The Dream of the Independent Video Store is Alive in McKinley Park


Photo credit: DNAinfo/Casey Cora

This past Saturday was International Independent Video Store Day, so we met up with Joe Trutin, owner of The Video Strip in nearby McKinley Park, to pick his brain regarding the value of independent video stores in a world where so many people simply turn to streaming for their film fix. He explains why Netflix, Hulu, and other video distribution corporations can’t hold a candle to the quality and depth of selection that a place like The Video Strip offers, and describes the experience of discovering the obscure, the weird, and the unique in the world of film that can only be found in an independent video store.

How long has The Video Strip been in business, and what made you start it?

Oct. 27th will be our twentieth anniversary, so we’re pretty close to twenty years old. We’ve been open every single day, so that’s over 7,000 straight days. I worked for several different companies before I opened up this place, bigger corporations that would just offer watered-down, edited versions of their films with scenes taken out. I was working for Blockbuster, and we would be coached on how to answer questions that people might have about whether any of our films were watered-down. They made sure we answered these questions without really answering them, and nobody would even notice. Well, I just found that ridiculous. I’m a warrior for the First Amendment, and I believe that everyone should have the right of free speech. People want a real movie, and directors try to put out their vision in a certain way. When you alter it, it’s not the same movie. You can’t change a vision – as soon as you do, it’s somebody else’s vision. And I hated that. I always knew that there were better versions of the films out there, and I just really hated how the corporations were treating the art of movies. And that eventually led me to say, “I can just do this myself.” And I did.

So many video stores have gone out of business in recent years. How have you survived, and how do you expect to continue to survive in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and other online streaming sites?

Who?? I’ve never heard of them. Laughs. So you really had three different kinds of video stores – basically, you had chains, you had your small corner video shops, and then you had your video specialists. The chains would basically bring in stuff and say, “People are going to come in and rent anyway, so who cares?” You had regular video stores, basically corner stores where, honestly, most of the owners didn’t even love movies, and often they would open up essentially as porn shops. But because of certain laws, they couldn’t have a full porn selection. Specialists will have a little bit of everything, or focus on specific kinds of films. Most of the stores that closed down were ones that didn’t have a specialty. The specialty stores are still here. And because we have a variety of a little bit of everything, there’s no way Netflix, Hulu, and the rest of them can touch us. They can’t have this kind of selection – their collection keeps shrinking, while ours keeps expanding. Redbox and Netflix carry versions of films that many times are edited and have scenes missing. The Video Strip carries versions that have all the missing scenes intact and uncensored. They also both get most theatrical movies approximately a month or more later than we do.

How do you curate your selection?

Honestly, I listen to my customers. I mean, if you don’t listen to your customers, then you probably shouldn’t have a business. A big chunk of the weird parts of the store mostly developed out of requests from customers. You know, we’ll have a request for a movie like Thankskilling, which is about a killer turkey that is just upset that humans are eating turkeys on Thanksgiving. And then we branch out from there – “Well, we had a movie about a killer turkey, let’s have one about a killer bong,” so we brought in the Evil Bong movies. As soon as they ask for something, I’ll jot it down and keep a little log of requested movies or genres, and as my budget opens up, I pick up all these weird titles. And those customers, especially those requesting odd titles, those are your true movie lovers. If they’re able to find out about some really small, obscure movie like that, they end up doing my research for me. So that makes my job even easier. But it’s all about listening to the customers and what they’re asking for.

You’ve run for state representative in the past. What was your motivation for that?

That stemmed out of my involvement with community programs in the neighborhood. I’ve run sports leagues, I’m on CAPS programs, you name it, I’m a part of that group. This store has always been based on working with the community, whether it’s with a senior home, whether it’s kids programs, somehow we’re going to be involved in it, and I’m always going to be there to help out. Well, in 2009 I found out that, out of 118 state districts in Illinois, we were one of the least funded. Most of the programs in the neighborhood were seeing their budgets slashed – one person told me, “They can’t cut my budget anymore, it’s zero!” So many places were just closing their doors. The final straw for me was one that is just a few doors away from here. McKinley Park has no true programs for kids, and they were stuck with nothing one summer when the Blessed Sacrament, which is the only teen outreach program we have, shut their doors. Thank God they’re back, but they had a budget of zero. I found out that in one budget bill, Popeye’s Chicken got more money to open up a training facility than our whole state district put together. Which is ridiculous. So I’m looking at all this, thinking, somebody has to run. And even if I don’t win, I don’t care; it’s about at least changing something. I did win some precincts and the community really did support me and I was very happy with how everything went – the Sun-Times endorsed me, the Tribune endorsed me. I didn’t win the election, but the message was out there, and now the budget is a little better for our neighborhoods. Is it better to the point that I’m happy? No. But hopefully someone will step up and get us the budgets we need here. I haven’t ruled out running again.

That’s good to hear. Final question: Top five films?

Honestly, that changes by the week. It really falls on my mood, and, seeing as I have 25,000 titles in here – I once tried calculating how long it would take to watch everything in here, I stopped counting when I reached about two lifetimes. It’s impossible to watch everything, there’s so much I want to watch by different directors, different actors. I love watching anything with Bruce Campbell. A lot of it really relates to what my mood is, so right now I’ve been watching a lot of Halloween stuff. There’s so much out there that there’s always something great to see. And that’s the thrill of the video store – you’re always going to find something you’ve never heard about and never seen. You can grab it and go, “Oh, this could be interesting!” You’re just not going to find that with streaming sites when they have such a small selection. And there is a joy in picking up a box and going, “I’m taking this with me.” It’s so hard to talk about a top five – I couldn’t even begin to think about what my top five would be. I do have to pay some respect to Quentin Tarantino, since he used to work in a video store. I’d put some of his films up there.

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