after back-to-back years of double-digit growth.
Analysts pointed to the increasing popularity of streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix as reasons consumers are increasingly abandoning physical media, but digital streaming is facing issues of its own.
Last July, Netflix announced it had reached 50 million members -- 53 million by its latest reports -- making it a more popular entertainment service than HBO. After increasing its monthly subscription price by $1 to $9, however, the streaming service saw its stock values tumble by 25 percent after the release of a third-quarter financial report showing that it added 600,000 fewer subscribers than it had predicted.
A human touch
Carol Hankins and her husband, Randell, have witnessed practically the entire sweep of home rental's rise and fall from behind the counter of R&R Video, a rental outlet and tanning salon they've operated in Pikeville, Tenn., since 1982.
When they started, the couple had an inventory of 500 VHS cassettes. At the height of the store's popularity, says Carol, 53, they had increased that stockpile to more than 15,000 tapes and were pulling in $4,000 to $5,000 a week.
When Blockbuster stores began arriving a few years later, it didn't impact their sales much, but the introduction of satellite TV and pay-per-view did.
"That really hurt us more than anything," Hankins says.
Another big hit came in 2004 with the shuttering of the Dura Automotive Systems factory, one of Pikeville's primary employers. The closure left behind a devastating job vacuum, and Randell, now 59, had to return to his trucking route to help cover the balance of their monthly bills. Yet somehow, Carol says, the store managed to come through more or less intact.
"I pray a lot, and God sees us through," she says. "There's no other answer. This town has dried up. There's no factories, no jobs, no nothing, but we've stilled weathered every storm that's come through."
These days, R&R rents about 100 to 125 films a week, bringing in $400 to $500 after expenses. Those profits are a far cry from R&R's heyday, Hankins admits, but the store continues to pay for itself.
"The video store business used to be a really good business," she says. "Now it's not one you can depend on to make a living if you have big bills without having something else with it, but it still does good."
Even the arrival of Redboxes to neighboring Dunlap, Tenn., and the rise of streaming media haven't managed to sound the death knell for the Haskins. Quite the contrary.
The convenience of the newly installed kiosks initially wooed away a few customers, Hankins says, but many of those attracted by the siren whir of its automated dispenser have since come back.
"Most of them didn't like having to put their credit or debit card in there and not being able to read the back of the box to find out what the movie is about," she says.
At $3 per rental, taking home a movie from R&R is twice as expensive as Redbox, but the selection of about 6,000 DVDs -- the VHS tapes have long since gone into storage, she says -- is several times larger than what's available from the automated machines.
But the real selling point, Hankins says, the main reason she's been able to hold onto her customers for so long, is that she's simply a much better hostess than a machine could ever hope to be.
And in a small Southern town, that makes all the difference.
"Everyone who comes in here is not a customer; they're family," Hankins says. "I've seen kids who've grown up, and now they bring their kids in.
"It's just everybody's house -- their home -- when they're here."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205.