In the 80s and 90s, 79th Street Video had the best video collection on the south side | Film Issue | Chicago Reader

In the 80s and 90s, 79th Street Video had the best video collection on the south side 

It wasn’t just the only place in Chicago to rent rare kung fu VHS tapes. It was a place to hang out and watch them.

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SLOANE LEONG
  • Sloane Leong

Scarecrow Video is one of the largest video stores in the world, with more than 132,000 titles. It began in the confines of a small Seattle storefront back in December 1988 and only survived to see its pearl anniversary because the community around it understood the cultural value of its collection. In 2014, Scarecrow's second-generation owners considered selling off the store's videos following years of financial struggles—simply put, fewer people were renting from them year after year. Instead, that October, the owners donated every last VHS, DVD, and laser disc to the employees, who raised $100,000 to help turn the rental spot into a nonprofit.

Streaming contributed to Scarecrow's decline, but also helped bolster its reputation as a cultural landmark. As video stores have teetered towards obsolescence, the few that have stuck around have become totems of cinephilia, the holdouts for fanatics who aren't satisfied by the comparatively few options available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even Criterion's new streaming service. In the past year, Scarecrow has been the subject of features published by SeattlePI.com, City Lab, and the New York Times; its thirtieth anniversary helped generate press, but so did its successful GoFundMe drive in April 2018, which raised another $100,000.

Even with a nationwide shortage of video-rental establishments, Chicago has helped keep two of the most remarkable hubs in the country alive. Facets, a nonprofit established in 1975, rents out and streams more than 50,000 titles and has established a national presence for its work with foreign fare; it also operates as a distributor and runs a small cinematheque out of its Lincoln Park headquarters. A short ways west and slightly south of Facets, in Bucktown, sits Odd Obsession Movies, which has rented out fringe, cult, and obscure flicks since its launch in 2004. In 2015 Tribune critic Michael Phillips reported on Odd Obsession's change in location—it moved five doors north of its original storefront on Milwaukee Avenue and raised a little more than $13,000 on Indiegogo to sustain the shop and help expand its selection of 25,000 films.

Both Facets and Odd Obsession have earned their reputations in part by offering a catalog of hard-to-find films and in part by engendering a community of film lovers. Until five years ago, Chicago had another video rental spot with a large library of movies, though this one catered to a Black clientele on the south side: 79th Street Video. The Ashburn shop opened in 1983 and at one point held 45,000 movies (both VHS and DVD). It earned a reputation for its selection of kung fu films that were nearly impossible to find stateside until this century. During its peak in the late 1980s, it once rented out 5,000 movies on a single day. It served at least one Chicago Bears player and one untrained horror director who became a cult legend.

Besides a 2013 South Side Weekly story by onetime Reader contributor Isabel Ochoa Gold, 79th Street Video didn't leave much of a digital fingerprint. Gold profiled the shop as its owner, Russell G. Pine Jr., prepared to close it down in March 2014 due to his failing health. I've often wondered about what happened when the shop finally closed down. What happened to the tens of thousands of videos? Who felt the loss of an independent rental institution that lasted three decades? What is its legacy?

I never got to ask Russ about the shop; he died in January 2015 at age 65. But I did sit down with his younger brother, Chuck, who provided the financial support Russ needed to open the store. They co-owned and ran 79th Street Video during its first decade, when the Pine brothers knew they had much—if not all—of the south side's video-rental business. "There wasn't much competition," Chuck says. "We really owned the whole thing—we owned the whole east side."

Chuck, Russ, and their three siblings grew up in a household that understood how business worked. "My dad opened up the second laundromat in the city of Chicago," Chuck says. "At one point, we had 16 laundromats in the family." The boss of Coin Laundry, Russell H. Pine, wanted Chuck to run the chain. "I hated the business, truthfully," Chuck says. "You're basically a mechanic—all he did was fix stuff all the time, and I hate that. Give me a screwdriver and a wrench and I'm crabby in about three minutes."

Chuck preferred to wheel and deal. "My dad was a big stocks guy, so I was trading stocks by fifth grade," Chuck says. During his freshman year of high school in the late 1970s, he bought 1,000 shares of Page America. "Bought it for 30 cents and sold it for $9—so I had nine grand after I sold it," he says. By the time he graduated high school in 1981 he had made enough money through trading that he could open his own business. "I wanted to be self-employed, for sure," Chuck says. The problem was, he didn't have any ideas for a business. His brother Russ, 12 years Chuck's senior, had an idea.

A couple years before they opened 79th Street Video, the brothers opened a rental spot named after its south suburban base: Midlothian Video. "We started with 650 movies," Chuck says. "Within a year and a half we were killing it. We were making a ton of money, and always putting all the money back in the store and buying more tapes, more tapes, and more tapes." Since not every household had adopted VHS technology, Midlothian Video sold VCRs, too, a tactic that won over at least one senior citizen who wandered into the shop dumbfounded. "He spots that we have an adult room—goes in that adult room, comes out, and literally buys a VCR," Chuck says. "Next thing you know, him and his wife, who were both in their 70s, were all about the adult [fare]."

The Midlothian location amassed about 4,000 VHS tapes by the time the Pine brothers decided to open another video store, this one at 79th and Western in Chicago. Chuck and Russ borrowed about $10,000 from their father and half the stock from Midlothian Video to open 79th Street Video. The Pine brothers oversaw both rental spots until Russ got divorced in 1989 and his ex took ownership of Midlothian Video. "I lost a half a video store in my brother's divorce," Chuck says. "I lost more than my brother, to be honest with you. But we just wanted to be done with that drama, and the money was coming in so quick at 79th Street."

Chuck can't remember why he and Russ settled on the spot in Ashburn. "We probably were targeting that city crowd," he says. "We were right on the border of the Black and white neighborhood, I don't know if that had anything to do with it or not, but it could have—it's possible that that was why we picked that exact spot." When 79th Street Video opened, Ashburn was majority Irish Catholic. According to the New York Times, the first Black families began moving to the neighborhood in the 1980s, but they were far in the minority—by 1991, Blacks made up just two percent of the neighborhood's home buyers. Chuck and Russ, who are white, opened their shop close to Ashburn's border with Auburn Gresham, the majority-Black neighborhood that begins a few blocks east of Western Avenue.

"We got a lot of pushback, to be honest with you, from the neighborhood, because most of our clientele was Black," Chuck says. "All our customers, basically, were coming from the east side, 'cause there was no video stores over there—got a lot of pushback from the neighbors. I remember there was a couple race wars, like, right on our block."

Chuck carried a .44 Magnum revolver around 79th Street Video. "We all carried guns," he says. By his count, 79th Street Video got robbed three times—a low number considering its long life span and the fact that the business collected mostly small bills. "You're leaving the video store every night with a lot of cash," Chuck says. "It was a cash business. I don't even know if we took Visa."

Word of mouth helped business take off. Chuck says he never cared for advertising. They had regulars who stuck around all day, sometimes because they were waiting on a film another customer had checked out. "They would stand in the store for four or five hours a day, waiting for that tape to come back, so they didn't miss it," Chuck says. "They'd be standing there waiting for the tape to come back and get returned and, you know, 'Hey, I got one.' Like, almost being annoying to the people bringing them back." Chuck says some customers were like family, and credits his brother for forming those bonds. "My brother literally hung out with half of these people," he says.

Russ Pine at 79th Street Video - COURTESY CHUCK PINE
  • Russ Pine at 79th Street Video
  • courtesy Chuck Pine

Russ's care for his customers helped give 79th Street Video its character. His son Rory, now 40, who worked intermittently at the shop beginning in 1999, recalls his father could draw in customers with stories that were only occasionally exaggerated. "He was, you know, 'I'm trying to entertain everyone, and this was a crazy thing that happened, I'm going to tell it this way, and by the end of it everyone's going to be laughing along with it,'" Rory says. "Those were the types of stories that pulled everyone in." He cared for his customers, too, often asking them about their personal lives and families.

Rory also worked at Midlothian Video and noticed a dramatic difference between his mom's spot and Russ's store. "He had customers that would hang out there for two, three hours—they'd eventually leave with their videos, but they'd just want to sit and talk," Rory says. "It was an interesting dynamic community at his store. And nothing like my mother's store—you come in, get a movie, you leave, you know, a quick high. Not hanging out for two hours watching various parts of kung fu movies and comparing them—it was unique."

It helped that Russ loved film as much as his most fervent customers. Even working at a video store didn't satiate his desire to watch movies. "He enjoyed his time after a long day at work—10:30 at night, just finished a 12-hour shift, and he'd knock out one or two movies," Rory says. "He never seemed to need a ton of sleep. That was his way to unwind—and then, the next day, be like, 'I just watched this Iron Monkey movie, and you won't believe how long that one choreographed fight can go.' And we'd all talk about it. We'd throw it on, watch it, and compare it to other ones."

Russ's voracious appetite for martial arts films and Chuck's affinity for wheeling and dealing helped 79th Street Video amass an unmatched collection of kung fu flicks. "I found a company in New York that was doing some importing from China," Chuck says. "We weren't a thousand percent positive that this stuff was legal—you know, licensed in the States. We were like, 'You got that and you're willing to sell it to us, and it's on VHS and it's got a label?' I'm not going to ask a ton of questions, I'm just like, 'Oh, you got it. Well, everybody wants to see it, and as far as I know it's legit.'"

The shop's reputation as a hub for hard-to-find martial arts movies stuck through the years. "One time, a massive man came in and I'm like, 'I know who that is,'" Rory says. "It was Alonzo Spellman from the Chicago Bears. He heard about my dad's video store, and he heard about the kung fu collection. He shows up and he's got an entourage of, like, four or five buddies with him, and they buy like $400 worth of kung fu movies."

The Pine brothers sold as well as rented movies—selling would help get old, lesser- loved stock off the shelves. And Chuck's dealings expanded to selling videos outside the store. Within a couple years of opening 79th Street Video, he launched Discount Video, a VHS distribution service he ran out of a conversion van. "A lot of my customers were the small video stores on the east side," he says. "But, truthfully, almost every store in the city of Chicago bought something from me. I really cornered the market." Chuck even sold videos to one of his sisters, who opened her own video rental spot on 51st Street called Warehouse Video.

Chuck mostly distributed adult films. Since 79th Street Video also had a remarkably large trove of porn tapes, he knew how quickly those VHS tapes could fall out of vogue. So he also designed signs advertising sales on old adult stock—four tapes for $19.95, deep discounts on VHS titles with specific stickers on them—and distributed them to video rental outposts that wanted to get rid of old stock (and, in turn, buy the latest tapes from Chuck). He'd order videos out of catalogs from companies based in California, buying tapes for roughly $3 or $4 each and selling them for about twice as much. He delivered in bulk. "Guys would buy 100 tapes at a time from me, that's $400 profit," Chuck says. "All's I would do is drop 'em off."

Chuck sold non-adult fare, too. One of his most notable sellers was also one of the most popular rentals at 79th Street Video: the horror flick Black Devil Doll From Hell. An aspiring local director named Chester Novell Turner made it in 1984 with a meager budget and video camera; it concerns a churchgoing woman enamored with the titular possessed doll, and features an all-Black cast. Black Devil Doll and Turner's second film, Tales From the Quadead Zone (1987), have since helped define the era of inexpensive DIY horror filmmaking that arrived with the popularization of VHS camcorders. Black Devil Doll is among 3,000 exploitation and horror VHS tapes held in the basement of Yale University's Sterling Library, and notable enough (if only by name) that YaleNews mentioned it in a 2015 story about the collection.

Before Tales From the Quadead Zone came out, Chuck remembers, Turner walked into 79th Street Video and played part of the movie for everyone gathered in the shop. The segment, titled "Food For," focuses on an impoverished white family as they sit around the dinner table and wait to split up a morsel of food in front of them. "We're like, 'Dude, this is horrible,'" Chuck says. "I was like, 'Dude, just make Black Devil Doll 2.'" When I reach Turner, he says he doesn't remember 79th Street Video. He stopped making movies after Quadead Zone, though after Michigan-based Massacre Video rereleased his two pictures on DVD in 2013 he started working on sequels for both. The same year his movies got reissued, the New York Times reported that an original VHS copy of Quadead Zone sold for more than $1,300.

Though Chuck sold movies to other rental shops, he did his part to make sure 79th Street Video still stocked material no other shops in town had—at least, no other rental spots he knew about, anyway. "We were the only video store in the city that had Pink Flamingos," he says. "We would make people put down $200 deposits because we only had one copy. People would drive from Wisconsin to get it."

Their other prized videos didn't require deposits but were still difficult to find elsewhere: John Woo's The Young Dragons and Jimmy Wang Yu's Master of the Flying Guillotine. They had blaxploitation pictures from Fred Williamson and Rudy Ray Moore. They had every episode of the short-lived 1950s TV adaptation of The Amos 'n' Andy Show, which Chuck says was among their more popular rentals. If you wanted to see the infamous 1978 cult flick Faces of Death, 79th Street Video had it. Any odd karate or horror film Russ could get his hands on ended up in the shop. "He liked horror a lot," Chuck says. "Any horror movie that came out, we had it. Even if it was a piece of crap—you know those really bad ones that are famous for being the worst movie ever? We had all that stuff."

The place practically printed money. Chuck recalls how on one Christmas Eve in the late 80s, when the shop held a holiday special, 79th Street Video rented out 5,000 movies. By then, his interest in the business began to dwindle. "I just stood there and took money," Chuck says. "It sounds fun, but every day? Like, my brother was into the movies, but I wasn't. I worked a register—like a cashier, you know, making a lot of money, though, but I hated it. It was really boring."

In the early 90s Chuck went to chef school and became a silent partner in 79th Street Video; his continued ownership of the shop provided a nice financial cushion when he apprenticed for Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill for a few years in the mid-90s. In 1998, he opened his restaurant, Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe, and opened a second location about seven years ago. He was out of 79th Street Video entirely by the early 2000s.

Chuck wasn't really around when the store moved to its second and final location at 8110 S. Western. He missed the transition to DVD (though it continued renting VHS tapes). He missed the dwindling rentals following the advent of streaming. He missed when Russ sold off the shop's movies at a discounted rate as he prepared to close up in 2014.

When the store closed, Russ had about 5,000 movies left, which he stored in his home. After he died in 2015, Rory tried in vain to sell them—he brought the risqué flicks to adult stores, but none wanted them because the tapes weren't in their original cases. His two siblings brought the rest of the videos to Springfield to try to flog them there; Rory says whatever they couldn't sell likely ended up in a dumpster.

The real tragedy for Rory, though, was that the community that had congregated at 79th Street Video was gone. The shop's collection was remarkable, yes, but Rory believes the most important thing his father did was provide a space for the people who loved those movies to congregate. "It was the place for people to get a little break from reality, and that's what movies are—you want to get a little taste of something outside your life," Rory says. "It made a lot of people happy, and also brought my dad a lot of happiness."

Rory caught the martial arts bug from his dad. Around 2001 he bought his first DVD, Five Deadly Venoms. "It's arguably one of the most classic old-school movies of all kung fu," he says. When 79th Street Video closed, Russ offered him a deal. "He was getting rid of everything, so he said, 'If you want anything for free, just grab it,'" Rory says. He took home about three or four movies, including Iron Monkey and Blade of Fury.

Rory has about 50 or 60 kung fu movies now—he keeps the collection small to appease his wife, but he's picky too. In a small way, Rory's collection functions as a tribute to his dad's legacy. He got all the DVDs from 79th Street Video, and bought every movie from his father. "Yeah," Rory says. "And he always gave me a real good deal."   v

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