Rewinding into the past: the last standing Captain Video store remains open

Captain Videos store stands strong despite nearly four decades of rapid change in the entertainment industry. That nostalgia of going back to when you were young and enjoying all the movies that you can watch and stop and rewind and fast forward is what brings customers here and Im all for it, said Ira Belfer, the owner of the last Captain Video store open today.
Captain Video’s store stands strong despite nearly four decades of rapid change in the entertainment industry. “That nostalgia of going back to when you were young and enjoying all the movies that you can watch and stop and rewind and fast forward is what brings customers here and I’m all for it,” said Ira Belfer, the owner of the last Captain Video store open today.
Nicholas Lee

Ira Belfer opens the door to the Captain Video rental video store in San Mateo. Rows of VHS tapes, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs on metal shelves meet his eyes as the early morning sun shines light onto the vintage atmosphere. A sense of nostalgia washes over him as he gets behind the handmade counter and patiently waits for his regulars. He has been able to do what he loves since the store’s grand opening in 1985.

Belfer is the owner of the last remaining store of the Captain Video chain. His journey began as a young kid when he would spend his childhood afternoons in movie theaters. Spending day and night watching movies, he found his burning passion for film and entertainment.

I’m a one-man operation of a mom-and-pop store. There are very few of those around these days.

— Ira Belfer

“As far as the business is concerned, movies have always been fun to me. When I was a kid, I would just go to movie theaters all the time to see movies. You’d have three movies, cartoons, newsreels, and features, and they’d have live-action entertainment. So it was a fun thing, and that was embedded in me,” Belfer said.

As he grew older, he worked in a record factory in the late 70s. With the help of a coworker, he then switched jobs to work at a movie rental store, which came to be Captain Video. At the time, it was only a small chain of stores based out of San Francisco when video entertainment was in its infancy. Nonetheless, Belfer took up work in the Daly City location along with six other coworkers. He vividly recalls one night on New Year’s Eve that struck a chord with him.

“It was a rainy day in Daly City. That Friday, we offered a deal. You rent three movies, and you keep them till Monday. The phone did not stop ringing for 12 hours. The store rented 2500 movies that one day, and by the end of the night, we looked at the shelves, and there was nothing there. It was all just dust. And I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is amazing. You know, you’re getting in on the bottom floor of a business ready to explode,'” Belfer said.

With the permission of the original owners of Captain Video and a $100,000 initial investment saved up with help from his father, he opened his own Captain Video store in San Mateo on March 23, 1985.

“I had six or seven employees here, the manager, assistant manager, shift manager and me and a couple of other part-time people. My dad came out from New York for the opening, and we opened on Saturday. I remember it vividly — we rented out like 40 movies that day,” Belfer said.

However, as with any business, Belfer had to struggle through the early days of the store’s opening. At the time, VHS tapes were expensive, retailing around $80 per tape. Since Captain Video offered rentals to offset the costs, it took a lot of work for the store to establish itself.

“It was hard to get your initial investment back because it would take you three to four months on that one title just to break even. At that point, you had to buy more than one copy of everything because everyone wants what came out yesterday,” Belfer said.

With time, the technology for video entertainment became more advanced, moving on to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Both formats became far cheaper to produce than VHS, changing the store’s business model to sell more movies instead of renting them out. 

“People started buying movies for their own collections. They’d buy DVDs and Blu-Rays, people were picking up their favorite movies, and everybody started having collections,” Belfer said.

In the early 2000s, customers no longer saw the need to purchase or rent movies from stores, and as a result, many popular video store chains began to go out of business.

Brick & Mortar Video Rental Chains (Years opened & closed)

“It’s Netflix. It’s Disney Plus; it’s streaming. The studios have realized there’s a cheaper way for them to make money. It costs them money to make the artwork; it costs them money to make the discs; it costs them money to send it to a warehouse and ship it to all the stores. So eventually, all the stores started going down and out of the business,” Belfer said.

Fortunately for Belfer, his store saw regulars coming in and trading in their beloved movie collections to clear space in their homes as video entertainment moved onto a new age. With this, Belfer changed his model again to suit the changing times — buying movies and selling them to anyone still interested. 

“Now 20 years later, people are going, ‘I don’t need my movies anymore, I can stream every day. Here, take them all.’ So I get a lot of free inventory now,” Belfer said.

Throughout the decades, Belfer’s store became a place of comfort for many people, even after the closure of the original chain. Loyal customers continue to rent, buy, and browse through his “library of movies.”

“The fact that I’m still here. The fact that I have a presence in the community, people know who I am. People feel comfortable coming in here. People spend hours here. Sometimes new people come in and you see their faces light up and that makes my heart feel good,” Belfer said.

Rows and rows of VHSes, DVDs, and Blu-rays line the metal shelves inside the Captain Video store. Ira Belfer stressed that despite the changing times, he has kept the prices of his movies the same. “You can buy a movie here for $2. You can buy a VHS for $1. It costs more to rent the movie. I still charge $2.99, and I have not changed my prices in 39 years,” Belfer said. (Nicholas Lee)

What keeps people coming back to his store, even when streaming services have overtaken physical disk cases and tapes, is the tactile and analog feeling of having a movie in their hands and the overall experience of being in the store, which is absent in streaming services and online entertainment in general.

“I think the visceral thing is that you actually touch the thing. You get to feel things. That’s why people go to bookstores. They go to read, they go to look. You come here, you look at covers, and you look at the back. ‘Oh, I like this director.’ ‘Oh, I forgot he did this and five other movies,'” Belfer said.

In recent years, Belfer has noticed an increase in younger customers, particularly teenagers and young adults, browsing through his store and searching through DVDs, VHSes, and other formats. Seeing this, he encourages the younger generation to look through these lost forms of media as he says, “It would be something that they might actually enjoy.”

Nowadays, Captain Video remains a prominent bastion of the past in the Bay Area. A relic of a bygone era of entertainment and a door to nostalgia for all ages. As Captain Video nears its 39th anniversary, Belfer still welcomes regulars and new customers alike to indulge in a world of a lost medium.

“It’s my blood and guts. Everything about this store is me; I’ve been here for almost 40 years. I’ve sacrificed things — I’m passionate about the business because it’s mine. It’s something that I’ve built here,” Belfer said.

About the Contributor
Nicholas Lee, Staff Writer
Nicholas Lee (Class of 2025) is a junior at Carlmont High School and a vice president of Carlmont's Interact Club. He is currently in his second year of the journalism program. He is working towards getting to know the many individual stories in the Bay Area and what makes them interesting. In his time off, he is often seen reading, running, editing videos, hanging out with friends, and playing the guitar. To view his portfolio, you can click here.

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