Friday, October 23, 2009

Adult-Friendly TLA Video Closes Its Oldest Store

After nearly 25 years at its South Street area location, TLA Video, a pioneer in "off the beaten path" video retailing, has closed its store at 517 S. 4th Street.

Begun as an adjunct to Philly's independent Theater of the Living Arts (TLA) movie house, which showed both art films like Putney Swope, Rocky Horror Picture Show (before it became a pop culture phenomenon) and The Mad Adventures of 'Rabbi' Jacob and hosted concerts by local bands, TLA Video opened for business next door to the theater, often stocking VHS tapes of movies that had played at the theater only weeks before.

Eventually, TLA Video, which soon moved to its S. 4th St. location, became part of the "South Street Renaissance," as the city moved to improve sidewalks and streets in the area, in part to attract tourism, and also because the area had become a desired residential area for up-and-coming Center City executives.

But with the recession, as well as the rise of online video shopping at places like Netflix and the availability of video-on-demand (VOD), TLA lost much of its customer base, which had been eroding for several years.

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

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

Indeed, the company, which at its height employed more than 200 people and had seven stores—most in the Philadelphia area but the company made a late attempt at a mid-Manhattan location—has since diversified into Web retailing, catalog sales and even online streaming. The company also sponsors a nonprofit group which runs two local film festivals, the Philadelphia QFest (formerly the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival) and the Philadelphia CineFest. Also, two of TLA Releasing's former executives, Rich Wolff and Richard Ross, recently opened their own video distribution business, Breaking Glass Pictures.

But most familiar with the company remember its "good old days," when on any given day, students from local universities and colleges could be found haunting the store's racks, looking for obscure titles like Alexander Jodorowsky's El Topo or Derek Jarman's Jubilee. The store was famous for stocking movies that, in those pre-internet days, were virtually unobtainable elsewhere. It also had a select but diverse stock of adult titles, which were housed in a separate room, away from its mainstream offerings and out of sight of the children who often accompanied their video-buying and -renting parents.

"I'm very emotional about this," an obviously emotional Kohler told the Inquirer. "People spent hours wandering the store, picking up boxes."

But with the changing times and fortunes, the store had to limit its more obscure acquisitions.

"Now, if you want to investigate the works of Jean-Luc Godard or Wim Wenders, you'll be hard-pressed," Kohler said. "I know the times are changing, but it's a shame that part of the change is a limiting of choices."

Though officially out of business, the 4th St. location will remain open through Thanksgiving to sell off its remaining stock. And although it has also closed three other locations, TLA is still doing business at its Locust Street, Chestnut Hill and Bryn Mawr stores.

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