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The Blockbuster Invasion

Independent Rogue Vally video stores prepare for tough competition under...

BY DAVID PRESZLER

A pink legal tablet that appeared on Party Shoppe Video's counter about a week ago tells the story -- pages of pleas from longtime customers asking that the business remain open.

Blockbuster would not affect you, one wrote, referring to the pending arrival of the video store giant down the street.

Blockbuster stinks, another wrote.

One man even pledged to rent his videos exclusively at Party Shoppe for the next decade.

But despite the pleas, the quirky West Medford video shop is set to close today after 11 years under the management of Coleen Van Wey and the ownership of her father, Dale Van Wey. It will start a liquidation sale Aug. 15 and has already sold more than half of its 8,100 titles to customers.

Coleen Van Wey says personal family reasons played a role in the decision to close but that Blockbuster's arrival also was a factor.

You're going to feel some sort of impact, she says.

And the geographic range of that impact is expanding in the Rogue Valley.

Two new Blockbuster locations are planned in Medford, two more in the area are being explored and the Videoland in Ashland became a Blockbuster last week as the giant chain bought 45 stores from another national chain, Video City Inc. Add those to the two existing Medford stores, and there's the potential for a seven-store powerhouse of blue and yellow stretching from Ashland to Eagle Point.

The two new Medford locations will go in next to the Albertson's stores at the Larson Creek Shopping Center in southeast Medford and the Jackson Creek Shopping Center along Jacksonville Highway. The company also has expressed interest in locating stores at the proposed Albertson's centers in Central Point and Eagle Point, according to Galpin and Associates -- the developers of all four projects.

Blockbuster spokeswoman Karen Raskopf says the increase in the number of stores nationwide is part of the company's plan to meet customers' top priority: convenience.

The name of the game is to have it conveniently located, Raskopf says.

The company estimates that 59 percent of Americans now live within three miles of a Blockbuster and the plan is to keep increasing that percentage. Raskopf says the company hopes to open 4,000 new stores nationwide over the next few years.

Corporate officials for the other big video store chain in the area, Wilsonville-based Hollywood Video, did not return calls asking whether it plans to expand beyond its one Medford store.

With the growth of the chains nationwide, more independents like Party Shoppe are disappearing. Industry analysts say one of every 10 went out of business in 1998. It's a trend that has played out in a number of industries, from hamburger joints and restaurants to hardware, grocery and book stores.

Other local independent video store owners expect to feel some effects from Blockbuster's growth here, but they're confident they'll survive and continue growing.

We knew what we were getting into, says Video Cafe owner Bill Yocum, who opened his Stewart Avenue store in Medford three years ago after Blockbuster was already established in south Medford, less than a mile away.

He says his store has thrived despite its proximity to Blockbuster because of its knowledgeable staff and more varied selection. Yocum says his store caters to hard-core movie buffs looking for titles beyond the mainstream.

For the chains, they can't be as specific as possible in meeting demand, he says. Their corporate rules disable their flexibility and that's part of their problem.

We try to push our niches as much as possible because that's our edge.

Being an independent gives him the freedom to explore that niche by doing things like featuring Internet access so customers can search for information about films, and providing a library of books on movies.

D J's Video of Ashland also is banking on its wide selection and service to keep its customers coming back, according to manager Adam Black. The Ashland Street store has built a selection of more than 45,000 titles and catered to Ashland's artsy crowd, featuring large foreign and classic selections.

Still, Black says the store makes most of its money on new releases and mainstream rentals, so it can't afford to take Blockbuster lightly.

Competition in some ways is good, says Black. It makes you rise to a higher level.

I'm not feeling particularly threatened. But we've got to make sure we are treating our customers right and providing a good selection and good customer service.

D J's also has tried to build personality into the store -- a contrast to the cookie-cutter approach chains take. For example, it features lifesize replica statues of Star Wars characters and is holding a pod racing tournament this month in which competitors play the Star Wars Nintendo game Pod Racer against each other.

We have a really fun store, he says.

Party Shoppe also has worked to build a friendly atmosphere.

Hi, Kevin, Coleen Van Wey calls as regular customer Kevin Martin comes through the door on a weekday morning. Martin returns her greeting and begins to express his disappointment that the store is closing.

It stinks, he says. We've been coming here since it opened up. She's like part of the family. She's a neighborhood person and she knows everybody's name.

Martin, who lives nearby, is convinced Party Shoppe could survive Blockbusters' arrival.

I hate big business with a passion, he says. I haven't been to Blockbuster Video or Hollywood Video yet. I've always come here.

Van Wey says the outpouring of support has been incredible.

It just touches our hearts, she says. It was a unique little place. I've spent 11 years of my heart and soul on it.

Van Wey plans to open a party supply business called Gotta Party in the Eagles Center on Stevens Street this fall. She had planned to start her own business even before her father decided to close Party Shoppe.

She's excited about the new opportunity but still thinks Party Shoppe might have survived Blockbuster's arrival.

Now, we'll never know.

Mary Kincaid of Medford searches through videos at Party Time Video in west Medford. - Photo by Bob Pennell