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Toronto They don’t need your eulogies: How video stores thrive in the streaming age

‘I’ve never concerned myself with the mass audience,’ says Daniel Hanna of Queen Street West’s Eyesore Cinema.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Don't weep for the video store. Save your crocodile tears. Daniel Hanna doesn't want them.

The proprietor/mascot of Eyesore Cinema on Queen Street West, and founder of Video Store Day – happening today – has little patience for people rhapsodizing about the brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop video store.

"It's extremely depressing that the only time we get any attention is when we're closing," says Mr. Hanna, leaning against a counter cluttered with marked-down DVDs and custom-pressed Eyesore buttons. "It's always this, 'Oh, let's weep for the bygone era when people actually spoke to each other! Wasn't that good?'"

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His annoyance is understandable. After all, as the owner of a small, independent video store – one of the last of its kind in Toronto – laments for their heyday read like eulogies at a living wake. It's like overhearing someone talk about what a great guy you were and how you used to just light up a room and thinking, "Hey, I'm still here."

Granted, with streaming services like Netflix, Shomi and the iTunes Store (to say nothing of old-fashioned illegal downloading), it's hard not to feel like the video store's days are numbered.

A few weeks ago, Scott Worsley, owner of Toronto's The Film Buff on Roncesvalles Avenue, announced that his shop would be closing. (The Film Buff's Leslieville location shuttered in August, 2014.) For Mr. Worsley, it was only a matter of time.

"The Film Buff is closing for one simple reason," he writes me in an e-mail. "We're retiring. … The battle is over and done with. They won, we lost and now we're retiring to Prince Edward County with a kick-ass film collection."

The "They" here is what Mr. Hanna calls, sounding like a cross between a second-year critical theory undergrad and Henry Rollins in spoken word routine, the "corporate hegemony" of streaming services. "When everything you want is coming from one source," he says, "and that one source is owned by one person, that's extremely disturbing to my worldview."

There's a potent sweetness to this sentiment – halfway between earnestness and naivety. Yet both Mr. Hanna and Mr. Worsley acknowledge that it's not some heated David versus Goliath battle. It's more a matter of David finding a space to operate in Goliath's long shadow. For Mr. Hanna, that means offering titles you can't find on Netflix, iTunes or even the more adventurous BitTorrent download sites.

With over a quarter-century in the film rental business (he used to work at the Queen West outlet of Suspect Video before the block was gutted by a fire in 2008), Mr. Hanna has curated an impressive video collection ranging from the cult (Italian giallo thrillers) to the niche (cyborg sci-fi actioners, Mr. Hanna's favourite subgenre) to the super-niche and super-cult (Canadian exploitation movies, splatter films, whole racks of Mad Max knockoffs).

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"The thing about me," he explains, "even back when everyone had to go to video stores, is that I've never concerned myself with the mass audience. If you want to make a lot of money and become a corporation and dominate the world market, then, yeah, you have to appeal to the mass. But I'd like to think there's still a place for a niche market. And not just a place, but a need for it. No one can argue that Netflix is a great source of alternative entertainment."

With Video Store Day celebrating its fifth year, Mr. this Saturday October 17, Hanna hopes to spread his defiant enthusiasm with other indie retailers. The event – and its website, VideoStoreDay.com – connects retailers around the world to film fans and hardcore cinephiles, with each participating store offering their own deals and incentives to customers, both local and prodigal.

"The blessing of this world we live in is that nobody is going to go to a video store unless they want to," Mr. Hanna says. "The people who come here, they come here specifically because I can hand them a movie, and eight times out of 10 I'm going to blow their mind."

So save the eulogies for the indie video stores. There are still plenty of minds to be blown, for people in search of rarer, weirder pleasures. And for retailers like Mr. Hanna, Video Store Day is an annual reminder to cult film fans and erstwhile renters, a way of saying, "Hey, We're still here."

Daniel Hanna's Top 5

An example of the oddball offerings that come recommended at Eyesore – better than any online algorithm.

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Sonny Boy (Robert Martin Carroll, 1989): David Carradine (Kill Bill, Death Race 2000) stars as Pearl, transvestite girlfriend to a psychotic crook (Crimewave's Paul L. Smith). The two abduct an orphaned boy, cage him, and train him to murder and steal on command.

Dead Set (Charlie Brooker, 2008): In this little-seen British TV series, zombies get loose on the set of the reality show Big Brother.

The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee, 2001): It's described as a "space-western/musical," which is reason enough to rent it.

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971): Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed star in this hyper-stylized historical drama about a 17th century Catholic priest (Reed) accused of witchcraft by a deeply repressed hunchback nun (Redgrave). Somehow, it's even better than it sounds.

Lawn Dogs (John Duigan, 1997): This little-seen British-American fantasy stars a pre-The O.C. Mischa Barton as a daydreaming youngster who befriends a lonely landscaper (Sam Rockwell).

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