Joseph Lum inside his shop, Video Room, on Piedmont Ave in North Oakland. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Video Room, Oakland’s last video rental store where customers can borrow from a massive catalog of films on DVD and other formats, is finally closing its doors. 

Owner and founder Joseph Lum announced the news to his loyal patrons via a notice taped on his shop’s door. The shop bucked a national trend underway for over a decade that’s seen audiences abandon brick-and-mortar rental stores, migrating increasingly to streaming platforms like Netflix. This month is Video Room’s 40th anniversary, a bittersweet milestone for a local gem that’s become a meeting place for cinephiles and lovers of analog entertainment. 

“It’s been a pleasure serving the local neighborhood by providing video entertainment for over 40 years,” Lum wrote in his shop’s farewell letter. 

He told The Oaklandside that he is entertaining offers on the shop, so there’s a slight chance it could continue if the right buyer comes along. But there have been none made so far. “We’re looking to close by May,” Lum said.

Lum is selling off his vast 40,000-movie collection of VHS Tapes, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and 4Ks for $10 apiece. His collection includes everything from musicals to obscure foreign films, though his loyal patrons have already begun to clear out the store. 

“[David] Cronenberg, [Akira] Kurosawa, and [Hayao] Miyazaki movies, some of those are already starting to disappear,” said Lum. “It’s hard to give examples of rare films we have because, by the time this article publishes, it will probably be gone.”

Video Room first opened in 1983 on Broadway and College Avenue. Lum, a San Francisco native, was 33 and working as a civil structural engineer in the East Bay. He wanted to establish a good life for himself and his family. 

“I went to City College in San Francisco and transferred to UC Berkeley. When I finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I thought there was no way I could buy a house in San Francisco so I came to Oakland,” he said.

Lum grew up watching musicals such as the 1964 theatrical version of “My Fair Lady” starring the late film icon, Audrey Hepburn. His love for movies led him and his brother to open a film rental business, but instead of stocking his store with then-popular VHS tapes, the walls were lined with Laserdiscs, then cutting-edge technology. 

Laserdiscs hit the market in 1978, a couple of years after VHS and decades before DVDs would arrive. They were the first compact disc medium that could be used to play movies. 

“I thought, ‘Hey this is going to be the future and we’re gonna open a store,’ and pretty soon we found out that laserdisc was just a niche,” Lum said. 

He and his brother added VHS tapes a year later and business boomed. “We were there for about five years, moved to another location on Piedmont Avenue for another five years, then we bought out another store in 1993.

Video Room hit a slight rough patch in the mid-1990s due to the proliferation of the video rental giant Blockbuster. The company was founded in Dallas, Texas in 1985 and quickly expanded across the United States. 

Lum once again looked to the future and in the late 1990s began stockpiling DVDs. This newer, more compact version of Laserdisc proved to be more successful and Lum made a name for himself in Oakland by offering a more diverse selection of video rentals than Blockbuster. 

A sampling of Video Room’s vast DVD collection. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The future of the analog movie entertainment business seemed bright, but Lum was wary of the industry’s amorphous state. “Everything kept on changing,” Lum said. By the early 2010s, a slew of mom-and-pop video stores and even Blockbuster locations had closed in the East Bay. Video Room outlasted them all but not without cost. 

“Our big mistake was to not let go of the business maybe 15 years ago,” Lum said. Video Room continued to downsize its staff and limit its hours over the years until the pandemic hit, leaving only Lum surrounded by films. But he kept Video Room open for his elderly customers, many of whom prefer the experience of heading to a store, picking out a physical copy, and enjoying a cozy night indoors watching a film

Eventually, the costs became too high to keep the shop going. Lum hopes that someone will buy the store and find a way to make DVD rentals profitable again. 

Personally, he’s happy to be retiring and plans on spending his free time working on a dream project that’s 15 years in the making: writing and producing an original musical titled “Tokyo Rose and I.” 

“I’m going to work on it and hopefully finish it in about a year, so we’ll see what happens,” Lum said. 

For now, he’s manning Video Room’s Piedmont Avenue storefront and selling his merchandise. Lum said he is grateful for all the customers who patronized the shop over the years, as well as his former staff. 

“See you at the movies,” he said. 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.