Video Difference was the best place you never worked. It was Halifax’s anti-Blockbuster. A cultural touchstone for movie lovers and second home to a family of film-loving freaks and geeks having more fun on the other side of the counter than the narrative clichés of retail employment should allow. The Coast tracked down a handful of these former Difference makers—many of whom are still regularly in touch with each other, and still feel a connection to the store years after leaving it behind. They shared with us some of the stories that weren’t on the shelves.
For some people, getting a job at Video Difference was next to impossible. Others just showed up at the right time. More than anything, it came down to the personality of who was applying.
David Logan (employee for 26 years): I moved here from Toronto. I was just renting here, at the time the manager's name was Leta. We just got talking movies, and she mentioned they were hiring. So I applied, I got it and that was it...Until I started working here the longest I'd been in a job was two years. Now it's two decades.
Brent Braaten (employee 2009-2013): They gave me an interview right off the bat, and I've talked to 1,000 people in the city who said they've never gotten a call back from Video Difference. So I must have dropped in at a desperate point.
Alison Lang (employee in 2009, and former Coast editor): There were definitely a few people who'd been there for a fairly significantly long period of time. I remember thinking at the time it was so strange. Why would you stay at a retail job for that length of time? The more I was there, the more I was like, “Oh, okay. I see why.”
Paul Boisjoli (manager and employee for 18 years): We always had a saying that once you're in, you're in. It's definitely been an anchor for people over the years.
Braaten: Three [job] interviews, which is crazy for a video store, right? After the third interview, if you made it, [Paul] would always say, “This will be the best place you've ever worked.” I think for the most part people would see it that way.
Emma D'eon (employee 2004-2013): Paul had a really good instinct for hiring people. Over the span of the 10 years on and off that I worked there, there's maybe a small handful of people that didn't fit in. The people that I worked with at Video Difference, even from when I started in 2004, are still some of my very, very best friends.
Chelsea Doherty (employee 2011-2013): If you were having family problems, or had to move away, they totally understood that. If you left and wanted to come back three years later, if they had a spot for you, they would give you a spot.
Boisjoli: I'm not a suit and tie guy, so for me, this is right up my alley. And of course, the customer interactions. If I've been here 18 years, there are some customers who've been here for 25 years, 30 years. There's a lot of history in this building.
The only 24-hour video store that sold cigarettes along with renting movies, shifts at Video Difference predictably were a little more interesting than the standard retail job.
D’Eon: On a Friday night it'd be packed with people, with a lineup up the stairs. We'd have 10 staff on, loud music playing, usually local music. It was a meeting spot for young people that was different than going to a bar or a restaurant.
Braaten: When I started, they gave kind of a bonus if you wanted to do the night shift. It was like danger pay, I guess. I got a lot of college kids experimenting with heavy drugs and they couldn't sleep. They'd be looking for our trippy section.
Angelina Coccimiglio (employee 2010-2012): I was the 6-2am. I loved that shift. You get to go through the really busy dinner, regular human demographic, but then you also see the drunk shenanigans—just being open so late, selling cigarettes, it was such an adventure post-midnight.
Lang: I remember my last overnight shift was with my friend Brent Braaten, and we kind of went crazy. Every overnight shift there was memorable based on who you were working with. If you were working with Adrian Bruhm, you would hear punk music all night, cranked to the max. With Brent, I think we were playing Oingo Boingo or something, and the whole night was literally a dance routine. I remember standing on the second floor cleaning and literally dancing in front of the open store window all night long. Probably not supposed to be doing that.
Coccimiglio: There was the time some kids who looked like they were running away from home tried to set up a sleeping bag down in the box set archives, like in the basement. “Yo, I know we're open 24 hours, but you can't actually, like, set up a bed down here. That's not OK.”
Doherty: It's one of the few places, if only place I've ever worked, where none of the staff had a problem with each other.
Braaten: We would go out as groups and sort of take over the town on Christmas. Sometimes we'd have summer parties at Tom's house, these backyard barbecues. We'd always drink too much, maybe get into his scotch cabinet and then stumble downtown.
D’Eon: We had some really fun times when there would be really big storms. The power would always go out, because it's a very old building. So there would be a few times of having to close down the store, being locked in with the lights off and we'd all pull out our phones and have a little mini dance party with the customers still in there.
Video Difference’s dense and varied collection of films always attracted an eclectic clientele. But it was the staff of fellow movie-lovers that kept many people coming back.
Doherty: I worked a lot out of the Bedford store, and we had a couple who used to come in every night at 10pm. What I started to do for them, cause I knew what kind of movies they liked, was I'd make a pile of movies for them and leave them aside so they wouldn't have to look for them. We had a lot of regulars like that, that as soon as they walked through the door we knew what they wanted and we could give it to them.
Colin MacDonald (employee 2007-2010): There was always such a focus on the customers and recommending stuff, that everything else would fall to the wayside and you'd just be out there talking movies. You could be like, “Oh, have you seen this thing?” and pull out some obscure title and get to talk for 20, 30 minutes to one customer about movies. It was such a different world to Blockbuster.
Doherty: If you heard of it, we have it, and if we didn't have it, we could easily order it in.
Lang: People would call in with very specific requests, and they did not suffer fools gladly. This one woman called in, “Do you have such and such film by Pasolini?” I, of course, have no idea who the fuck this guy was. So I was like, “Sure, Posa..” I said ‘Pussy.’ This is really embarrassing. She was like “Pasolini! What's wrong with you?”
Braaten: In the fall, we'd do a big campaign where we'd hand out flyers in front of Dalhousie and the other colleges. That evening, we'd have a lineup that stretched all the way to the top floor, like all the way around the stairs and we'd have four people working processing videos and it would never stop. Those would always be the time the computer system would break down and we'd have to process everything by hand.
D'Eon: I grew up in Halifax, so when I was very young I'd walk up to Video Difference and rent scary movies. David, the older gentlemen that works there, would call my parents. He sort of knew at a certain point that they'd always say yes. He'd have to call and ask if I was allowed. I remember going in to get Jaws. I was probably 10 or 11. And I won it for free. I remember that, too. They used to have this little digital memory game, and if you won past a certain level you would win a free movie. It was a good day.
Boisjoli: We get everybody from film studies students to directors; people involved in the film industry; from the Ellen Pages of the world—who have been fantastic customers over the years—right on through to current councillors, members of the Legislature. You get everybody. For lack of a better term, the store's become a cultural hub, for sure.
MacDonald: Ellen Page was such a regular when she was in town. It got to the point where she would come in and I could just have a regular conversation like I was talking to anyone else. At the time, this was 2009, I think she was filming Inception and she was talking about Chris Nolan. It was such a casual conversation, like I was talking to any other customer.
Coccimiglio: Candy Palmater used to come in quite a bit with her partner. She was in a lot. Any of the folks that have also lived around the Quinpool area for their whole lives, they were there a lot. It was such a community hub.
MacDonald: I remember looking over and thinking, “That looks like Neve Campbell.” And then turning back, “That is definitely Neve Campbell.” She went up and grabbed some stuff and came down, was making out her membership and handed me her Los Angeles ID with her address and all that stuff. I was like, “This is surreal.” We eventually got the stuff back, but I'm pretty sure it was like, really late.
D’Eon: We would have people coming in, bringing us treats from Scanway, bringing us cookies they made at home. I had customers bring me thank you presents for helping them. We knew everybody by name. It just felt like a second home.
Logan: I remember once there was this boy in, about 12 or 13, with his younger sister. They were upstairs and disappeared for about 15 minutes. I thought, “Well, they might need help.” So I went up. They were in the foreign section. “I think you must be lost. Do you need help?” He goes, “Nope. My father and I watch a foreign movie every week and I'm picking it out. Do you have any suggestions?” He came downstairs with Wages of Fear, a '50s black and white French movie, and I thought, “I love this city.”
After 34 years, Video Difference announced earlier this month it would be closing its doors. The store stopped renting movies on August 15. Dalhousie and Halifax Public Libraries are stepping up to purchase 5,550 rare titles from VD's collection, and the remainder will be liquidated to the public over the next several weeks.
D’Eon: If it hadn't been more than just a video store there's no way it would have stayed open as long as it did.
Doherty: When we outlasted Blockbuster, it was really impressive.
MacDonald: I've been assuming it's coming for at least a year or more. I was kind of hoping that they would find some way to adapt a bit or hang on. It was an iconic place for Halifax...You'd have tons of university students coming from all over the place—from Toronto, Vancouver, the States—you'd have all these people coming in, and you'd get these people from much bigger cities saying “I wish we had a video store like this.”
Logan: I've known. Every year we'd talk, [owner Tom Michael] and I. You could see sales were going down. I've known for a long time. I'm still sad, of course. All the people coming in and being sad, you can't prepare yourself for that. But really, I've had a lot of time to mentally prepare.
Braaten: I was handing out flyers [in 2013] in front of Dalhousie, and I had a bunch of guys come up to me and just yell, “Netflix!” in my face and run off. So I guess that was the beginning of the end.
Boisjoli: In the greater scheme of things, yes we all have to move on and find new employment. Video Difference isn't going to be here. But there's a larger place here. The film that we carry, a big portion of ur library, there's a presumption out there you can get everything online. Well I have news for everybody, you can't. There are thousands, and thousands and thousands of film that unless somebody steps in are going to disappear in people's personal libraries. It'd be nice to make those accessible to the public.
Logan: The collection's been handpicked, searched and sourced over the years. So it'd be nice if it stayed in the public realm. As nice as it is for people who love it to have it in their own collection, it still be even better if everyone had some access to it.
Coccimiglio: You tell anyone who's never been there, “This video store I used to work at is closing.” They're like, “Yeah, of course it is.” No, you don't understand. There's this ethereal quality to this place, and there was this moment that you thought it might last forever. That Video Difference would be the one video store that finds a way to stay open, and continue thriving.
Gone but not forgotten, Video Difference will always hold a special place in the hearts of anyone in Halifax who loved movies.
Braaten: Tom was the first guy in town to get into the video rental game. He started off as a place to just rent video equipment. He basically followed the trend all the way to the end, and I find that really amazing. Thirty-five years of renting videos—before Blockbuster, before any of the other mom and pop stores came in. He sort of stuck it out longer than anybody else.
D’Eon: For me personally, and a lot of people who moved here from out of town, it kind of helped them establish themselves in this small city. I would go out and be recognized as the person from Video Difference. It offered people who were part of it an identity, and a nice one.
MacDonald: You just got this feeling like we have something really special in our little harbour city. Once I knew we were going to lose that, well, that's just one less cool thing that Halifax is going to have.
Doherty: I would never have met Colin MacDonald. I work very closely with him now in the film industry. If I hadn't have met him, he and I wouldn't be working on our first full-length horror film right now.
Coccimiglio: Up in the World Erotica section, there's this one film that has this cover that I was always really fascinated by called George Batailles' Story of the Eye. It's a surrealist erotica film. I get to the part where a woman walks up the same set of stairs repeatedly for about 25 minutes, and I’m like “I don't think I can hack it.” Flash-forward a couple years, I'm in my art undergrad at York and taking this class on surrealism. I have to write a paper, and I see George Batailles is on the suggested reading list. I end up writing an entire thesis on this film I stumbled upon at Video Difference. I won two different art history awards with a total of $500 for writing this thesis on this crazy, weird, surrealist erotica film, and I can thank Video Difference for that.
Logan: The day they announced on Facebook they were closing, all of a sudden posts started coming in from people who have worked here, even from way back when I started, saying what the store meant.
Boisjoli: Typically we only have 600 hits a week [on Facebook]. Last week was 36,000, and they're all over the world. It meant a lot to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.
Braaten: There was a constant flow of people going in there that could have got their movies anywhere else, but they wanted to go somewhere where they could talk about films. In a nutshell, that's what my job was. It wasn't to process films. It wasn't to set up cool sections. It was just to be a person that you knew would be standing there and strike up a conversation about a film you were really interested in.
Lang: I think it was the best video store in Canada. I've been to other video stores in other places, and it's just so unique in every way. Perhaps that's a combination of the way it was curated, the way staff interacted with the customers, the way it was open 24 hours...It just had a lot of the things that made Halifax great as a city encapsulated into a store, I suppose. You could feel knowledgeable and important and included, but there was no sense of pretentiousness. There was no sense of anyone ever talking down to you.
D’Eon: It was probably the best part of my life, and I've worked at a lot of places since. It set a really high standard for workplaces.
Logan: We're closing on our own terms. We'll probably be here till the end of September, so it gives people time to get used to the idea. It's much nicer than if you go to a place and the next day they're gone. This way is our decision, on our terms.
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