Tucked away in the back corner of the Springdale Shopping Center on Hope Street, a hidden treasure lies waiting to remind visitors of a time before Netflix, Hulu and movies-on-demand right on your cell phone.
Critic's Choice Video owner Wayne Wofsey has been manning the counter since he opened his video rental store in 1990. Working in a store prior to the one he owns now showed him how much he enjoyed sharing his own love of movies with others, and so he took the leap.
"I always loved movies. I worked for a store for a couple years and I liked it so I decided to open my own," Wofsey said. His passion for the job is evident as he strolls through the aisles holding his collection of more than 15,000 films and chats about various titles, all of which he owns outright.
His walls are lined with just as many obscure indie flicks and imported foreign films as they are with all the latest big name hits. He can critique acting, nuances, directing, scenery or plot structure for any number of titles on his shelves, but he'll never make a recommendation without getting to know someone first.
"I've got a lot of regulars that have been coming in for a lot of years. People know that I'm honest with them. If people come in and ask my opinion and I thought a movie was terrible, I'm going to tell you the truth," Wofsey said. "I'd rather you walk out with something you're happy with. If every time you walk out with a movie you go home and think it stinks, you're not going to come in."
He said there's only one way to ever really be sure in a recommendation, and that's to whittle down a person's previous preferences into a sort of profile for them alone.
"Most people that know me after a while know if I recommend something, it'll be good. And I might tell one person I think a movie stinks but tell you I think it's good, it's because you might have different tastes. I get to know them and their taste. If somebody walks in out of the blue and says what's good, I'll say, 'Well what's good to you?'"
This is something Wofsey thinks he does a bit better than, say, Netflix, a digital age competitor for the traditional analog mediums, which has an automatic recommendation system that can produce some odd results at times. Wofsey said that, while the future is uncertain, he thinks he has a fighting chance against the digital revolution being the only one in the game for the area. He also doesn't think Netflix is making enough money.
"Right now, Netflix is cheap. But my guess is they're going to have to up their prices. They're not making money," he said. "It's so hard to say where the future is going to go. I don't know if, in a year from now, I'm going to say, 'It's not worth it,' but I'm going to hang in for as long as I can. I think I'm the last store in Fairfield County. There's nothing in Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich, Westport. I don't know, there may be something up in Norwalk."
He said another advantage he's had in weathering the storm is a lack of overhead. And since he's the only location for his store, he only has one location to be concerns with, unlike some of the big-name chains that were once so prominent.
"We never really had Hollywood [Video] around here," Wofsey said. "We had Blockbuster. One thing, those big stores have big rents. They've got a lot of overhead with staff. My rent's not cheap, but it's not $10,000-a-month and I pretty much run the place by myself. I've got a kid who works occasionally on the weekends but i put in a lot of hours so i don't have to have a lot of overhead. That makes it a little easier. If i had ten people working for me or if i was working up on High Ridge Road or the Stamford Mall, rent would be ten times what it is now."
Wofsey also said the location has helped him secure a loyal customer base with needs he can help satisfy. The community he is located in is one that can appreciate the services he's offering.
"We get a nice mix here, this is a neighborhood store," he said. "People aren't going to drive ten miles to find a movie. My regulars are basically Springdale people; hardworking, middle class. They're not the North Stamford or Downtown 'rich'. It's people raising families. And for a father that's got three or four kids on a Saturday night to come in and rent three or four movies and pay ten to fifteen bucks, it's a lot cheaper than going to the movie theater where it can be fifteen dollars a ticket and then, with popcorn and everything else suddenly you're spending $70."
One of these customers stopped in during the interview, a well-dressed man in a business suit. He came striding into the store at around 1 p.m., cracking a joke upon his arrival in the vein of, "Never fear, for I am here." He walked up to the counter, the two nodded, and Wofsey handed him a DVD in a clear case with a hand-written title along the lines of Girls with Girls.
Critic's Choice maintains an adult section and, Wofsey said, that's another area independently-owned stores have seen a hit lately as well. The Internet has made that section largely irrelevant, though in the spirit of keeping an eye out for the obscure, Wofsey hopes he can continue to provide the obscure.
"I'll tell you what, I used to be the Adult King," he chuckles. "It's not what it used to be, you can get a lot of things like that online. There are some regular movies or clips online, but you're not going to see a whole movie online. Usually, you'll see a scene. But you don't need to see the beginning and the end of an adult movie, so it's been hit even harder."
With everything slowing across the board, Wofsey said he just hopes his offbeat, rare and classic selections will keep people coming back looking for more.
"If there's a film someone wants to see but they're having trouble finding it, that's where I try to specialize. If they let me know they've been looking for a movie for years, I'll hunt it down," he said. "I have a good classic section, I have a good foreign section. I have a good, diverse selection. I never became solely dependent on new releases. I never said, 'I'm going to focus solely on those and screw all the other stuff!' I have a lot of old, black-and-white pictures."
Wofsey said he's hoping that kind of dedication will carry him through the future, even if he has to do a little dancing with the law.
"I enjoy trying to find things that are hard to find, and there is actually an after-market of people looking for that," he said "If a movie has never been copy-written and available for purchase, there is no law against someone making a copy and giving it out, recording it and making yourself a disc. You're not supposed to exchange money. There's a market of people who sell those discs. And they kind of say, 'I'm not selling you the movie, you're just paying me for the disc.' It's a fine line. But if you come to me and say, 'There's this movie I loved as a kid,' I'll get it for you."