Dudes -- and they are overwhelmingly dudes -- in search of movies like Schoolgirl Killer and answers to questions like "Dude, what's that one where the priest kills people?" can no longer fulfill their quests in Dormont.
Bruce Lentz is shutting the doors of Incredibly Strange Video forever, ending a 12-year period during which the West Liberty Avenue store served as a mecca for rare horror and sci-fi videos, as well as for magazines like Girls and Corpses. (This month's feature pictorial spread: "Rotting and Yachting," with bikini babes canoodling on fabulous ocean liners with gents in sailing caps -- and in various stages of bodily decay.)
"I started this place with nothing," says Lentz, a blond-maned rocker. "It was a crazy idea, but it worked. Then, it didn't."
Lentz blames the Internet for luring people away, and business models like Netflix that make it impossibly easy to return videos -- a practice his own customers struggled with, prompting Lentz to go into retail sales exclusively in late 2006.
"When you came to the video store to rent a movie, it was like, 'Yay, I'm going to take the movie and pay and I'm going to have something to do.' Returning the video has no personal reward -- not to sound like an old fuck," Lentz says. "People got nothing from [returning movies] except a sense of personal responsibility. People took advantage of me." He says he's got seven garbage bags full of empty DVD containers from scofflaws not returning his movies.
It's not just Netflix that kept people out of his store, he says, though Netflix was "built on people being irresponsible," keeping movies as long as they want with no penalty. He also blames illegal downloading for cutting back movie sales. And ISV's South Hills location, he admits, was a tough one in notoriously river-crossing-averse Pittsburgh. "You've gotta get off your lazy fat Pittsburgh ass and get in a car and come through a tunnel to get here.
"My prediction is that it's over in five years -- no more video stores," Lentz adds. If a handful do survive, "it'll be like a drive-in theater, a throwback."
Doing business in a place like Blockbuster, he says, is sterile and relies solely on marketing. But in a niche outlet like ISV, customers would make recommendations to each other, or would plumb Lentz's encyclopedic knowledge.
"This used to be a destination," he says, sounding wistful behind the counter as regular customers pillaged the last of the stock on a Wednesday afternoon. "People relied on me, the human interaction."
The store was a place where fans of B movies, gore and sexploitation would gather and compare notes on cannibal films and the oeuvre of Spanish horror master Jess Franco. Lentz also held parties and film festivals and hosted guest speakers like Lloyd Kaufman, of Troma Films, and Johnny Legend, known as the Rockabilly Rasputin for his horror archiving, singing, wrestling and porn promotion.
When Texas Chainsaw Massacre was remade a few years back, Lentz screened the heart-stoppingly ghoulish original on the big screen at the Waterworks Cinema, drawing a huge crowd of costumed horror nerds.
Lentz says the store will remain open until the stock sells out. (Check the Web site, www.incrediblystrangevideo.com, for updates.) After that, "I don't know what I'm going to do. If anyone needs an expert on B movies and crap, get in touch with me. I need a job."
"This will be a void for me," said Ed Demko as he picked through the shelves with Jared Bajoras. Demko is co-creator of www.bloodtypeonline.com, an online horror review site that Bajoras also writes for.
"I would always come here to pick up oddball stuff," Demko says. "You could find cheaper stuff on the Internet, but here, you're not just like a number. Bruce knew my name." Lentz even steered him away from buying titles he knew Demko wouldn't enjoy.
"Most of this stuff, you can't get in Best Buy," says Bajoras, picking up an Italian cannibal film called Massacre and a campy slasher flick called Silent Night, Deadly Night.
"This is like losing a member of the family," said Cobia Czajkoski, who had just stopped in, not realizing the store was closing. "Incredibly Strange Video, it's just a great title. You knew it was going to be a cool experience. These kinds of films aren't being made any more. The younger generation of filmmakers, I don't know if they're aware of these films that came out in the '40s and '50s. They're no longer artists."
Tony Esposito says he relied on the ISV community to discover movies he wouldn't have known about otherwise. "Now I'll have to actively start searching out movies."
Art Ettinger is managing editor of Ultra Violent, a national horror and exploitation cinema guide. He was also a customer at ISV, and posted a rant in a few online forums about the store's demise, placing the blame firmly on Netflix subscribers and "people willing to turn their back on locally owned businesses to shop online or get slightly lower prices through chain stores."
At the closing sale, Ettinger picked up a dozen VHS titles. "It's all in the hands of collector assholes now," he says. "People are forced to hoard their titles and trade them, copy them from one another." In addition to Netflix, he says, people's rapid adoption of new technologies has sounded the death knell for video rental. High-definition and widescreen TVs aren't really compatible with VHS: Faces are stretched and distorted to the point of being unwatchable -- and most of the genre's catalog exists on VHS.
In other cities, niche shops like ISV have survived by selling adult films, says Ettinger. The stuff in the back room paid the bills, allowing the weird stuff with niche-market appeal to stay in business in the front. But Lentz's location wasn't zoned to permit the sale of porn, and porn wasn't what he wanted to sell anyway.
"People are going to miss out," Lentz says. "I'm not saying I'm the only guy that can do these things, but I'm the only guy that did."