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Movie mecca

At 30, Thomas Video is a classic

MT photo/Cybelle Codish
Gary Reichel (l) and Jim Olenski (r) at Thomas Video.
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Published 8/11/2004

Imagine if the record shop in Nick Hornby’s novel-turned-film High Fidelity were a video store, without the flagrant snobbery. There you’d have Thomas Video, a place where no video gets thrown out, a place where obscure sci-fi and horror flicks live forever, where cult and foreign classics are the fare. It’s the kind of place where guys in faded T-shirts stand around discussing film minutiae, like their all-time favorite walking scene (Reservoir Dogs).

Oddities abound inside the Cult Cave, an oasis for the film-obsessed tucked in the rear of the store where you can find such titles as Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy (“Meet Florence Nightmare,” the cover boasts), Redneck Zombie and Killer Condom: The Rubber that Rubs You Out.

Celebrating its 30th birthday, Thomas Video is one of the oldest video rental outlets in the country and has become a cult classic of its own in metro Detroit. Going to the store is like a treasure hunt, says longtime customer Jack Rickerman, an 80-year-old who calls it “the perfect store.”

Rickerman doesn’t like much of the cult and horror fare. But, he says, you can give the staff any subject or actor’s name and they’ll find movies for you. He’ll walk in and say, “Clark Gable,” and they’ll rattle off 10 of Gable’s films.

Co-owner Jim Olenski says his staff is decidedly not snobbish, though they do have strong opinions. One company slogan reads, “Our rudeness means we care.” Customers say the staff is sweeter than that.

“They’re not like Jack Black [was] in that movie [High Fidelity],” says loyal customer Bryan Lieberman, 15.

Olenski introduced Lieberman, of West Bloomfield, to the Italian-made horror films of Lucio Fulci.

“You can even learn stuff by just hanging out there,” says Lieberman. “You don’t get that kind of treatment everywhere. … I can name many video stores that have been complete asses to me.”

Olenski follows a movie-a-day-minimum regimen, and says Thomas Video staff like to take on film “experts” who think they can stump the chumps. But there aren’t many chumps in a store with at least 35,000 titles and owners who have seen most of them.

If you were going to make a movie about the place, you’d have to flash back to the age of polyester, a time long before SUVs came with built-in DVD players. VHS decks and Beta players were rare. Movies were not released in either format. Most folks saw movies at the theater or rerun on television.

Enter Andre Blay, a Michigan-based entrepreneur who is widely credited as the first to gain rights to put feature films on videocassettes. Olenski says Blay’s company, Magnetic Video, sold its first order to Dennis Thomas, founder of Thomas Film Classics in Royal Oak. Others took to the idea of video rental and the industry was born.

Flash forward to the mid-’80s, a time when skaters and spiky-haired kids ruled Royal Oak’s Main Street, before the mega-coffee chains and upscale eateries moved in.

Thomas ducked out of the business, selling to two punk rockers — his employees Olenski and Gary Reichel. (Incidentally, singer Reichel and guitarist Olenski are members of the aptly named Detroit punk outfit Cinecyde. They formed in 1977 and just put out a new album.)

At Thomas Video, Olenski and Reichel amassed a collection of cult favorites, art house fare, foreign titles, local productions and other gems, as well as the usual mainstream offerings.

In 1991 they moved to more-spacious quarters in Clawson.

“We don’t get rid of a title,” Olenski says. “The only time we get rid of a title is if it wears out or if somebody swipes it.”

Thomas Video’s collection of movies with Michigan ties includes Sam Raimi classics like Evil Dead and rarities like 1977’s nearly forgotten Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Then there are Brazilian films, samurai flicks, anime, sci-fi, Westerns, classics and so on.

But Thomas is the place for cult and horror film.

Olenski, who co-authored Video Hound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics, a guide to cult movies, says the “cult” label applies to all kinds of movies with an intense following, usually films that bomb at the box office but become popular among loyal followers. Many times, cult status follows low-budget films. Renting them is not a multimillion-dollar business.

“We know we could make more money doing a different thing,” says Olenski. “I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but I also like the feeling that we’re providing a service for people like me.”

 

Thomas Video in Clawson will celebrate its 30th anniversary with several events this year, including a visit by Detroit’s beloved movie host, The Ghoul, from 1 to 6 p.m., Aug. 14. In September artist Glenn Barr will be on hand to reveal a T-shirt he designed for Thomas Video. Time and date are to be announced. Go to thomasvideo.com for more information.

Clare Pfieffer-Ramsey is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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