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Avid Video and Bull City Records adapt rather than fail


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Spring was crucial for Jason Jordan this year. For nearly two decades, Jordan and his wife, Paige, have owned and operated Avid Video in three progressively smaller Durham locations. They've raised their two kids in these shops and built long-lasting friendships. Despite every video industry trend, from the dominance of big-box rental stores to the emergence of online downloads and renting, they survived. To wit, when Jordan opened Avid in a strip mall on Guess Road in 1995, it was one of Durham's 28 video stores; now, it's one of two.

Earlier this year, though, Avid Video looked to be nearing the end. Two years before, the store moved for a second time. Though the new location was only about 200 yards from the previous one, the change pushed Avid from an endlessly busy shopping center that included Durham's lone Whole Foods Market to a side street perhaps best known for serving both as the grocer's auxiliary parking lot and home to the burrito joint Cosmic Cantina and Bull City Records, a syndicate of another seemingly extinct media.

Business, Jordan remembers, dropped by half. It recovered, but not quickly enough to sustain itself. Weeks would go by without a new member. Old members disappeared, as if they were the ones who had moved. And in February of this year, Jason and Paige separated, meaning that the hours they had once split now fell almost entirely to Jason. Continuing just didn't seem feasible.

"The initial instinct was to pack it all in, close the store, go home to Mom. But I recommitted myself to it," he says. "If the store had not been there, there would have been days when I would not have gotten out of bed. Instead, I was getting there at insanely early hours. It was therapeutic. It kept my mind active."

What's more, Jordan started keeping regular hours again, refusing to close Avid early in the evening just because foot traffic seemed slow. He began hauling a second computer behind the counter, too, cataloging out-of-print titles and selling them on eBay.

The determination apparently showed. Around early spring, the customers who had made it through the move not only noticed his extra effort but also interpreted it as a sign that Avid needed help. One regular, Ian Kleinfeld, printed business cards and handed them to Jordan. He later returned with vinyl letters and adhesive. Due to city ordinances, Jordan couldn't bring the old shop's sign with him. He hadn't been able to afford anything proper, so the new store never had a proper marquee. "A-v-i-d V-i-d-e-o," Kleinfeld spelled in round, white letters on the big gray awning.

"It was during that same month, a couple of customers put me on their neighborhood listservs—the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association, Old West Durham. People would then pick it up from the listserv and mail it out to their friends," Jordan says, cracking a smile of relief. "Suddenly, I had customers coming in that I hadn't seen since the move. Either they thought we closed or they just got out of the habit of coming in to the store."

Memberships resurged, and Avid seemed to be on the rebound. For the first time, Jordan decided to give Avid an online presence outside of eBay. The Internet had taken away a huge chunk of his customer base; it only made sense to fight back using the same technology. He would post pictures of rare or new titles on Facebook, and often the same day, a customer would come looking for it.

"I started his Facebook page because I told him he needed to be in the 21st century, and he needed a Web presence," says Chaz Martenstein, reiterating the advice like a mantra. "In this day and age, you don't exist if you don't have a Web presence."

Martenstein is Avid Video's upstairs neighbor. Since the fall of 2005, he's owned Bull City Records, the small and un-air-conditioned space one door over from Avid. Martenstein is about a decade older than Jordan, and at first glance they appear to be opposites. Clean-shaven, with a hesitant smile, Jordan is a measured speaker given to long pauses and careful consideration. With pierced ears, a full beard and a grime-stained trucker's cap, Martenstein is perpetually excitable, his grin beaming through his beard almost every time a customer asks a question or presents a record he loves.

Jordan and Martenstein run one-man operations, though, with no employees (they both have occasional part-time help) and very few frills aside from the products they sell. In Bull City, the blue-and-black wooden shelves Martenstein built with his father just before the store opened are generally bulging, sagging slightly underneath the weight of the new and used vinyl records that have become not only his specialty but also his store's lifeblood. In Avid, the white shelves are crammed with as many DVDs as possible, from the bamboo floors nearly to the beautiful tin ceiling. In both shops, the titles are carefully selected so as not to include everything, just only what their owners think the market wants.

Martenstein has nearly stopped ordering CDs altogether, because his customers most often ask for vinyl. Both stores mostly steer clear of mainstream titles that can be found elsewhere. As with Jordan, this approach allows him to speak to customers as an expert who's capable of being honest about what he's selling. This builds lifelong patrons, a sustainable approach in a dangerous market.

"You can't just do that thing where you stock every new release that comes out anymore. I get the 1 percent that I know and stock exactly that," explains Martenstein. "When you have 1,000 things coming out every week, I maybe order five. I can only stock something I know I really like or something I know other people will like—I have to have somebody specific in mind."

Shops like Avid Video and Bull City Records aren't important in some esoteric preservationist sense; their value in the community is bigger than the simple existence of a media outpost or another place where consumers go. Rather, they work in much the same way as a music venue or a film festival, serving as anchors around which an area's arts scene can sustain itself and even thrive.

When Jordan arrived in Durham 16 years ago, he got his name out, he remembers, by sponsoring every event he could, from rock concerts to film festivals. Wearing a faded mustard-colored T-shirt from the 2003 Full Frame Documentary Festival, he says he still does that when he can afford to, though it's not as often as he would like. Still, less than two miles away from both Duke's Center for Documentary Studies and the offices of Full Frame, he stocks thousands of documentary titles within his 800 square feet. He has noticed a steady uptick in traffic before and after the festival. At command, he can tell stories about the changing tastes of specific customers during the last decade; he's currently mentoring one Durham teenager on samurai films.

And Martenstein has turned Bull City Records into a curatorial force by presenting shows in local music venues or simply by writing about them on the store's website. ("I'd be there without a second thought if I didn't have family visiting for the night," he wrote about a recent gig. "Someone please take my proxy!") Ben Carr, the frontman of one of the state's best young bands, Last Year's Men, has said many times that his music was directly inspired by sitting on Martenstein's couch, listening and absorbing the sounds Martenstein thought he might like. "You just go in and say 'Hey Chaz, what's good this week?'" Carr has said.

Bull City Records and Avid Video work in perfect symbiosis on Perry Street. As Jordan plainly puts it, customers interested in buying vinyl albums seem more likely to be interested in independent film and to want to watch it in a physical form, and vice versa. Jordan stores old boxes of VHS titles he has yet to list on eBay upstairs near Martenstein's space, and they rent and buy from each other constantly.

Together, they function as a surviving outpost for forms that most studies and experts say are dying rather quick deaths. Jordan nearly closed his shop early this year, and during the last two falls, Martenstein has sometimes stared at his books and wondered how he'd ever make it to the Christmas boom. Right now, at least, they both seem confident that they're sticking around.


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