In the early 1980s, Brian Augustine traded a classic car for a 35-year career. Despite opposition from Hollywood studios, corporate competitors and street construction, his Superior Video Vision has become the last store of its kind standing in the Twin Ports.
The 8th Street Ice Cream, Movies and Antiques store in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood also offers video rental, but the last full-service video store in Duluth, Video Vision in the Spirit Valley Mall, closed earlier this year.
“Full-service video store - we’re a rare breed,” Augustine said. “Movies, games, disc repairs. I’m probably the only one who knows how to fix a VHS tape.”
It’s been a rewarding career, he said. At its zenith, Augustine had six Video Vision stores in the Twin Ports. He estimates he’s employed roughly 500 people over the years, and the business has touched generations.
“I have people coming in here that I rented to their grandparents,” Augustine said. “And to see them coming in as little kids, and now they’re grown up and they’re coming in with their kids, that’s been kind of fun.”
He opened the first Video Vision after a family member who was experiencing success in the video industry encouraged Augustine, a St. Paul native, to open a store in the Twin Ports.
“I had a collector car, a ‘69 Roadrunner, my pride and joy,” Augustine said. “I sold that thing to get 333 movies and 12 games. That’s what I opened with.”
Video Vision opened March 4, 1983, at 122 W. First St., Duluth. Augustine’s first rental was a “Ms. Pac Man” game, stock No. 006, for $4. Money was so tight, he ended up spending his first dollar on lunch.
“It was very slow at first,” Augustine said. “Nobody knew what it was even. I had to educate people about there’s a whole movie in this videocassette here.”
In addition to VHS tapes, the industry at the time included Betamax tapes - an analog cassette format, released shortly before VHS - and large, record-sized laser discs.
The first big challenge came up right away.
“Walt Disney and Warner Brothers tried to make it illegal to rent movies. And they tried to sue all the video stores,” Augustine said.
Video store owners banded together and petitioned for the right to rent videos. Congress backed them, refusing to abolish the first-sale doctrine, which allows purchased materials to be sold or rented, for video tapes.
“That was a close call,” Augustine said. “We were almost done right at the start.”
Video Vision flew under the radar for years. The Superior store was added in 1985. It opened at 1709 Belknap St., now home to Antiques on Belknap, then moved to a Tower Avenue location.
When the store moved to its current central location, a former tire shop at 1418 Belknap, business took off.
Then came the rise of the corporate video stores.
“Rich investors started getting into it, creating all these video chains - Blockbuster, Mr. Movies, Video Update, Movie Gallery, Premiere Video - there was a whole bunch of them, with thousands of stores,” Augustine said. “They set their sights on Duluth.”
The chain stores set up shop and their lower prices stole customers.
“Sometimes my sales would drop 20-30 percent,” Augustine said.
But customers didn’t stay away for long.
“Even though the chain store didn’t close, they would still come back to me again for my employees,” Augustine said. “They slowly started coming back again.”
A competitor once told him that the best thing Video Vision did was not try to lower prices to match the big chains.
“We did our own thing,” Augustine said.
And he employed good people.
“It was tough competing with the big chains, but I really have to hand it to the employees I’ve had. They know more about movies and games and tanning than I ever will,” Augustine said.
He added tanning booth service as a supplement to the business about 20 years ago. Movies and tanning, he said, are a natural fit.
“We’re open on weekends. We’re open late at night. A lot of tanning places can’t do that,” Augustine said. “We’re doing very well on tanning. We’ve got the best prices in town.”
Whether customers tan or rent movies, they earn yellow “Video Value” stamps.
“I don’t know if there’s a house in Duluth-Superior that doesn’t have some stamps laying around somewhere,” Augustine said.
A full book of stamps can earn customers free movie rentals, tanning discounts and free pizzas, sandwiches and car washes from local businesses. And, customers can count on weekly specials: Monday is “Dollar Day;” Wednesday is “rent one, get one;” Thursday rentals earn double stamps.
As the industry evolved, so did Video Vision.
Augustine started with VHS movies and Atari and Intellivision video games. The stores eventually carried Sega, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Playstation IV and Xbox One games.
The jump from VHS tapes to DVDs was a steep one.
“Everyone knows how fragile scratchy DVDs can get, so I have two $8,000 disc resurface machines here,” Augustine said.
The machines each run six hours a day to repair the store’s movies. Video Vision also fixes customers’ game and movie discs.
As streaming services became more popular, Video Vision began to close stores. Augustine whittled them down to two - Duluth’s Spirit Valley Mall and Superior - and sales were falling at both.
The Spirit Valley store closed in April, bumping sales at the Superior site despite construction on Belknap Street.
“We have so many Minnesota customers coming over here now that used to be at the West Duluth store that it gave us new life,” Augustine said. “So we’re going to be OK for a while longer.”
That’s good news to customers like John Leikvoll of Superior, who stopped by the business Nov. 16 to snag a copy of “The Meg.” He’s been a Video Vision regular for more than 15 years.
A movie date at the theater can cost about $30, once you factor in snacks, he said, and streaming services aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
“We have Netflix at home,” Leikvoll said. “A lot of the time, we can’t find what we want to watch.”
Hulu has plenty of interesting trailers, he said, but it costs extra to see the entire show.
So the retired Superior school custodian heads to Video Vision.
“I like coming here and just grabbing movies,” Leikvoll said. He appreciates being able to hold onto them for three days in case something comes up that delays his movie night.
The sale of Augustine’s 1969 Roadrunner led to a 35-year career. And it’s not over yet.
“There’s not a lot of profit in this business anymore, but just the satisfaction of employing my dedicated, really good employees and loyal customers - that’s what keeps me going,” Augustine said. “And so as long as there’s demand, we will be open.”