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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Last Video Shop

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For nearly 25 years RSE Video (118 E. Dakota St.) has sold, rented and swapped videocassettes, DVDs and video games, building a devoted clientele in Bay View and beyond. RSE is one of Milwaukee’s last family-owned video stores, operated all these years by Rod Eglash, his wife, Helen, and daughter Michele. It will close in June.

How did you get into video retailing?
Rod Eglash: I was programming director at the Jewish Community Center for 21 years and was looking for a new profession. I always had this knack for business. When I was 5 I sold the wood I picked up from the ash boxes in the alley.

Did the video business take off right away?
RE: It was a boom time for us. On day one we had a couple hundred people lined up around the block. And we had only 250 movies to rent! We were inundated for the first few weeks. People could not believe we were in their neighborhood. We were selling memberships. In 1986 we doubled the size of the store.

Were you primarily servicing Bay View?
RE: We started out servicing the neighborhood, but the neighborhood was large—we had Bay View, St. Francis, everything from National Avenue going south. We were the biggest store on the South Side.

It was an instant success and it went on for years. We started wholesaling. We were supplying product to independent video stores all over the Midwest and as far as California. A customer would say, “I’d like some World War II movies set in Italy,” and I’d find the movies for him. We would do trades with customers. We got into video games early and DVDs right away. We sold our customers’ used DVDs on eBay for a commission. We were always a step ahead.

Did you have any specialty areas?
RE: We became known for cult movies, horror, off-the-wall stuff. We had an adult section from the start—on the top shelves, high enough so kids couldn’t reach them. Nobody complained. It was just part of the business. Eventually we put them in a separate adult room.

The little stores began going under in the ’90s…
RE: Blockbuster was accused of collusion with the seven major Hollywood studios for favorable pricing that indie stores could never receive. A group of 250 indie stores got together and filed a lawsuit. In 2000 Warner Brothers and MGM settled with us. RSE received $46,000. And then the federal court dismissed our suit.

And then what happened?
RE: Pretty soon everybody’s going out of business. The trade association forgot its roots. They forgot who authored their existence. They slept with the [video store] chains. The state of Wisconsin did nothing to enforce the minimum markup laws. There was no protection from the Consumer Protection Department.

Why are you closing now?
RE: The business was shrinking. Gross sales dropped 10% a year to the point where, to stay solvent, we’d have to lay off key people. It was partly the effect of the Internet. You can order movies on Netflix. Blockbuster has become Internet-oriented. And the value of a DVD went down. When you can sell budget DVDs for $2, you can imagine what the profit is!

Nowadays people can download movies for free. There’s pay-per-view and tons of cheap DVDs at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Best Buy…

But something will be missing if all the indie stores are gone…
Michelle Eglash: People will miss that personal connection—the opinions of the people behind the counter, the “how’s your wife?” questions. We’ve had a lot of customer loyalty. There are people who’ve been coming to us from day one.

You should hear the sorrow coming from some of our customers…

Rod and Helen Eglash | Photo by Don Rask

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