Visiting Vulcan Video is an increasingly rare experience. There is no surfing the Internet to choose from a pre-selected library of movies. The store front is not a big red box outside of an H.E.B. Vulcan Video visitors can still peruse aisles, brush dust off of VHS tapes and talk cult-film celebrities with employees.
The idea for Vulcan came about in the late 1960s when Dian Donnell couldn’t find any of the movies she wanted to watch.
“This was way before the rise of the home video market,” said Kristen Ellisor, general manager of the Vulcan Video chain. “Back then you couldn’t go find a copy of ‘Casablanca’ anywhere to take home and watch.”
Donnell, frustrated and needing a means of supporting her three children, decided that a video rental service could be a lucrative enterprise. She bought dozens of popular videos and began renting the reels out of a store on 10th Street and Guadalupe. When word spread that anyone could stop by Donnell’s store and pick up a movie, business took off.
Donnell realized that she needed a larger location, and began scouring the city for the perfect spot. She eventually decided to purchase an empty shop on the corner of 29th and Guadalupe, right near the University. She named the fledgling shop Vulcan Video, a name which she borrowed from the first successful psychedelic rock venue in Austin.
“When it was running, the Vulcan Gas Company was the one of the coolest places in town,” Ellisor said. “Even while The Velvet Underground refused to play in Texas, they would regularly make exceptions to stop by the Gas Company.”
The link between the Gas Company and the new video store gave the business a surge in credibility among the “weird” population in Austin and those who still flocked to psychedelic rock shows. Before long Vulcan became the place for people to find crazy, little-known movies. Demand continued to increase, customer loyalty solidified and Vulcan Video opened another store in South Austin.
Vulcan’s employees agree that the methods that allowed Vulcan to grow remain crucial to its continued success.
“The core of our customer base is still people who started coming to us when they couldn’t find the movie they wanted at Blockbuster, and can’t find it now on Netflix or Redbox,” said Bryan Connolly, a Vulcan employee for five years. “It’s the out there movies that generate the most business.”
Ellisor said the rise of Netflix and Hulu make independent video stores more relevant, as the stores can fill in holes missed by the Internet-based services.
Vulcan maintains an extensive VHS collection, housing thousands of tapes at its two store locations. Many movies that came out on tape have not, and will not be converted to DVD.
“We get people all the time who are looking for movies that can’t be found on disc,” Connolly said.
Connolly added that Vulcan tries to acquire as many new movies as possible.
“You can find literally everything there,” said Donzi Flume, a sophomore from San Antonio. “I had heard about this cool German movie that I wanted to watch. I couldn’t find it anywhere, but Vulcan had six, maybe seven copies it.”
Flume also said the staff had an encyclopedia-like knowledge of cinema and film history. Vulcan employees pride themselves on this extensive knowledge, part of what they say consistently brings customers like Flume back.
“We got people who remember Vulcan before computers,” Connolly said. “When movies were catalogued on index cards instead of on computers. They come back every week, and we help them find something great to watch.”