The last VHS tape: A eulogy for the Sneak Reviews experience

Mark Tramontin closed the doors at Sneak Reviews (for real this time) in mid-July. A portion of the 45,000 title video collection will go to UVA and other universities. Photo: Christian Hommel Mark Tramontin closed the doors at Sneak Reviews (for real this time) in mid-July. A portion of the 45,000 title video collection will go to UVA and other universities. Photo: Christian Hommel

“I’m proud of what we’ve done for more than 21 years. It’s the little guys, the small business that really get to make an impact on the community,” says Mark Tramontin, owner of Sneak Reviews. This month, the local video store closes its doors, marking the end of one of Charlottesville’s most beloved experiences. Because that’s what it was to go to Sneak Reviews: an experience.

It used to be that the front doorbell jangled when you arrived—a sound that was an oft-repeated refrain on busy days, as customers entered to return videos and rent new ones. Inside, it was a movie buff’s dreamland: floor to ceiling movie posters, 16mm film reels dangling from the ceiling like chandeliers, and, of course, shelves upon shelves of new releases. There was always a wall of staff picks to help inspire, from Kieslowski‘s Blue to the latest from Pixar or a local filmmaker.

Upstairs, the real exploration began. Sections weren’t always genre-specific in the traditional sense; more often, films fell into categories of country, arranged by director. Whether British, Japanese, Iranian or Czech, shelves of seemingly endless films created a maze that you could explore time and time again. “It’s always been a place for anyone who’s interested in film… the film knowledge they left with was extraordinary. You learned your directors in no time at all,” says Tramontin. Indeed, Sneak Reviews served as an ad hoc community film school for thousands of residents and UVA students over the past two decades.

The store’s slogan was “where video returns to the art of film” and the beauty of the layout was that it forced browsing. If you tried to find a specific title, there was a good chance you’d have to inquire about the director, and then you’d be sent upstairs to root it out, discovering along the way another film or five that also caught your attention. Tramontin recalls, “You’d have families in different rooms upstairs and they’d spot each other and it’d be, ‘Well, what did you see?’ You don’t have any one person making recommendations, you have the community recommending to the community. That’s always been half the fun. But that’s something that’s disappearing from our society.”

Tramontin bought the store in 1993. “We didn’t have that big of an inventory, but it just kept growing and growing,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to establish a place that was a library and so we didn’t get rid of things, we just kept them.” The last count brought the total to about 35,000 unique titles, totaling approximately 45,000 movies once you account for duplicates. With the store closing, many of these have already found new homes at UVA and other universities.

As the Media Collections Librarian at UVA, Leigh Rockey is helping secure a legacy for the collection by absorbing some of the titles into their circulating video library. “We are set to buy around 13,000 titles,” she says. “The purchase will greatly augment the UVA library’s collection of LGBT, foreign, documentary, horror and major release feature films as well as children’s movies and television series.”

“It’s a collection we admire,” Rockey says. “Everybody in town knows about the wonders of Sneak Reviews.”

A local filmmaker, Zach Keifer, is also working to preserve a lasting memory of the popular rental spot. “I have the distinct memory of the excitement about movies that I got when I entered the store for the very first time,” he says. “It’s one of the last and best examples of what a ‘rental store’ could be. I wanted to film this store because of the fear that it would one day disappear.” Since October 2014, Keifer has filmed interviews with Tramontin and store manager Robert Merkel. “He is more passionate about film than anyone I have ever met,” says Kiefer about time spent with Tramontin. He also remains hopeful that, in the coming weeks, he’ll be able to film additional interviews with customers and former employees in order to preserve the Sneak Reviews experience even after it’s closed.

The store survived one flirtation with obsolescence at the end of 2012, facing a sharp decline in rentals and mounting unpaid late fees from customers. The community rallied though, and it was soon back to business as usual for Sneak Reviews. Since then, streaming sites and alternatives to the traditional movie rental model have grown, as has the historic late fees debt. Combined, these factors were insurmountable. “We don’t want to [close]. We’re doing it because we have to,” says Tramontin. The store stayed open for business through the July 4th weekend, and hosted a sale of all remaining movies, posters and furniture on July 10-11. They have to be out of the space by the end of July.

“Everyone’s just adjusted to the fact that, like a lot of good things in Charlottesville, this is going out. Charlottesville is going to lose its own personality and it’s just going to become an extension of Northern Virginia, at the rate that it’s going,” says Tramontin. As Sneak Reviews and others close their doors for good, it’s apparent that the loss of such cultural institutions has as significant an impact as their contributions to our community once did.

Which former local businesses do you miss?

Tell us about it in the comments.

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