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TLA video store closes, a victim of the times

When the TLA video store at 517 S. Fourth St. closed this week, it came as a shock but no surprise.

TLA Video at 1520 Locust St. will be closing its doors for good.
TLA Video at 1520 Locust St. will be closing its doors for good.Read more

When the TLA video store at 517 S. Fourth St. closed this week, it came as a shock but no surprise.

For 24 years, the absurdly well-stocked shelves had offered films to professors and parents, little kids and teenage punks, couples seeking romantic inspiration and retirees nostalgic for a night with Wallace Beery.

Over time, the South Street neighborhood changed. Young professionals, many with babies in strollers, moved into working-class Queen Village and Bella Vista. The commercial strip morphed from a hippie haven to a high school hangout and, lately, a mosh pit of young toughs and New Jersey singles.

Through every phase, TLA adapted.

With its encyclopedic collection of 22,000 film titles, the store was that rare retail phenom - everything for everyone - satisfying all needs, whims, and obsessions.

But this summer, TLA's owners say, they began hearing death rales. Competition from big bruisers like Netflix and Amazon, the advent of online streaming, and the recession had made the business untenable.

"The writing's been on the wall for months," said Claire Kohler, one of the company's three founders. "We tried to go along for as long as we could in the face of the inevitable."

If not for last year's hammering by the economy, said cofounder Eric Moore, "maybe we could have afforded to stay afloat a little longer. But we can't. We just can't. . . . People are moving on."

The multimillion-dollar business now known as TLA Entertainment Group started in 1981. Kohler, a photographer; Moore, an usher; and Ray Murray, a projectionist, worked together at a theater on South Street.

"It was hey, let's get together and put on a show," recalls Moore. They transformed the theater into a destination night spot. "We had a changing double feature every other day, midnight shows of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and in summer we did late-night shows every night," he said.

When VHS took off in the early 1980s, the three opened a video store next to the theater on South Street, and soon moved it around the corner to its current space with the electric-blue marquee on Fourth between South and Lombard Streets.

At its peak, TLA operated seven stores, including one in Manhattan, and employed more than 200 people, said Moore. Three stores, he said, will remain open - Chestnut Hill, Bryn Mawr, and 15th and Locust - for as long as their communities continue to support them.

Aside from the breadth and depth of its film library, TLA has been distinguished by its staff, whose members had to pass a film quiz to qualify for employment.

"If they can name three films by John Cassavetes, you know they're not faking it," said Moore.

All the stores have their own character (and characters), said David Kittredge, who worked at TLA in the early 1990s when he was a high school senior and later a film student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

"The South Street location was an institution," recalled Kittredge, now a filmmaker in Los Angeles. "It was a real kind of hub of cinephile activity."

Not only did the stores serve as a mecca for customers who were film buffs, he said, but they also became a creative haven for aspiring artists. "It's impossible to overstate the impact on burgeoning filmmakers that TLA has," he said.

David Greenberg was a 23-year-old graduate of Temple University in film studies when he started as a TLA clerk. "The joke at the time was that you could throw a rock into any TLA and hit a Temple film student," he said last week a few minutes before he was to teach a screenwriting class at the University of the Arts.

He worked full-time for TLA for nine years, mostly in the Chestnut Hill store but also at the South Fourth location. "It attracted a lot of Society Hill hipsters," he recalled. "It was a funky place and definitely had a cool vibe."

Although some TLA clerks developed a reputation as irascible geeks, most were generous with their film savvy, said Greenberg. He enjoyed his coworkers' company and shared their artistic interests, but left the job at his wife's request after the store where he worked was held up at gunpoint. Since leaving, Greenberg, now 43 and the father of 2, has sold several screenplays.

Of the 10 employees at the Fourth Street store, five have been laid off. The rest will remain through Thanksgiving to sell off the inventory. That sale begins tomorrow from noon until 7 p.m.

This week, Kennie Bowen, who has been on staff for 20 years, held a clipboard and checked off titles from the American Drama section. After TLA, he said, he doesn't know what he'll do next.

"We've always prided ourselves on our staff. That's one of the things about this that will be the hardest," said Moore.

Besides the remaining stores, the company has several Web sites that offer DVD sales, downloads, and streaming. It also produces a direct-mail DVD catalog and sponsors the nonprofit Philadelphia Cinema Alliance, which runs two film festivals - the Philadelphia CineFest and the Philadelphia QFest (formerly the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival).

Demonstrating a new flash-streaming service for gay and lesbian films from the computer in his office in Old City, Moore said he was trying to help as many laid-off workers as possible find other jobs within the company.

Neighbors who live near the Fourth Street store described it as a "vital civic space." A place where they were as likely to meet the rock icon playing the TLA venue around the corner as a mother looking for a copy of Ivanhoe to help her daughter understand the Middle Ages.

"Since 2001," Moore said, "the stores have not been our bread and butter anymore. They've been a solid contributor of cash, but they are no longer a key component of what we do."

And yet, he said, "they are certainly our heart and soul."

"I'm very emotional about this," said cofounder Kohler, in a voice husky with mourning. "People spent hours wandering the store, picking up boxes." Browsing was an education in itself. "Now, if you want to investigate the works of Jean-Luc Godard or Wim Wenders, you'll be hard-pressed. . . . I know the times are changing, but it's a shame that part of the change is a limiting of choices."

Cher Bryant, a former clerk later promoted to general manager and then accounting, spent the last few days fighting back tears as she helped her colleagues prepare for the fire sale.

Her favorite film, she said, is the Cannes Film Festival selection Santa Sangre. Even though Roger Ebert named it one of the top films of 1990, "you can't get that on a download or a DVD," said Bryant. "It's just a shame that local businesses aren't supported."

The store's closing is a personal as well as professional loss, she said.

"This was my store. Now I suppose I'll have to go to the one on Locust. I'm certainly not going to use Netflix."