Ardmore’s Viva Video is a blast from the past
By Marcelo Jauregui
Monday: Dec. 7, 2015: 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.
Mere seconds have passed from the official store-opening time, and a customer has already pulled up in front of the back entrance of Ardmore’s Viva Video: The Last Picture Store.
Following right behind her is a man and child. Both walk briskly. The man’s shoulder-length hair is visible from a distance. He holds his son’s hand, pulling him along towards the store.
The woman hands Miguel Gomez an encased DVD before driving away. Gomez opens up the store and walks inside with his five-and-a-half year old son, Ash. Ash stays at the store with his father Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. when he gets dropped off at Kindergarten.
Ash runs around the store yelling excitedly about the large pile of movies that were
dropped off overnight. Gomez plugs in an auxiliary chord into his 4th generation iPod classic. Rock music immediately erupts from speakers around the store. Gomez helps Ash bring in the returned movies onto the counter.
“Oh, this one looks pretty cool,” says Ash.
“What’s that one?”
A huge smile runs over Gomez’s face. “How did you read that? Did you sound that one out? That’s the longest words you’ve ever sounded out, Ash!”
Ash takes me on a tour around the store. The store is somewhat divided into three spaces: one facing the parking lot, one facing the counter (this would be the middle of the store), and one facing Lancaster Avenue. The first space contains the DVDs on sale; the second, new releases; the third, everything else. The movies people ordered are in shelves behind the counter. Movie posters run throughout the store. Behind the counter are rankings written up on white boards and chalkboards: “Best Reviewed New Releases,” “Last Week’s Top Rentals.”
Salsa music is now playing as Ash shows me around. The first place he takes me to is the horror section. “I never watched this one, but my favorite one is probably The Evil Dead because my name is Ash.” Ash is the name of the main character of that film. Ash then leads me to the kids’ section. “I’m here a lot,” says Ash. He pulls out a few of his favorites: Garfield, Charlie Brown, G-Force. Ash points to a Harry Potter movie, questioning why it was in the kids section. We then start to talk about Harry Potter. “I have two of the books, but I didn’t read them because I don’t like books with no pictures,” states Ash.
We walk back to the counter. Before arriving, Ash quickly turns around and says, “Oh, one more thing, there are 14,000 movies here!”
Gomez chuckles. “I didn’t know he knew how many movies we had. He is correct.”
“You told me!”
“I know Ash! You have such a good memory, much better than mine.”
Ash goes to color near the back entrance. Gomez rushes over to the phone and answers. On the other line is a representative from The Ardmore Initiative, a business development bureau that provided Gomez with a job creation grant when he opened Viva Video.
Three years later, and Gomez is still keeping the place running. He is at the store Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 10.p.m. The store is open from 11a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. When Gomez is not working, his two partners in crime, Dan and Bryan, are at the store.
* * *
The birth of Viva Video resulted from the death of TLA, the now-defunct video rental store in Bryn Mawr. Gomez worked at TLA for 14 years, since his sophomore year at Haverford College. He continued working there until it closed in 2012.
“I knew TLA was closing for a good while, so I had been planning opening this store for about a year,” says Gomez. In that year, Gomez struggled to find an affordable vacant space that was on the Main Line. He finally found one on Lancaster Avenue, and opened the store two months later in the fall of 2012.
The next extensive process consisted in acquiring the vast and diverse movies present at the store. “I had to make sure I had all of the weird rarities I liked.”
Fortunately enough, Gomez loved movies and had hoarded many of them throughout the course of his life.
His passion began when he was four years old, when his babysitter let him watch Nightmare on Elm Street. “I was old enough to understand what was going on but not old enough to understand that this was complete fiction. It terrified me and made me obsessed with horror movies.” Two of his other favorite genres are exploitation and foreign films.
Gomez’s upbringing in Guatemala also played a role in his deep involvement with film. “Instead of regular TV we had stolen cable. So all we had access to was movies on HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime, rather than TV shows. So that gave me my base for my film obsession.”
At Haverford, Gomez built an independent film major for himself through taking classes at Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore.
By the time Viva Video opened, 7,000 movies were on stock. 2,000 of them were from Gomez’s personal collection. Now, the total stock has approximately doubled. Customers continue to rent and support the store. Viva Video also hosts several free movie screenings throughout the year, in venues such as the store parking lot and Melodies Cafe a few doors down.
However, even with all of these successes, Gomez does not deny the difficulties of running a movie-rental business in the age of the internet, where films can be found online and streamed in a matter of seconds. The only other two similar businesses Gomez knows about are Cinemug and another retail store that also happens to sell license plates. Both are in Philadelphia.
“It’s tough, certainly,” says Gomez. “A daily struggle. It’s not an easy path to take at the moment.” In addition to facing the nearly unchallenged competitors that are streaming services, Gomez has to spend many hours at the store. “I don’t get all the family time that I’d like. I need to be here pretty regularly. I’m also here late and on weekends. It’s tough. But I just try to make it work at the moment. I have to keep my head above water.”
The hardships do not remove the optimism from Gomez’s words. “I mean it has worked so far. We are hanging in there which is pretty cool. I’m very proud of all of the accomplishments we have had so far.”
Saturday: Dec. 12, 2015: Noon-2 p.m.
On an uncharacteristically warm 70-degree December day young men and women lift weights in elf and Santa costumes outside the gym a few doors down from Viva Video. Gomez is sporting a grey t-shirt, which contains the printed words “Exhumed Films: We Bring Dead Things to Life.” At the center of the shirt is a pack of hungry zombies staring straight ahead.
“It’s cookie day apparently,” says Gomez, pointing to the three boxes of pastries sitting on the counter. He offers them to me and any customers that walk in. This kind of offering is typical during the holiday season. Today’s batch is provided by Susan and Denise, two customers that frequent the store. “Both of them come in about three times a week,” says Gomez.
Gomez leaves for a moment to move his car. The romantic, melancholic track “Sabor A Mi,” by Cuban Pianist Bebo Valdés, plays as a customer strolls into the store, unrushed. He introduces himself as Rich. His slow, raspy, yet wise voice indicates he is nearing the realm of the elderly. It is possible he has already arrived.
Rich walks around the store, taking his time to look at the movies on the shelves. He visits the store nearly every day. “It’s all these different movies,” claims Rich, “Sometimes when you don’t travel a lot, movies make you go different places, see different things. It’s like being a kid in a candy store.”
Rich is vehemently opposed to the exponential rise of online movie streaming services that oppose the traditional means of viewing. “I grew up in the old school, you know, when movies were a quarter. So now, the advent of the internet, and all this other new stuff…This place, is sort of an oasis. My imagination soars through watching karate movies, gladiators, all kinds of things. This is a fun store.” says Rich.
Rich and Gomez have known each other for nearly two decades, back when Gomez still worked at TLA. Miguel checks the records on the computer, and claims that Rich opened his account at TLA in the late 90s. “It’s been some years, man,” says Rich, with a reflective, nostalgic tone in his voice, “Good, long time. It’s because of cool cats like you,” gesturing to Gomez.
Rich grabs a sugar cookie shaped like a snowflake and walks around the store, nibbling away. Amazement never leaves his facial expressions. At one point, he quietly says to himself, “This community does not know the gold mine it sits on.”
Before leaving, Rich offers some last insights, “You can do anything man, anything you want. Believe me, it’s the truth. You never know what can happen. The answer is just to be positive no matter what. That’s how I met Miguel.”
* * *
About ten minutes later, a woman, about the same age as Rich, enters the store. It appears as if Gomez is expecting her. “Ah, hello Cathy,” says Gomez. Catherine Robert is a professor at The University of the Arts. She also taught at Haverford College for fifteen years.
She nears the counter, stands in front of Gomez, and says, handing over a DVD “I think that Breaking Bad…The emperor has no clothes.”
“How much of it did you watch?” asks Gomez.
“I watched all of them,” claims Robert, “As an English professor I can get through a novel I don’t really like. I got it. I got the drift—oh, cookies!”
She rushes over to the box of cookies that are right in front of me. The instant she arrives at the box, she begins talking about the store with an engaging and lecturing tone: “The great beauty of this place, and what is missing from the world as we know it, is that people talk to each other about art. They connect to each other about art, and you can push all your internet and Google and what have you, and you are going to be more and more and more isolated. So what this is, is a corrective to the 21st century.”
There is an ambiance of nostalgia among the customers that frequently visit the store. The majority of Viva Video’s customers are undeniably of the older generation, who are more comfortable with DVD and VHS, since it resembles the means with which they engaged with films while growing up. However, there are still a significant amount of millennials who rent at the store as well.
Gomez argues that this diversity of age among his customers is tied to the all-encompassing desires of the cinephile.
“If you are actually into film—even if you are not that into film—we have so much stuff that you can’t get otherwise. For example, if you want to watch the original theatrical cut of the Star Wars movies. You can’t even stream that unless you pay like $20 on Amazon. This is one of the few places you could get it.”
Gomez is getting ready to leave, packing things up in the shelves behind the counter, away from my sight. This is my last shot to ask the question I have neglected to ask him throughout all these hours: Why the hell are you still doing all this?
Gomez laughs. One of the films he refers to in order to answer my question is Roar, an 80’s drama about a family living with hundreds of wild animals. The film is known from the fact that 70 cast and crew members were severely injured during the filmmaking process. Gomez has been hyping Roar to many of his customers lately. After checking his records, Gomez confirms, “14 people have rented out and seen Roar since I’ve promoted it. Fourteen people that probably would not have seen it if they went about their daily lives. That makes me really happy. I love getting people to watch things that are awesome.”
However, even with Gomez’s constant dedication to the other, he is still able to partition himself some benefits, “I also just want a cool video store to go to. If I don’t have a video store, then there is no other video store I can go to.”
Upbeat techno blasts throughout the store as Bryan takes over and Gomez prepares to head home, to enjoy the rest of his Saturday with his wife and kid. Soon enough he will find himself behind the counter, fielding questions about VHS converters and indie films, as the man with the picture store.