One of Oakland’s last remaining video rental stores operates through hope, prayer, and an injection of money from owner Joseph Lum’s retirement savings.

Nearly 40,000 DVDs line the narrow shelves of Video Room, which Lum opened in 1983 on Broadway and College Avenue, but was forced to downsize – three locations later – to a storefront on Piedmont Avenue. The fact that the company survived the rise and fall of corporate video stores, the advent of Netflix and other streaming platforms, competition from free public libraries, and the COVID pandemic -19 is a testament to his resilience and Lum’s determination.

When asked how he achieved this feat and why he even bothered to do it, Lum grows nostalgic: “I love movies. I love our clients. They are like old friends every time they come back.

Lum employed four people, but let them go when the pandemic struck. Now he is the only worker.

For movie buffs, Lum’s store has an assortment of hard-to-find titles such as “Amores Perros”, “55 Days in Beijing” and several versions of “Hamlet”. More casual moviegoers might gravitate to the shelf titled “Staff Pick”, where gold stickers mark Lum recommended DVDs. “Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins, “Parasite” by Bong Joon-ho or “Lemon” by Janicza Bravo.

Lum’s boutique is sort of a meeting place for Louis Segal, a longtime customer who praises the selection. “If I want to get an Oscar winning performance from the 40s, I can get it there. If I want to have some really good Chinese cinema from 2004 or 2005, I can do it there.

And when Segal, 72, arrives for a movie, he knows there’s a good chance he’ll meet other moviegoers and end up in long conversations about genres, actors, directors, and scripts.

“It’s kind of like a cafe of sorts, or a barber shop,” he said. “We could talk about films with cinephiles. And, you know, people love the movies.

Lum started Video Room in the 1980s when VCRs first hit the market, spawning a once lucrative video rental business. In the beginning, Lum specialized in laser discs, which looked like albums and delivered a crisp image that was much clearer than a standard VHS or beta player. As the VHS format grew in popularity, Lum changed its stock. And when the VCR gave way to the DVD player in the 1990s, Lum pivoted again.

Across the country, video store chains have opened, with the mega and global Blockbuster settling in just blocks from Video Room. Lum lost a third of his business to Blockbuster, regaining a small portion of those customers when Blockbuster closed in 2012.

Since then, keeping the doors open and the neon signs inside his store lit has become a struggle.

“We have tried all kinds of things,” he said. “We tried advertising; it did not work. We tried the Safeway receipts, the coupons; it did not work. We had to reduce our overheads by minimizing employees. And it took us a lot. ”

Video room
The neon sign has run out of steam lately, but Oakland’s video room continues to move forward. (Andrew Lopez)

Record rentals continued to decline nationwide, falling to $ 1.04 billion in 2020, according to Digital Entertainment Group, which tracks the market. In contrast, digital streaming and rentals generated $ 26.5 billion in revenue last year.

Video Room charges between $ 5 and $ 6 for rentals, which last two days for new releases and one week for older titles. Since the pandemic, Lum has had to rely on his savings to keep him afloat.

Lum once thought that when the VIDEO ROOM neon sign goes out, he will close the store. Earlier this year, the sign shorted out. But the store remains open.