Monday, November 30, 2015
MEMORIES: Suncoast Motion Picture Company
Most people probably don’t anticipate their first job with much excitement. Most teenagers figure they’ll get a job at a fast food joint or a big box store so they can have gas money and some walking-around cash. Not me. I knew where I wanted to work and couldn’t wait for the day when I reached the right age. Suncoast Motion Picture Company was a place I spent a lot of time at when I was around twelve or thirteen years old. My love of film can be directly linked to it. I made friends there. Probably about half of my DVD collection was bought there. I really wanted that to be my first job. Unfortunately, the place went out of business before I could get that job. The last remaining Suncoast in the area, about an hour’s drive from my current home, closed up shop a little over a year ago. They’re all gone now. So let me regale you with the tragic tale of Suncoast Motion Picture Company.
For those too young to remember… Back in the days before you could just stream anything you wanted on Netflix, people actually had to go to video stores to buy movies. You could find VHS tapes, and later DVDs, most anywhere. However, if you wanted something a little rarer, one had to seek out a video store: Mysterious, long gone businesses with names like Sam Goody, Tower Records, Media Play, or Suncoast. As you who where there may recall, these stores were usually located in malls. Mine was just up the road in the next major town, about a fifteen minute drive from my high school. These stores usually sold all sorts of items, like music or computer games. Suncoast was unique, in its total devotion to movies. The only other items they sold were related to the movies, such as film magazines, posters, or toys.
Also setting Suncoast apart from similar businesses was its atmosphere. At least the one I frequented, anyway. The store front had a large black border, shiny and partially transparent. The store name was above the entrance in red-pink neon lettering. A huge display window was to the left, displaying items usually tying into whatever the big release was that week. My Suncoast was located right outside of the J.C. Penny’s, so the glowing sign could be seen as you entered the mall. Moreover, the atmosphere of the business was entirely different then other video stores. There were monitors overhead, usually playing movies or TV shows. The sound was down though, to a soft murmur. The lighting was low, relaxing and calm. The general mood was laid back. Unlike other stores, where there’s usually loud music playing to encourage a mood of brash commercialism, Suncoast seemed to encourage customers to hang out for a while.
Something to remember though: It’s never the places but the people in them. My Suncoast had the friendliest staff I’ve ever known. The store manager was a guy named John, a jovial balding man in glasses that loved to converse with shoppers. John had a resounding, friendly voice that greeted anyone who stepped inside. My Mom and I were in the place often enough that it didn’t take long for John to be on a first-name basis with us. He liked a lot of the same movies I do, weird-o horror movies and eighties action flicks. He was friendly enough to joke around with. I can recall one time, I asked if they had Fritz Lang’s “M” in stock. John grabbed a copy of the crappy remake of “The Fog,” a release that week, quickly taping a piece of paper with “Fritz Lang's M” written on it. I can recall another time discussing “High Tension,” a new release at the time, and giving him a hearty recommendation.
Book of the Dead” edition of “Evil Dead,” I can recall Scott sharing an anecdote about a friend freezing his copy for some reason, giving it a really weird texture and smell. (That was an experiment I didn't replicated.) Leslie was a short, heavy-set lady with thick black hair. She was more sardonic then her co-workers. She had enough problems in her life that I can remember my mom, a naturally empathetic person, having long conversation with her, discussing her strife and troubles. Johnathan was a sprightly young guy, a dancer and a singer. I can recall him leaving for two weeks, traveling to New York to audition for a Broadway musical. I also remember him returning later in the month, after learning he didn’t get the part, his ever-present confidence shaken slightly. There are other names I remember, like Bethany, a tall and skinny, fair-skinned redhead with a bubbly sense of humor. Or faces with names I can no longer recall, like the younger guy with the thick-rimmed glasses. Not all of them stayed for long but I remember them nevertheless.
Something Suncoast would do in order to bring in customers was give away free stuff with pre-orders of popular titles. Packed away somewhere in my basement are the 3-D lithographs I got from pre-ordering “X-Men” and “Titan A.E.” I’ve got framed film stills of “Shrek” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” around here somewhere, for the same reasons. One of my favorite freebies was Mez-Itz – small Lego-style figures – of Freddy and Jason that I got with “Freddy vs. Jason.” This was a routine that was eventually discontinued for whatever reason. A memory that especially sticks with me is, after receiving a pre-order of some sort, my mother jokingly asked for “free stuff.” John, grabbing whatever was on the desk, tossed a handful of stuff at us. This included a “Goodfellas” pin, a Mickey Mouse magnet, and one of those rubber sliders you put under furniture. This is but one example how the employees made shopping fun.
Part of the appeal of Suncoast and other specialty stores was things you couldn’t get at any of the big boxes stores. My earliest memory of the place is a rotating wrack of Godzilla movies, my fingers thumbing over the colorful box covers. The huge wall of anime-related VHS tapes is something else I’ll never forget. At the time, anime was only beginning to wiggle into the mainstream. Suncoast was the only place you could get “Tenchi Muyo!,” “El Hazard,” “Darkstalkers,” or a hundred other titles. To a developing young nerd, that made it essential.
Gazing over huge walls of obscure titles provided a sense of discovery that’s hard to replicate today. As DVD replaced VHS as the primary format, Suncoast shifted the store’s layout around. Separated by genre, the movies sat sideways on shelves arranged through the store. The horror section especially appealed to me. That shelf faced the inside of the room, across from the action section. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted looking through the DVDs. I don’t know how much of my current collection I owe to that place. Lots of it, I’d bet. One memory that sticks out concerns a birthday spending spree, which sent me home with a lot of titles but especially Peter Jackson’s “Dead/Alive.” On one day, my mom and I ended up hanging out there until the close of business, unaware of how much time had passed.
Inevitably though, things end. As Amazon gained prominence, more and more video stores were put out of business. We heard rumbles from John and friends that many Suncoast chains were closing down. Somehow, our local Suncoast stayed in business for years after these mass closures. Yet for a long time, the threat of going out of business hung over our favorite store and the employees we had made friends with. It happened, eventually, and bummed me out far more then a store closing should’ve. I don’t remember how John or the others reacted. I mostly remember being really sad about it. Any time I would be in that mall in the years afterwards, I would always notice the black frame that surrounded the entrance and think of the place that gave me so many happy memories. A Build-A-Bear store was there for a time before it became an athletic equipment business. Last time I was in that mall, the space was unoccupied, a sad reminder of what once was.
Now, the Suncoast Motion Picture Company is totally extinct. We live in an age of unbridled access. If you can't stream a movie, you can probably buy it and have it at your house in a few days. Sure, that convenience counts for something. Yet I miss the human element. I miss being able to strike up unlikely friendships with someone behind a desk. Or learning the names of those who work there, their personality and quirks. As silly as it is, that Suncoast store was a special place for me. If there are video stores in heaven, they probably look something like it did, comforting, friendly, and always opened.