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Street Smarts

Toronto’s Queen Video was my film school during a dark time Add to ...

As a clerk earning $11 an hour, I learned what was popular, what was good, and why what was good was popular

After it was announced that the Queen Video location at 412 Queen St. West would be closing, movie fans flocked to the popular movie rental store to grab their favourite films. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

This is the first in an occasional series where Torontonians explore the places and things that define their city, in their own words.

The situation was dire. I didn’t have work. The proceeds from my first welfare cheque had evaporated. To eat, I scrounged from Kensington vegetable stands. I needed a job.

A friend told me there was an opening at Queen Video. I didn’t know a lot about movies, but I’d worked in retail and restaurants before. I applied and I got a position as a video clerk. Eleven dollars an hour. I felt rich.

But I didn’t know yet how rich I’d become.

After 35 years in business, the flagship store on Queen Street is now closing up shop. I worked there for one of those years, and what I learned during that time transformed me.

On my first day, I learned how demanding the job is.

Brandon Coffey with some of the dvds he found on sale at Queen Video on March 16 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There were more than 35,000 videotapes in the rooms behind the front counter. When a customer came to the till, you had to go find the tape she wanted. Fast.

No one studied library science here. Like Rob’s record collection in High Fidelity, the tapes weren’t organized alphabetically. They were not chronological. They were autobiographical. As the store bought films, we just numbered and appended them to the end of the collection.

The older the film was, the farther back in the store you would had to go. And the farther back you went, the lower the ceilings got. Retrieving a VHS copy of Beverly Hills Cop meant shuffling, hunched over, and scanning a far-off bottom shelf for the tape. This is like working in a mine, I thought, and these films are strange and obscure nuggets of gold.

I stacked two, three, sometimes six, tapes in my arms and hustled back to the front. On Friday nights, I could do it a hundred times. Often, I “worked a 13” – a shift from open to close. By the end of those nights, I was toast.

After the initial frenzy last week, a steady stream of customers continued to visit the store to look for movies on March 16 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A perk of the job was that you could take home whichever films you wanted. The store had everything: classics, foreign films, noir, anime, cult sci-fi, vintage horror. From the outer fringes of filmmaking to Oscar winners.

When I first met Howie Levman, the owner, I expected him to be a film buff. He’s not really. He’s a businessman above all. He opened the store in 1981 selling televisions and VCRs with just a few movies. It was clear that what he wanted to do was put films on the shelf that people were going to rent.

The store is at Queen and Spadina, the beating heart of downtown Toronto, so that meant a lot of interesting people. Hippies, punks, rockers, nerds, the early evolutionary kin of the Bellwoods hipster. Film geeks come in all sorts.

But the store wasn’t just for them. The shelves were always stocked with dozens of copies of the biggest hits and they went like hot-cakes.

On any given night, the aisles were bustling. A customer would tell you about a film you should see. No academic review – just “have you seen this?” So you took home one more film and learned a little more.

James Jan examines a dvd he's thinking of buying while shopping at Queen Video on March 16 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As video clerks, most of us arrived at the same conclusion: More than anything, we wanted to make our own movies.

So off we went to Woodbine racetrack one afternoon. Guerrilla filmmaking was all the rage. With no permits, no plan, no script, we made like the Marx brothers and attempted a remake of A Day at the Races. It didn’t make the festival circuit. But we had fun, and we learned.

One afternoon, my flip-phone buzzed while I was at the counter. A producer needed a researcher for a TV show. I got the job. I quit Queen Video.

Now I write for TV. UFOs, spies, plane crashes, murder investigations, war stories. The story arc must throw hard curves. The plot twists have to be fierce. Writing good TV scripts doesn’t always necessitate a grasp of the subtle. But being able to draw from a thick fabric of pulpy and popular plots, characters and settings from old films sure helps.

Queen Video was my film school. I learned the craft of writing from my producers. But at the store, cashing out tape after tape, I learned what was popular, what was good, and why what was good was popular.

During my time, Howie was just making the switch from tapes to DVDs. Now people stream movies from the Internet. The materiality of film has evaporated and so has the need for a video store.

The Bloor St. West location will still be open for rentals so movie buffs can still get their film fix there. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This week, Howie has been selling off the collection of films he had accumulated. Many will be moved up to the Bloor Street store, which will stay open.

Was Howie sad? Hardly. Times have changed and he must move with them. At the sale, he tells me: If he had opened the store and only a month later was out of business, then he would have been sad. But today, with 35 years of business behind him, and the aisles of his store busy once again, Howie is smiling proud.

Christopher Blow is a freelance writer, musician and photographer working out of downtown Toronto.

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