A Small Empire Strikes Back: Waterfront Video shoots from the hip | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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A Small Empire Strikes Back: Waterfront Video shoots from the hip 

Todd Aiken will be happy to know there’s a new shipment of Japanese animation at Waterfront Video. The Burlington college student is already pretty darn pleased at the selection of “those rubber horror films” and other so-bad-they’re-good celluloid stinkers. Pleased enough to go, with his girlfriend and fellow film-lover Erin Phoenix, to the Battery Street rental emporium a couple times a week. “I think its the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he attests.

If not everyone shares Aiken’s taste for cinema oddite — even Phoenix confesses a preference for “artsy-fartsy, better- made films” — Waterfront Video was greeted with a collective sigh of relief among local film aficionados when the store opened last November. Sure, you can find a copy of Phenomenon if you really must, but Waterfront owner William Folmar is on an exceedingly good-humored mission to supply exactly what’s missing in more mainstream outlets. His approach is working: An increasing number of rentals are flying out of the store. With about 5000 titles in stock, more are arriving almost daily — half of them special requests from customers. The staff is about to grow to 12 — and that’s not including the ever-present Emma, Folmar’s 8-year-old Lab with a waggish welcome for all. You can tell Waterfront is different from the moment you walk in the door. The airy, capacious room — formerly one half of the Sanel auto-parts store — has a thrift-shop chic. A kitschy ’50s-style living room in the back, replete with blondwood TV console and Hammond organ, encourages customers to sit down and browse through several fat film guides, or stare at whatever’s playing on the monitor overhead. Video shelves are often decorated, too: a box of Kleenex atop the Tearjerker section; a facsimile of the Maltese falcon over by film noir; a plastic meat-grinder by Fargo; a velvet Elvis near the King’s two dozen movies and nine documentaries. Snacks at the front run to retro, too: Forget Ben & Jerry’s — that’s a freezer full of Friendly’s over by the Twister game.

Folmar’s sense of playfulness is evident even in the categories films are placed under. In addition to the usual Drama, Comedy, Documentary, Western, Musical, and so forth, you’ve got: Cheese. Double Cheese. Way Out of the Closet. Life Begins at 50. In the Slammer. Swashbuckling. Petting Zoo. Four kinds of Horror — classic, cult, something called “hammer” and, well, regular.

But Folmar’s dedication to the arcana of film is nowhere more evident than in, of course, the films themselves. For instance: Been looking for Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman? The outrageous director has his own section at Waterfront. How about Superman and the Mole Men, the first full-length feature — and a sci-fi one at that — starring the guy who put the super in hero, George Reeves. Leon the Pig Farmer? The quirky, unkosher comedy about Jewish guilt and identity goes beyond Woody Allen. And speaking of the bespectacled auteur, his section includes Please Don’t Drink the Water — the 1969 film based on his play. Mad about the raven-haired vampirical seductress Elvira? You’re in luck — there’s a whole series of episodes on the $1.50 “Cheap Seats” shelves.

If you can’t decide, you can always take the advice of Folmar, manager Melo Grant or any of the employees who’ve tagged their personal picks with labels, e.g., “William suggests.” Waterfront’s leading man says “Emma suggests” is soon to come. “But be warned that she only goes for films with dogs,” he adds. Like Wallace and Gromit or Lassie Come Home.

From the high-brow, historic or haughty to the occult, campy and naughty, the selection at Waterfront is nothing if not eclectic. The diversity reflects Folmar’s own tastes — with a special affection for off-beat — along with his encyclopedic knowledge of, and sheer delight in, filmdom. Not surprisingly, it also expresses the former environmental worker’s background: As a child in New Orleans in the '50s, he raced home for the after-school movies on TV – many of them the hokey sci-fi flicks now sitting on his shelves – and made frequent forays to the local theatre. "I really liked horror as a kid," he recalls. "I must have seen every cheesy ’50s and ’60s horror movie ever made.” Like the original version of Little Shop of Horrors or Mars Attacks!

Following his degree in communications at Louisiana State University, Folmar worked several positions in both network and public television, including producing news stories. He attributes his lack of any discernable Southern accent to “watching so much TV — and maybe acting in college theater.”

If the lion's share of titles at Waterfront so far are American, the multiple shelves of foreign-language films (which generally cost more than typical $65 for a new release, and are harder to get) are beginning to rival what the late, great Empire Video offered before it became the more homogenous, hit-focused Blockbuster in South Burlington.

In fact, it was the rise and fall of Empire that stirred up Folmar's long-held fantasy of owning a video store. "I had started with a business plan," he says, "then Empire opened and I knew there was no point in continuing." He didn't consider the idea again until Blockbuster came in, and friends began to comment on the changes. "We just knew there was a niche, a gaping hole when Empire left,” he says. But Folmar isn’t out to dis the corporate chain, nor anyone else. If anything, he’s made efforts to cooperate with some of the other small stores in Burlington. He’s also offered discounts on rentals to local film classes.

The user-friendly atmosphere Folmar's created at Waterfront is not lost on film fanatics. Regular customer Charles Young treks over from Winooski two or three times a week. "It's addicting," he admits. "Occasionally I go to other stores, but now that this is here it's hard to stay away."

Young, bent on teaching himself about film and playing a lot of catch-up, can be frequently seen with one of those film books tucked under his arm, studiously searching the shelves. But sometimes TV classics slip in, too: Last weekend he took home another episode of "The Avengers."

Though she says she doesn't have as much time as she'd like to watch movies, Park Street resident Michelle Lefkowitz is delighted to have a video store in the neighborhood — she was one of the first patrons last November, before the store had even opened. With partner Stuart Weiss and two children, she rents videos about every other week. “We keep the TV off most of the time, so in terms of media, we rely on movies,” she says. “I like how it's laid out, the foreign films, the area divided by directors, the diversity; and there’s a whole level of documentaries..."

At Waterfront Video, the credits keep rolling.


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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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