Blast from the Past
When Blockbuster and Netflix fell short, Video Review had it all
By Billy Eye
The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone. — Jack Valenti
It’s been a decade since one of my favorite places in Greensboro, Video Review on Westover Terrace, closed its doors. You can’t possibly understand my grief. That place was responsible in no small part for one of the most successful network television experiences of my life. Seriously.
I stumbled into a television “career” in 2002 when VH1 asked me to write for and appear on a brand-new series called SuperSecret TV Formulas, which would be a companion to the network’s popular I Love the ’80s docu-series. Since I had a book out at the time, I figured why not? Besides, I had a gnawing hunger to prove (mostly to myself) that I could excel at something I’d never attempted before.
SuperSecret became the highest-rated program on VH1 that fall.
Figuring that was a one-and-done situation, I was surprised to find myself involved with the same kind of gig for the Bravo network, filming in L.A. and New York just a few short months later. In 2004, the latest iteration of that Bravo series became 100 Funniest Movies, a “talking head” countdown-type of show. Basically, I’d been given a list of one hundred movies that would require my snarky commentary. I was familiar with most of them but, in dozens of cases, hadn’t watched these films in several years.
Needless to say, I had homework to do.
I was disappointed but hardly surprised to discover that Blockbuster was well stocked with the latest DVD releases — but not so much the ’60s and ’70s-era comedies I was searching for. Netflix fell short as well. But after commiserating with my pal Michael Scott (not the guy from Dunder Mifflin), my world opened up.
“Go to Video Review,” Michael replied casually.
I must have passed that spot a thousand times — never gave it a thought.
Wandering through the doors for the first time, my heart leapt upon seeing row after row of shelves packed with DVDs and, more importantly, a staggering inventory of films on VHS tucked alongside them. They had every single motion picture on my list.
I recently caught up with Jason Laws, son of Jim Laws, who was the owner/proprietor of Video Review. Jason and his brother, Michael, were working the counter when I was furiously renting the maximum number of videos for weeks on end.
“I mean, I was born into this,” says Jason, who started shelving movies at the store when he was 12 or 13. “I actually started working the counter at around 15 or 16. When you’re in a family business, that’s kind of normal.”
Jason’s father, accountant Jim Laws, entered the video rental biz in 1983, two years before the first Blockbuster store in Texas debuted and many more before that chain became ubiquitous. “He and my mom looked at various opportunities,” Jason says. “At one point, they considered a wine and cheese store.”
In 1983, the Laws bought into a fledgling franchise, Video Connection. They opened with an inventory of 125 titles — just about everything out there that wasn’t X-rated.
“Video stores sold more equipment then,” Jason says of a time when video cassette recorders were retailing for around $1,000 ($2,640 in 2021 currency). “It was high-dollar stuff. My father would actually go into people’s homes to set up their VCRs.”
The Video Connection chain unraveled in 1985, just as the price of VCRs dropped below $300. Before long, VCRs were cheap and readily available. Rebranding the business as Video Review, Jim Laws was determined to go it alone, despite video rentals being an alien concept to the general public. “People would come into the store and think it was an arcade,” Jason says. “They had no clue what video was. We were really in on the ground floor, but that was a good thing because it became a rapidly growing industry.”
After six years at Caldwell Square, Video Review moved south next to Outback on Westover Terrace in 1990. For the next 21 years, that place served as a cultural lighthouse for those seeking refuge from reality. Foot traffic was so brisk that the Laws opened a second location at Adams Farm.
In the early-2000s, strolling the copious aisles at Video Review to select a suitable flick for date night was a genuine bonding experience. Entire families were inexorably drawn by the gravitational pull of a 7,000-square-foot showroom displaying well over 150 thousand titles. “That’s probably the main thing people miss: the tactile experience of seeing everything laid out,” Jason says. “And I think about all the people with their kids that grew up in the store. Later, some of those kids would come to work for us.”
New videos arrived every Friday but wouldn’t hit the “New Releases” wall until Tuesday. One nice clerk perk? “You could take new videos home and watch them over the weekend,” Jason says. “That way you’re ahead of everybody. We can say, ‘Hey, no, you don’t want to watch that.’”
As the 21st century unfolded, Netflix’s signature red envelopes began peeking out of just about everybody’s mailbox. If, as the song goes, video killed the radio star, then streaming snuffed out the video store. The Adams Farm branch closed in 2008. Then, after 27 years of business, the Westover Terrace megastore shuttered in 2011.
“Video Review was a library of culture and film,” says Greensboro’s chanteuse extraordinaire Jessica Mashburn (pictured left doing her best Dolly Levi impression). “A place a nerdy artist like myself could go and discuss the latest releases and exchange one-liners with the staff. I always left there feeling joyful and connected to people like me. It was a constant of my childhood here in Greensboro, and I was present for the final hour of its existence.”
What does Jason miss most about those days? Quality time with his dad, he says.
Bravo was thrilled with the ratings for 100 Funniest Movies, which must have made an impression in the Big Apple because, in 2005, VH1 summoned me back to work on 100 Greatest Kid Stars. I asked the producer, “Who’s going to be No. 1? Shirley Temple, Spanky McFarland or Stymie Beard?” None of them, she replied. “It’s Gary Coleman.”
I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” and begged off the project. As much as I came to enjoy the process and the people involved, I didn’t have any desire to be on television in the first place. OH
Billy Eye returned to his hometown (yep, Greensboro) in 1994 after 16 years of working as a writer and artist for the entertainment industry in LA. Oh, and Bravo’s No. 1 funniest movie? Animal House.