Rod O’Hara’s small-town video shop is a treasure, and one of the last of its kind. We farewell an era with Bellingen Video Connection, a cult classic if ever there was one.
There was a certain kind of Friday-night feeling, being in a video shop – one of anticipation, deliberation, of picking up plastic cases and setting them back down. Of making a choice that was sort of a gamble and throwing the full force of your $6 overnight fee behind it. Of bargaining with your brother, with your parents, or your lover: This one! Beholding the tweens in sleepover mode picking up Scream; Freaks and geeks hiring Freaks and Geeks; leather trenchcoated Matrix goths. From auteurs to pop culture queens, burnt out parents to G-rated kiddies, Point Breakers to straight-out-of-the-tub Bridget Jones gals: everyone went to the video shop.
Until, one day, they didn’t.
Fast forward 30 years and things have changed. Thank God for Rod O’Hara: dedicated regional purveyor of that Friday-night feeling. He’s the owner-operator of the humble and heroic Bellingen Video Connection – Now with DVD! – on Gumbaynggirr Country, on the NSW Mid North Coast where I grew up. “If you choose a movie off the shelf, I think you’re 20 times more likely to finish it,” he says, gesturing at the collection of 25,000-odd DVDs, organised by genre and crammed onto teetering shelves. “If you get something from a video shop, you’re like, ‘Okay, I’ve got this. I’ve got it for one night or one week. I have to watch it.’ And you make the effort. And you might not like what you get, but you’ve made the choice.”
Rod’s in his forties, married with three kids. I am tempted to say that he has directed-by-Kevin-Smith energy. After all, he is a man who works in a video store, who wears flannelette shirts and trucker caps and used to be a skater. There’s a mounted Chasing Amy poster on the shop wall. He collects figurines, and owns a copy of every Star Wars VHS release out in Australia. But before Rod was a video shop guy, he was an archival producer for the ABC’s The 7.30 Report. His business is in history. He’s made the shop a nostalgic outpost of analogue culture – and he’s recently made the difficult decision that it’s time to sell up.
Bellingen Video is nestled in the back of a historic building on Bellingen’s main street. It’s a charming little town, its shopfronts old colonial, its vibe organic and possibly gluten free. If you grew up on the stretch of NSW coastline called The Banana Coast, living a largely Puberty Blues-esque coming of age as I did, Bello was the place you felt safe to be weird. And nowhere more so than at the video shop – just a couple of doors down from the Faerie Shoppe and right next door to a good old-fashioned lolly shop – which has been alive and kicking since the early 90s. You enter through a narrow doorway and follow a corridor lined with old movie posters: Casablanca, Chinatown, Rebel Without a Cause. The shop is pokey and brimming with all manner of wonderfully analogue stuff: framed, autographed photos of Heath Ledger; a knock-off portrait of Seinfeld’s Kramer; Chucky paraphernalia; Alien vs Predator figurines; wonky wall portraits of everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Marilyn Monroe to Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman; 90s tube TVs, VHS tapes, cobwebs draping spookily from the ceiling beams. It’s fantastic.
Rod assures me his decision has not been made lightly, and it’s certainly not for lack of support from his community. There’s the guy who owns the shop across the road, who’s been a regular since 1992, and the mums who now bring in their daughters, repeating the ritual of their own childhoods. Then there’s a whole new generation of young people, who tumble in on bikes and skateboards after school to play the 20c arcade game, buy some stickers, and just hang out. Rod’s been known to give them VHS players, to keep the dream alive. “Most of my customers now are the loyal ones,” he says. “And most people that come in get it, if you know what I mean.”
When Rod and his family moved to Bello and took over the shop in 2018, the biggest threat to the business was, well…that it was a video shop in the age of digital streaming. “And then in 2019, I got cancer,” says Rod. “Then in 2020, my wife got cancer. And then in 2021, it was COVID. So for two-and-a-half years there, it was just hard. I had chemo, my wife had chemo, we both had surgery. There were COVID lockdowns. And there were also the 2019–2020 bushfires here at Christmastime, so everyone was panicking about that,” says Rod. “It wasn’t a happy time where people were out spending money.”
Both Rod and his wife are now in good health, but a run of years like those can take a significant toll. That’s only compounded by rising rents, building maintenance, insurance costs. Rod’s had to take a second full-time job to subsidise Bellingen Video. There are other considerations, too, like staffing and supply chain issues: they don’t make DVD buffing machines anymore! And Rod is nearly out of buffing liquid! Some of the big distributors – Disney among them – don’t even manufacture DVDs for the Australian market now. Usually, Rod doesn’t receive TV series until well after most people have binged them online.
Still, he loves the shop. “It’s become what I want it to be,” he says. “A nice place for us to hang out.” He talks about curating the DVD collection, building up the horror section, hosting weekly cult movie nights, kids’ parties, and occasional gigs. “It’s nice to have that space, which is just yours. I won’t have that anymore.”
I ask if Rod can just cash in on all those outstanding late fees we must owe him. He shoots me down. “I’m not really confrontational, so it’s hard to ask for money, especially when it’s quite a lot – sometimes in the hundreds.” He does confide that there is one account with a spectacular overdue fee, for a rom-com borrowed back in 2006. Last time he checked, those guys owed him $35k.
Rod hopes this isn’t curtains for Bellingen Video Connection, and he’s working to find a new caretaker for the shop. He wants to keep the collection together. “I want it to continue. But also, having run it, the reality of having it continue is pretty slim, given that it doesn’t make any money.” We drink in the riches of the shop: his model T-1000, his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurines, the salvaged stained-glass panelling from an old cinema candy bar. There’s a wealth of great stuff that people don’t pay money for, and in our relentless forward motion, we leave some lovely things behind. “If I were super wealthy, I would definitely keep it going, and it would be my job,” he says.
“The thing I will miss most is the people. We might not like the same movies, but we like old things… It’s a certain way of being around physical stuff. It’s definitely enriched my life in many ways.”
By Mel Fulton @melissajfulton
Mel Fulton is the host of Triple R’s book show Literati Glitterati, and books editor at The Big Issue.
First published in Ed#702