More than movies: Inside one of the last surviving video rental stores in the region

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Popcorn Video has survived Blockbuster, Redbox and streaming services

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Streaming services may have spelled the end for video rental stores, but one still stands along 11-E where it’s been for almost 30 years.

It’s mid-afternoon on a Thursday, and the smell of fresh popcorn greets customers as they come through the doors. Neon lights complement the feeling of nostalgia one might feel while perusing 12,000 movies, television shows and video games.

Popcorn Video has about 12,000 titles after 37 years of operation.

Posters of the latest movies push customers to the new releases section, and a row decked with hundreds of television series beckons those prone to binge-watching.

Faith McDonald and her father, Don, are sifting through the titles just like they have every week for the past 20 years. Faith likes horror flicks, but her dad is more into action-packed movies.

For them, coming to one of the last video rental stores in the region is more than about the movies.

“She started coming as a little bitty girl, coming in here, (she) loved the movies,” Don said of his daughter. “She was a very bashful child, would stand on my shoes there and look, it’s just the down-home, family feel when you come in here.

“We come in not only to get movies but just this became her safe space and it just, with their help, brought her out of her little shell.”

Don and Faith McDonald, left, have been coming to Popcorn Video at least once a week for the past 20 years.

Manager Donna Lynch admits that the rise in streaming services has taken its toll on business. Popcorn Video used to have two other locations in Sevierville and Newport. The Greeneville location is the last bastion of video rental left standing, but she said the rental business has weathered other storms.

“A lot of people had said that when Blockbuster came to town that it would kill all the independents, and a number of them did leave. But we did not find their competition to be as strong because they didn’t have the same level of customer service that we had,” Lynch said. “We’ve actually been able to survive a lot of that.”

Part of the reason, she says, is the customer loyalty – customers like the McDonalds have supported Popcorn Video since the store originally popped up in 1981.

Popcorn Video began in the back of a van in 1981, says owner Richard Skull. He spent about a year driving to different convenience stores, dropping off Beta tapes for rent.

It wasn’t long before the venture had a storefront. He moved to the location off of East Jackson Boulevard in 1991, where the store has been ever since.

Manager Donna Lynch, left, and owner Richard Skull, right, say that part of their success comes from the customer service they’ve been able to provide.

Another ingredient to the business’ success is the novelty of a video rental store in the age of Redbox and digital streaming. Lynch said some customers come from as far away as North Carolina to rent movies.

“We have people that will bring their children in, and the children tickle me because their eyes get so big and they’re like “It’s like a library!” Lynch said with a laugh. “Which we are, we’re very much like a library, but with movies instead of books, and the kids love it.”

She also noted that as content keep stretching across multiple streaming services that more people come to the store to find what they’re looking for.

And if it’s not on the shelves, they’ll try to find it. Don remembers a birthday present from years ago from Popcorn Video – a movie from his childhood that he couldn’t find anywhere else.

Patrons get free popcorn.

“For the foreseeable future, as long as they make them, I think we’ll rent them,” Lynch said. “As long as our customer loyals that have been coming here for 30 years keep coming, we’ll be here.

“That’s been the best part, has been the people.”

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