Arts Desk

With Closing of Video Vault, Where Will D.C.’s Cinephiles Find Film’s Worst?


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It's getting harder to find a video in this town, but there are options—a few dozen  general video stores in the area, not to mention those seemingly ubiquitous Redbox machines. And there's Netflix, of course. (Death, some specialized movie-lovers might say, thy name is Netflix.)

But after April 30, no longer will you be able find the "Guaranteed Worst Movies in Town": Alexandria's Video Vault is closing.

The Opening of Misty Beethoven? Russ Meyer's Vixen? Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies? Good luck finding those beloved z-movies at the Blockbuster on Columbia Road. Or on Netflix, for that matter. "They've only got five Norma Shearer films," says Jim McCabe, a psychologist who opened Video Vault in 1985 with his wife, Jane, an attorney. "We’ve got everything that's ever been available from her.”

For two more months, you can rent—and now buy—those titles at Video Vault, the basement store in Alexandria that for 25 years sated the appetites of the area's weirdo cinephiles. The store, which shuffled through several locations and a second Georgetown store, boasts 65,000 titles, and has long specialized in whatever mainstream video chains do not. "We’ve got more foreign movies than most Blockbusters have movies,” says McCabe, who is 59.

The store carries new and mainstream movies on DVD, but its specialty has always been cassettes. (Video Vault was even a proto-Netflix; it's been renting tapes via mail order for years. Joey Ramone was one of the store's out-of-town customers, McCabe says.) “We've got so many things on VHS that have never come out on DVD," says McCabe. "You just can’t get them anywhere."

For the area's z-movie connoisseurs—many of whom have gathered over the years as part of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society—the loss is palpable. The store was a "magnet for film weirdos," says Dave Nuttycombe, a longtime City Paper staffer who wrote the Videocrity column on direct-to-video movies, and who says he hasn't visited the store in some time. "It was like moths to a flame. There was an actual place to go that had all the horrible movies you loved, where you could meet other sad, maladjusted freaks with a taste for the psychotronic."

Including McCabe and his wife, the store currently has eight employees. It's long been well-regarded for its comprehensiveness; In the case of "truly unavailable" films—like the unreleased Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues—Video Vault would even rent bootlegs, McCabe says.

The store "started off doing real niche cult films, but they quickly discovered there’s a lot of films not being picked up by the Erol's and the Blockbusters, so they really went gung ho after the foreign film market and the classic film market," says Curtis Prather, a filmmaker who runs the Spooky Movie horror festival in D.C. and who worked at Video Vault in the early '90s. "It was unparalleled."

Jim McCabe says that undoubtedly, changes in technology (he calls it the "death of packaged media") and the ailing economy have had an adverse effect on his business, as well as the lofty Alexandria rent—around $7,000 a month. But he says Video Vault could have held on for a few more years if it had remained in its previous location on Washington Street in Alexandria, a three-story space with nine rooms, six fireplaces, and abundant parking. When the store moved around 2004 to its current basement location on Columbus Street, which doesn't have its own parking, business dropped 50 percent, McCabe says.

Nuttycombe summed up his feelings in an e-mail: "Et, tu, Internet? Must you kill everything I love?"

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