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Video requiem

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On a recent weeknight, the video store at the Carolina Theatre in Durham is quiet. One employee sits attentively behind the service counter. But no customers roam the aisles.

The video library's extensive collection of rare, foreign, classic and art-house films line the racks and walls like Depression-era orphans waiting for a loving Daddy Warbucks to give them a home.

Cassiana Gudgenov has worked part time at the store for the past two years and considers it a labor of love. "It's an incredible selection of films," she says. "Foreign, hard-to-find, classic, silent. Most of the movies here, no one else carries because no one has heard of them."

June 27 is the last day of the video store's existence. Managers of the nonprofit organization that runs the downtown theater say the Carolina's Video Library has lost $10,000 in the past 10 months and they can't afford to keep it open.

With its 4,000 titles, the store has been hailed as a resource by those who enjoy films not just for entertainment, but also for their artistic value. Over the years, customers have been able to stroll through the carpeted aisles and find entire rows of films by their favorite directors, or even an entire wall of films from one of 15 different countries. Rare documentary, music, cult, gay and children's films have also found a home there.

Because of its unique collection, the store's customers have been devoted regulars. "We see a lot of the same folks," Gudgenov says. "People make an effort to come here."

Stephen Martin has been director of the Carolina Theatre since April 1995, a year after the video library first opened. He says there's been a lot of disappointment about the closing, "but people understand it's a business decision." Martin says managers have talked about closing the store for years because, "it never made any money." Even an influx of new residents at a nearby apartment complex, aggressive marketing and the elimination of the video store's mandatory membership fee weren't enough to boost sales.

Beyond the Carolina's experience, Martin sees the future of video rentals overall as dubious. "There is a major technology shift going on," he says. "Three years from now, videotapes may not even be available and we can't cover the cost of replacing the collection with a new format."

The fate of the video library is certain but the future of the videos themselves remains unresolved. Martin hopes to keep the collection intact. "We want to maintain community access to it," he says. "This is looking good right now." But he won't say whether the Carolina will sell the collection to the Durham Public Library (which would need to raise money to buy it) or to other unnamed nonprofit groups.

What the Carolina will do with the space that now houses the video store will depend, in part, on how much revenue is generated from the sale of the rental film collection. Possibilities include additional office space, a lounge or a coffee shop.

Meanwhile, employees of the video library have been guaranteed continued work at the Carolina Theatre. "Management has told everyone here that they're committed to giving everyone the same number of hours as they had in the store," Gudgenov says.

As for patrons, they have until 10 p.m. June 27 to make rentals and until June 30 to make returns.

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