Magic hour: Video Difference calls it a wrap after 34 years

As the curtain falls on one of the all-time great video stores, a community reflects.

Dylan Chew

Ask anyone who went there: Video Difference was more than a place to rent movies. When it first opened its doors in 1982, ET was the top box office draw and VHS tapes were a few years from being introduced to consumers. By the time it stopped renting DVDs this week, the store had collected 40,000 titles, a loyal cast of ex-employees and the distinction of being one of the places that defined this city for the past 34 years. As the curtain falls on one of the all-time great video stores, a community reflects.

Tom Michael sits in his office, air-conditioned and scored by jazz piano, in the basement of the iconic building he owns: Video Difference, a Halifax institution. He's surrounded by DVDs, in this windowless room and outside of it and two floors above it, thousands of movies painstakingly put together by an uncommonly invested staff and the fiercely devoted customer base that has literally helped build it. He doesn't consider himself much of a film buff; his favourite is The Godfather. "My breadth of knowledge of movies is not like my staff's," he says. "I'm more traditional." On August 2, Michael announced he would be closing the flagship store on Quinpool Road, along with its Bedford counterpart.

Stores, bars and restaurants open and close on a weekly basis, but there's something special about Video Difference, a palpable sadness about this particular business item. Maybe because it's been around since 1982. Maybe because it survived the death rattle of rental chains. Maybe because the independent, caring community pillar could win, for once, even as membership cards went unused for a year, then three, then five.

"Our popular culture always feels like it's shallowing up. What's five minutes from now?" says the screenwriter Josh MacDonald (The Corridor). "I do feel in some way that there's a growing cultural amnesia, and Video Difference was this weird repository that we took for granted."

Dylan Chew

"It was so perfect that it was 24 hours," says Janet Hawkwood, of the screen arts department at NSCC. "I don't know how many times I would figure out what I was going to show for the next class the night before, and getting there at 6:30am, able to pick it up."

Michael defines the average customer as "a barbell. At one end was the 18-to-24-year-olds, and the other end was 50 and up," he says. "And the people in the middle were too busy with life to consume not only video, but movies, bars, restaurants—they never had much time for entertainment. And in both of those groups we would define them, broadly, as urban hipsters. It wasn't the Dockers-and-deck-shoes crowd."

Lee Anne Gillan co-owned another beloved Halifax video store, Critics Choice, which she and Deanna Bowlby closed in 1999. "We were the VHS-shift-to-DVD and Tom was the DVD-shift-to-'I'm gonna get it on the internet,'" she says. "We had to replace everything we had with another medium. And Tom has an incredible catalogue you'd be lucky to find even online. But now the perception is, 'Why would I walk over there?'"

It’s a curated inventory, backed by data. There’s a reason we have eight copies of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and one copy of a John Wayne western. And once it’s broken up it’ll never be put back together. —Tom Michael, owner of Video Difference

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Michael pinpoints the cultural shift to the summer of 2011. "It wasn't Netflix as everyone thinks, 'cause Netflix was out for a few years prior to that," he says. "Eastlink and Aliant were in a battle with each other, getting into the homes and providing all the specialty channels free of charge for up to a year. And offering big-screen televisions if you would switch. They were going at it tooth and nail."

"What I really remember is that Video Difference would carry a local movie before any other outlet would carry it," says Thom Fitzgerald (Cloudburst). "It really bolstered confidence and brought an audience."

Popular culture always feels like it’s shallowing up. There’s a growing cultural amnesia, and Video Difference was this weird repository that we took for granted. —Josh MacDonald, filmmaker

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"We wanted to connect back to the film community. We used to have a filmmakers' program. And you would provide the copies of it, we would have a rack and we would rent them for free," says Michael. "When local filmmakers' films became publicly released films, we would highlight them in the Atlantic Film Festival section or Played at the Oxford. You had to know your customer."

Michael extended that customer care to every facet—"They had such esoteric snacks," says Andrea Dorfman (Heartbeat)—which included local and Canadian-made food and drink; taking customer suggestions and actually bringing them in; accepting Canadian Tire money at par; and catering to tastes and habits. "It was really just to drive that home that this is a one-of, it's only in Halifax," he says. "This isn't something you're gonna replicate someplace else."

With the doors closing to rentals earlier this week, the sell-off has begun. Dalhousie University and the public library system will acquire 5,500 films (see page 6). The Bedford store has been leased, with that inventory due in Halifax in September. Michael is open to leasing or selling the building on Quinpool.

"I keep equating it to my love of bookstores and how depressing it is that bookstores are disppearing," says Hawkwood. "As a filmmaker, that visual idea of being able to go into a place and see the whole thing there."

"I had that Gord Downie feeling," says Jay Dahl (There Are Monsters). "Like oh my god, how can this happen, how can change hurt this bad?"

"It is like a celebrity died on Facebook," says Fitzgerald.

"He might be surprised at the outpouring of emotion he's going to get," says Gillan. "You know people care, but you don't know what you mean to them."

"It's melodramatic," says MacDonald, "but it feels like the Library of Alexandria is burning down. Except the Library of Alexandria didn't have a copy of Private Benjamin in it."

"It's a curated inventory, backed by data—it's not just willy-nilly movies thrown against the wall. There's a reason we have eight copies of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and one copy of a John Wayne western," says Michael. "It's data-backed. And once it's broken up it'll never be put back together, at least in this form. That is sad. On the other side, the outpouring has been uplifting. It's almost like going to your own funeral: Wow, people really did like me."