For every knowledgeably staffed Kensington Video, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, Facets Multimedia, or any number of cutting-edge video rental stores that once gave lonely cinephiles a place to go and someone to talk to, there were thousands more across the land staffed by automatons convinced that the only thing that separated Bresson from Besson was the letter R.
During the golden age of home video, there were upwards of 15,000 rental outlets in the United States. That doesn’t include the thousands of alternative record stores, book merchants, convenience stores, etc. that as a sideline leased cassettes for the night.
Little was known about B.J., least of all his last name. He was married with children and somewhere along the way the easygoing Korean gent in his mid-40s, tired of working for the Post Office, hung up his letter carrier’s bag and built a mini-video empire one black plastic snap case at a time. And he did it without knowing a lick about cinema.
He was the hardest working man in video rental business. Video Star was open seven days a week, 12 hours a day on average. Add to this a two-plus hour round-trip daily commute to his home in the far northern suburb of Zion, IL. While under his management, B.J. didn’t miss more than a day or two.
There was gold in them thar rentals, and B.J. refused to share a cent of his with an employee. A La-Z-Boy recliner and a TV set soon took up residence behind the counter, with a mini-refrigerator in the back room. On rare occasion Mrs. B.J. would make a cameo long enough to relieve her husband’s trip to the doctor, dentist, etc. Other than that, it was all B.J, all the time.
The store was opened in 1983 by a Chinese couple whose knowledge of film history was as exhaustive as their mastery of the English language. These two could no sooner spell AFI than recite any of the movies on their top 100 list. Were it not for a bound list of titles and corresponding numbers chained to the front desk, the joint wouldn’t have survived its first weekend.
“Excuse me,” my polite self would ask. “Do you have a copy of Gone With the Wind”? The husband would physically scratch his head and, with shoulders shrugged, laugh and say, “Ha! Ha! Look in the book.” Running a video store without having the slightest awareness of Gone With the Wind?
Friday nights frequently found a line snaking out the door. Not because of the high demand for videos but because of the owner’s refusal to place customers first. After the selection process had ended, the physical act of walking an empty video box to the counter and exchanging it and $2.50 for the rental tape couldn’t have taken longer than 30 seconds. Multiply that by 20 when the owner is holding up the line by talking up a friend on the phone.
“You wait your turn!” snapped the manager, refusing to hang up after the customer at the front of the line complained about the terrible service.
“Wait my turn?” the renter laughed. Choking on the irony, her voice cracked on the third word. With belly pressed to counter she slapped two empty video boxes to the right of the register and belted back, “It is my turn!” A verbal exchange ensued, and before long the word “bitch” slipped from the patron’s lips.
The room froze. “You no call me a bitch!” the owner shrieked. The receiver hit the ground and customers scrambled to prevent her from lunging over the counter to get at her accuser’s throat. Needless to say, the original owner's commitment to customer service such as it was, it took just a little over a year before the lease and the collection was signed over to B.J.
Located in a four-store strip of retail space at the corner of Pratt and California on Chicago’s far north side, Video Star was bounded on the west by a tailor and on the east by Freedy’s, the world’s worst Italian beef shack. The mall’s anchor store, Quick Stop Convenience Mart, specialized in tabloid sales, cigarettes by the carton, Slim Jims, pork rinds, and various other forms of modified and processed foodstuffs.
There are as many Italian beef stands in Chicago as there are surf shops in San Diego. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s a sandwich sensation consisting of seasoned, thinly sliced beef served on a flaky roll and topped with steamed bell peppers and a couple of spoons of hot giardiniera. Lefty’s serves up the best beef in town, but if you’re in the mood for a road trip, visit Portillo’s in Buena Park.
Only a world-class mush couldn’t make a go of a beef stand in Chicago. Most of the city’s upper-crust beef joints were quick to comply when asked to drizzle a little red sauce across the top of the sangwich. The chances of Freedy having so much as a dollop of spaghetti gravy were slim to none, but it never hurt to ask. Poking his nose around the inner recesses of the refrigerator, Freedy assured me, “I remember seeing a container of it back here somewhere...about a week…yeah, here it is!”
It was red, whatever it was, and by its very consistency could have easily been mistaken for gravy. To this day, if I belch hard enough I can still taste it.
A successful beef stand requires constant turnover, a business model that Freedy never could tap into. Hot dogs sat in the water too long. All-beef patties developed a bad case of freezer burn during their long arctic hibernation. To his credit, Freedy did one thing as good if not better than anyone in town: French fries.
Freedy would place a potato, washed and scrubbed with the skin still on, inside the industrial French-fry cutter hanging on the kitchen wall. A quick jerk of the handle and, presto, out came fresh raw fries waiting for a mesh basket and a bubbling oil bath. Like your fries well done? Freedy would personally tend to every single potato shred until they were cooked to golden perfection. What else did the guy have to do?