Thirty Years of Eclectic Flicks

December 30, 2013 |
Casa Video, at Grant Road and Campbell Avenue, in 1983. photo courtesy Casa Video

Casa Video, at Grant Road and Campbell Avenue, in 1983.
photo courtesy Casa Video

For Tucson film aficionados in the early ’80s, a plethora of mom and pop video stores were available to choose from when looking for a specific film on VHS. But in the summer of 1983 an entirely new kind of store opened on Grant Road just east of Campbell Avenue – Casa Video.

But this store wasn’t just another place to try to score a copy of War Games, Trading Places or Flashdance. In addition to popular movies, Casa Video stocked art films, documentaries and best of all, foreign titles. It was almost like a little piece of Manhattan dropped down in Tucson. We could finally locate the films our professors were referencing in class without mail order. Over the years, Casa has become the go-to place for so many film-savvy Tucsonans that it’s almost impossible to visit the store and not see a friend or colleague also browsing the aisles.

Co-owners and siblings Ray Mellenberndt and Gala Schwab’s parents owned a small movie theatre in Iowa, so growing up around the movies made opening a video store a natural occupational choice. Casa even expanded to two locations when they added their Speedway store in 1985, which became their only location when the Grant Road store closed in 1999. Ironically, the rise of streaming and the splintering of content providers is the greatest challenge, but a loyal fan base is unlikely to abandon Casa.

So how has this brother-sister operation survived for thirty years while nearly every other local video store has been taken to the woodshed? We’ve seen Redbox, Blockbuster and a half a dozen other national chains come and go in Tucson, but Casa Video continues to be there for our weekly artistic, cinematic fix.

According to Schwab, the siblings still love the business, and are always looking for ways to improve the customer experience. Lately the addition of new sodas and unique snack candy has been added to the mix, which may provide an edge unseen elsewhere. They have also adjusted to the digital age, offering online ordering for mailing or in-store pick up from their website.

With just 1,000-1,500 independent video stores remaining in the U.S. today, the business is dramatically different from when Gala and Ray began. Gala remembers going to Phoenix to visit distributor’s warehouses where they would “push shopping carts down aisles pulling films down that interested them.”

Casa Video, on Speedway, in 1989. photo courtesy Casa Video

Casa Video, on Speedway, in 1989.
photo courtesy Casa Video

The pair initially pooled their resources to buy up a closing store’s inventory to start Casa Video, and then focused on what they liked, namely foreign films and documentaries. And in Tucson they found a kindred audience, accumulating customers who also liked those things.

It’s perhaps that experience of “reading the box” while standing in the aisles, looking for a new gem, that makes Casa so special. There’s so much to see, and the way titles are arranged makes the hunt and discovery a fun experience for customers. And to top it all off, the staff is a font of knowledge willing to assist, recommend and discuss titles if asked. In fact, the “staff picks” shelf by checkout is often a great place to see how hip and knowledgeable one is, as well as a great place to grab a last minute film of interest.

When asked if there was one title that truly surprised them for its popularity, a film that was not mainstream but was rented almost to death, Gala offers the 1986 French film “Betty Blue” as a memorable surprise. Most likely this is not a title that would have graced Blockbuster’s shelves.

So do yourself a favor. Go to Casa Video, become a member if you aren’t already, and spend some time exploring. Go upstairs, look for a gem by a favorite director, find a documentary you’ve heard about and take it home. If you’re not going to experience a film in a theatre, at least visit Casa to support a local favorite and likely you will see your friends there. It’s not surprising that a place like Casa can thrive in Tucson. Gala and Ray must have known that when they started their company’s journey 30 years ago.

Casa Video is open daily 10 a.m.–1 a.m. and is located at 2905 E. Speedway Blvd. and online at Call (520)326-6314 for more details.


Category: Business, Film