Champaign’s ‘Renter’ Closing Its Doors

August 14, 2015
The front window of That's Rentertainment in Champaign, in the local businesses' final weeks.

The front window of That's Rentertainment in Champaign, in the local businesses' final weeks.

(Jeff Bossert/WILL)

Nowadays, many of those seeking a movie to watch in the comfort of their own home either stream it online, order it on demand, or visit the nearest Redbox.  And after 30 years, the owner of Champaign-Urbana’s last locally owned video store says he’s held on as long as he could. 

But those who spend a lot of time in That’s Rentertainment say they’re losing more than a large DVD selection.  They say it’s the end of a prime social outlet, and something that will never be recreated by watching something online.

Benjamin Stone arrived in Champaign-Urbana August in 1994, and has never left.  Two months later, he visited That’s Rentertainment for the first time, and was hooked. 

The U of I graduate and University Library employee says he fell in love with the community and its culture, as well as Chinese cinema, particularly action movies starring Chow Yun-Fat (like ‘Hard Boiled ' and ‘God of Gamblers ’ – he later bought that second title, the first VHS tape he rented there) that he first discovered at That’s Rentertainment. 

It became a kind of film school for Stone and his then-girlfriend Sara.

“We would rent a couple of movies every week, the sort of things that we would go in and rent one film, and decide, we’re going to go over to another section, and find something we never would have seen before,” he said.  “And this became such an important place to us, that when we were in the international section one day, I pulled the ring out of my pocket, knelt down and proposed to Sara in Rentertainment.”

The marriage didn’t last, but Stone says they remain friends, and still talk about movies.  He even changed his minor to cinema studies as a result of the store.

“There’s almost always a film showing when you go in.  And you can ask them what it is, and then you’ll end up having discussion, somebody in the back of the store will say ‘well, I actually think Stroszek is a far more depressing (German Director Werner) Herzog film than this,” he said.   “And then you end up speaking to somebody, and might wind up making a friend. I mean, it’s really strange how many relationships have been put together by this shop.”

Store employee James Underhill works with customer Steve Eubanks at That’s Rentertainment in Champaign on Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Thirty years ago, that little shop first opened in Johnstowne Center in Campustown, down the street from its current location.  The store’s owner, Geoff Merritt, got a psychology degree from the U of I in 1984, with no intention of doing anything with it.

‘That’s Rentertainment’ was actually the name of another Campustown business that was closing at the time – but they rented vinyl, not videos.  Merritt bought their inventory, and a lot more albums, and asked to keep the sign.

"We continued doing records for a few years and got a nasty letter from the record industry, saying you’re not allowed to rent records,” he said.   “And so we stopped doing that, we sold all the records one day, and we bought videos the next day.  And we were a video store.”

Then ‘Renter’, as the regulars call it, sought to serve film buffs in the same way it was serving those who rented music – seeking out the most obscure stuff possible.  Eventually, Merritt realized he should add mainstream material, just not at the volume large chains, like Blockbuster would.

What began with a shelving unit for 500 videotapes in the mid-1980’s grew to 45,000 movies – surviving through the format changes of Beta and VHS, laser disc, DVD, and Blu-Ray. 

But Merritt says of late, customers were only seeking the hard-to-find videos at his store, and that’s not enough to sustain the business.

“And I don’t think it’s just Netflix, or Hulu, and finding movies elsewhere, I think there’s also a bigger demand on people’s time,” he said.  “People can spend an hour or day or more messaging people on Facebook, or watching 3-minute You Tube videos, or doing all these things that one can do by the time you get home, and you’ve done your e-mailing and Facebook everything else, there isn’t time to watch a movie, so you watch a TV show and you’re done.”

On June 1, Merritt took to Facebook, announcing plans to close the store, and start selling the inventory a couple weeks later.

“The social aspect of renting videos is certainly going away," he said.  "But it seems like the social aspect of most things are going away, or least the version of what I think of as the social aspect – there’ll be a Facebook group, and people will talk about movies on it.  I’m old, so I don’t see that as a suitable replacement.”

After driving over from Bloomington, Will Sacry (foreground) and Zach Smith check out the DVDs at the Entertainment store in Champaign on Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Inside ‘Renter’, the customer base has picked up of late since Merritt’s Facebook note, and the ‘For Lease’ sign went in the window.  And the ‘rent’ in Rentertainment went away August 1st – as Merritt started selling off all the inventory.

“I thought I would end up an old man in my little apartment, sending out my CNA get to get the latest new releases for me, I thought Rentertainment would be here forever, guess it’s not going to be,” said longtime customer and Urbana resident Sten Johansen, who picking up a couple of bargains at the store a couple weeks ago.  He suspects he’s probably been in the store two to three times a week for the last 15 years.  And a bit like Benjamin Stone’s experience - conversations there about pop culture have brought on other connections.

“I’ve been invited to weddings and meals… and celebrating when they buy a house, and stuff – yeah, they’re all very dear friends,” he said.  “Geoff I met through here – he’s a lifelong friend.”

Another customer, U of I musicology professor Katherine Syer, said she came in for the videos, but gravitated toward Merritt’s collection of biking accessories and videos.

“I wasn’t a biking enthusiast beforehand, but he convinced me to use it as a main form of transportation, and I love it.”  Syer plans to frequently visit Merritt’s biking shop at his other business, Parasol Records in Urbana, once Rentertainment shuts down.

“This became such an important place to us, that when we were in the international section one day, I pulled the ring out of my pocket, knelt down and proposed to SaraBenjamin Stone​

Employees and customers alike say if they don’t remember each other’s names, they remember their taste in TV and movies.

“You have regulars who come in and say ‘what have you watched lately?,” said former Rentertainment manager Anni Poppen.  “With friends who I knew back in the ‘Renter’ days… we will still say ‘what have you watched lately?’  You know, it’s more than just like, hey, this looks interesting, somebody’s there telling you, this is incredible, and this is why you, specifically will like it, cause they know you.” Poppen says she knew little about movies before the job.  Like Benjamin Stone, she also got to Champaign-Urbana about 20 years ago, and never left.  She also has Geoff Merritt to thank for a career, convincing her that graphic design could serve as a full-time gig. 

Poppen says she’s slowly formed a kind of family since working at the store –that still keeps in touch.

“It’s like an unspoken conversation when you run into an old employee, when you’re walking through Renter,” she said.  “Cause it’s sad – I mean, one, it’s overwhelming, you walk in and think ‘Wow, I could take any one of these movies home with me.  And you want to take them all, of course… you run into anyone else who worked here, and it’s like a somber hello.”

Geoff Merritt says in the time he’s had his business, he’s watched the U of I Campustown neighborhood transform from an era that had four book stores, four record stores, and movie theater to something less spectacular.

“There’s plenty of people that think campus is awesome, and the bars are great, and restaurants are great, and that’s true,” he said.  (But) I don’t think it’s a destination anymore.”

Rentertainment has seen a lot of chance meetings over the years, as have other now-defunct local businesses, like Record Service in Champaign.  That’s where longtime musician and now-Springfield resident Edward Burch met Jay Bennett, who he collaborated with for many years.

“'Renter' was a great resource when I was teaching the Intro to Film course at the U of I,” he said.  "And I encouraged my students to use them as well as the library.  Geoff is the main person with whom I've kept in contact over the years. But on a similar level, Record Service had that sort of social element for me. I met Don Gerard when he was working there, which led Don to introduce me to Jay Bennett. It's sad to think of what might not happen with places like these no longer around.”

Signs inside Rentertainment's window, after all inventory went on sale

Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Merritt says in the ‘prime’ of Rentertainment, there were as many as 30 employees - and three or four of them were working at the same time. 

“And so there was a lot more communication between employees, and people doing things together – and sharing housing – and going out,” he said.  “Now, we rarely overlap employees, so there isn’t more than one person there at any given time.  So that’s sort of changed the dynamic of being in the store.   And that of course, contributes to – just thinking ‘eh, let’s do something else.  Because while it’s still fun, it’s not as fun.”

As for himself, Merritt, says he’s been focused mostly on shutting down the video store and making room for whoever leases the location it next.  At Parasol Records, he plans on restoring the label’s warehouse, and possibly expanding the bike shop at that location.   

That’s Rentertainment’s last day of business is Sunday.

Story source: WILL