Membership cards, 5,000 VHS tapes and to-go cocktails: How one Toronto bar became a mid-’90s video store
Like every other bar in the city, Farside, a living-room style hideaway in East Chinatown, was shuttered last month when the city went back into lockdown. Unlike every bar owner though, Mike Reynolds has a collection of 5,000-odd VHS tapes. Now, in an especially creative pandemic pivot, the bar is pulling double duty as a retro video store complete with membership cards, a whole lot of you-can’t-get-this-on-your-streaming-service rental options and, yes, late fees. (Because it wouldn’t be the same if you couldn’t go into debt for failing to return Ernest Goes to Jail).
Here, Reynolds talks to Toronto Life about Farside’s new incarnation, why videos are the new records, and essential holiday viewing that you won’t get on Netflix.
Step 1: Start a video collection when you’re in grade seven
Today, Reynolds’s haul hits all the bases: cozy classics (Mrs. Doubtfire, Uncle Buck), action essentials (Robocop and Terminator), obscure horror (The Puppetmaster trilogy) and some just-plain-weird one-offs (tapes of the old Body Break commercials). But back in grade school, he was just a kid who stole a copy of Evil Dead. “I took it from my buddy Justin in grade seven. That’s probably the oldest tape in my collection,” he says. He moved a lot around in his 20s, dragging a milk crate full of tapes to every new location. “At that point I probably had 50 and then when we opened the bar I finally had the space. I started buying out people’s old collections or friends would donate.” Reynolds estimates he has about 5,000 tapes. Not all of them are on display, but he takes requests from new members. “Someone recently requested The Naked Gun, so I brought that out from the back.”
View this post on Instagram
Step 2: Revive the Blockbuster model
Before the latest lockdown, customers could come in and browse the selection—a totally new experience or a nostalgia trip, depending on your age bracket. Now everything has to be done via curbside pickup. Customers can check the website in advance, to see what’s available. Members pay $10 for a familiar looking rental card (“Turns I actually still had my old Blockbuster card in my wallet, so I had that for reference” says Reynolds), and rentals are $5 per night. What about late fees? “We do have them, but so far everyone has returned rentals on time. I think people are feeling really appreciative and don’t want to take the experience away from anyone else.”
Step 3: Stock up on hardware
Of course, most Toronto households don’t even have a DVD player anymore, never mind a VHS. To solve the problem, Reynolds stocked up on the antiquated hardware and rents the machines out with the videos—$40 for three videos, popcorn and the VHS player including an HDMI adapter to connect to modern TVs. “It can be a little finicky, but I think that’s part of the fun,” says Reynolds. Since the program started two weeks ago, he has added two new VHS machines to his collection to meet demand.
Step 4: Stock the gems (even the weird ones)
What is the value in VHS when we can all just turn Netflix or download from iTunes? “The popular streaming services don’t have the classics,” says Reynolds. “They’re really good at pushing their own content and using the algorithms, but you’re not going to find Airplane on Netflix. That movie is, like, the roots of satire. Not to sound like a snob.” So far, popular rentals include Ginger Snaps (the 2000 cult Canadian horror drama), Cube (another homegrown horror classic) and Cyberzone (a dollar-store Blade Runner in space with a lot of sex robots).
Step 5: Keep the hooch flowing and let the nostalgia do the rest
The video store is a great gimmick for bringing customers to shop specialty beers and ciders, which they are still selling, bottle-shop style. “Most people are picking up a few cans when they come, but definitely there has been a lot of interest in the movies,” says Reynolds. He compares the growing interest in VHS tapes to the vinyl resurgence in the era of music streaming. “I don’t think video tapes are going to get as big as records, but there is this appreciation for a physical thing that doesn’t just exist online—it’s something people really romanticize.” Next up on the nostalgia tour, Farside is putting together holiday packs: seasonal viewing like Home Alone, Jingle All The Way, Reindeer Games, a bootlegged copy of the extremely hard-to-find Star Wars Holiday Special, plus some cocktail kits to go with them. “We’re going to do something that fits with the season, probably whisky, maybe an eggnog. People are probably going to be spending at lot of time at home over the holidays. They might as well watch good movies and drink good drinks.”