One Question Quiz
Alice in Videoland is more than just a store. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Alice in Videoland is more than just a store. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BusinessDecember 24, 2022

Keepers of the flame: The film fanatics behind one of the country’s last video stores

Alice in Videoland is more than just a store. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Alice in Videoland is more than just a store. (Image: Tina Tiller)

For the last 37 years, Christchurch gem Alice in Videoland has carried one of the most impressive film collections in the country. And access to their archive isn’t just limited to those in the Garden City.

A wander around central Christchurch’s Alice in Videoland is an exercise in going down the rabbit hole: full-throttle sensory overload. Classic films beam from an eyeball-shaped television in the back corner; red carpet and Cecil B. DeMille-esque pillars add a touch of classic Hollywood grandeur; naturally, a Mad Hatter figurine surveys the shop and the recognisable white-stockinged legs of Alice herself dangle through the ceiling. Shelves curl into various nooks and practically buckle with over a century’s worth of film history. This is Alice in Videoland, one of the last remaining video stores in Aotearoa. 

“Alice”, as it’s affectionately known, has been a veritable treasure trove of the rare, challenging, interesting and offbeat for the last 37 years. 

Current owner Peter Tonks bought the store three years ago with his business partner Keryn Maguire. “I’m a film buff basically,” says Tonks, who also works on film sets. It was while studying at film school in his early 20s that he discovered Alice and quickly made a habit of taking out two or three films a day. “I was a very good Alice customer, for a few years I might have even been their best customer,” he says. After almost four decades, Alice’s 28,000 title collection remains alive and ready to rifle through – for now, at least. 

Peter Tonks in front of the store’s 500 Greatest Films of All Time. (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Much is made of the death of the video store as their numbers continue to dwindle. But even when standalone video stores were ubiquitous around the country, Alice was a unique breed.

The video industry was still in its infancy when Alice’s late founder Paul Stewart opened the shop. He ran a construction company, but was a long-time arthouse film fanatic. Stewart bought his first VCR in 1983, at a time when national VCR sales had quadrupled in the space of three years. He found a sense of liberation in the machines; his passion for film was no longer at the mercy of local cinemas and censorship laws.

Inspired by this new technology, he bought a share in one of the first video rental shops in Aotearoa, The Video Shack. But the more commercial lean of the shop didn’t live up to his dream for the potential of arthouse video. In 2010, Stewart told The Press, “I was very uncomfortable with the thrust of the industry in those days, I didn’t agree with what they were doing, it was all market driven.”

So Stewart went solo, carting a trolley around the four Video Shack stores, selecting around 420 videos which bought him out of the Video Shack partnership and eventually formed the foundation of Alice in Videoland.

The standalone shop on 84A Hereford Street opened on May 17, 1985 with a tea party. Just like its modern iteration, the original shop was awash with whimsy: customers entered the store by crossing a rainbow bridge, kitschy jungle decorations bordered the ceilings and the front counter was housed in an oversized blue teapot. “An oasis in the vast wasteland of home video” is how Stewart described it at the time.

The original store on Hereford Street. (Photo: Supplied)

Alice was a trailblazer from the outset, and proudly so. The 1984 Cannes winner Paris, Texas was yet to screen in Christchurch – but Alice already had a copy upon opening. While the focus was firmly on the strange and artsy, Stewart understood the importance of having any and all New Zealand films released on tape available for hire. “We don’t expect them to be big sellers,” Stewart said at the time. “But we think the New Zealand film industry deserves as much recognition as possible.” 

With an ever-expanding collection, the shop outgrew its space and moved into larger High Street premises in the old post office building in 1992. Then, in 2000, Alice outgrew its 1989 vintage Macintosh administration system and launched a website. With its three-hour delivery service for Christchurch residents, waiting list system and curated categories, it was a groundbreaking innovation in how a video store could operate in the digital age.

Almost as soon as Alice had adapted to the taking over of the DVD market, another threat appeared, this one more dire. It was the beginning of the end of the video store era. An article in The Press in 2010 hinted at the storm brewing in home video land – a forewarning of what was to come. “In the US, DVD rentals fell by 14 per cent for the first three months of the year,” it read. But, “New Zealand is sheltered as postal DVD services and cable broadband services that stream titles directly to television haven’t made headway,” it added with relief. At the time, Stewart predicted the collection might change form, but was dedicated to ensuring it would live on in some way.

Miraculously, Alice’s entire collection and its building withstood the 2011 earthquakes despite almost everything surrounding the premises being flattened. Soon after, Stewart’s two sons Jeremy and Julian took over the business and, in response to the advent of online streaming services, added a cinema and rebranded the business to Alice Cinematheque. 

These days the shop stays afloat largely through cinema tickets and snack sales. “It’s getting quieter,” Tonks tells me. “There’s always a couple of months where we lose money, and then there’s six months where you do all right, and then there’s a couple of months where you do really well.” Both Tonks and Maguire got into the business knowing the risks of the fading industry, but that was also part of the allure – they were driven to keep the original ambitions for the store alive.

Not quite fully obsolete, the once bountiful video store landscape in New Zealand has transformed into a scattered few standing on shakey ground. Auckland’s only surviving video store closed last year, as did Christchurch’s last United Video. In July this year, United Video Whāngarei closed. Last month, Wellington institution Aro Video announced that they were in imminent peril and so would be shifting their focus to finding funding to permanently preserve their collection of 27,000 films for future generations. 

Eventually, if we remain on our current cinema trajectory, Alice will likely have to transform into an archive in the same vein. But Tonks hopes that’s far off. “The way I look at Alice is that it’s like a museum,” Tonks says. If the end does come, he believes it’s vital the collection remains together. “Paul spent 30 years of his life getting this collection together,” says Tonks. “I owe a lot to Paul because I got introduced to a whole new world of wonderful films and their history.”

The video store has become an endangered species in New Zealand. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Not enough is said of the democratizing nature of the video store. In our just-a-few-clicks-away world of Netflix, Neon, Disney+ and Prime Video, it may seem that films are now more accessible than ever before. But that’s simply not the case for independent, historic and local films. Where once we could stumble across an offbeat film title while scanning the aisles of the video store, today our viewing habits are largely guided by a few big companies and their algorithms. With that, many older or more avant garde films are being left behind. 

Knowing this, in some ways it’s perplexing that we don’t treat film as we do books. We have public libraries but no public cinematheque – a place where films are archived and screened in recognition of the need to both preserve and provide access to cinematic heritage. The absence only underscores the importance of keeping places like Alice alive.

And while Christchurch is lucky enough to host the physical archive, the entire collection can be couriered anywhere in Aotearoa. At the moment, Tonks says the service is vastly underutilised by people outside Christchurch, but Alice offers a subscription service where you pay a monthly fee and receive three, six or 15 DVDs of your choosing – “depending on how much of a buff you are” – from their extraordinarily browsable website, along with a return envelope in the mail. For those lamenting the closure of their local video store, “there’s still somewhere if you want some film history,” he says. “We want these films to get seen, plus, we kind of need it because we need to stay alive.”

The experience might come without the nostalgia of the clacky sounds of browsing DVD cases and the friendly faces of those who work in the store, but it opens up access to what is likely the country’s most comprehensive collection of foreign, classic, cult and festival films. A copy of 1927 German expressionist science-fiction Metropolis sent to your front door. Geoff Murphy’s 1983 Māori western Utu in your letterbox. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. The entire Bro’Town series. The options are unending.

“It’s kind of like we’re the keepers of this sacred library,” says Alice store worker Armand Le Roux. There’s a decidedly romantic aura to working in a video store and dealing with the warmth of the tangible objects they hold. Like Tonks, Le Roux was a customer before he ended up working in the shop. “I just wanted to really work in a video store, it’s been a dream since I was a kid,” he says.

The allure of Alice is that “it harks back to a bygone era,” Le Roux says. “The number one comment we get from people visiting the shop is ‘I didn’t even know there were anymore DVD shops left.’” There’s a good reason for the enduring fascination with physical media like books and records. Viewing films by way of DVD has that same intentional quality. “I love the act of putting the disc into the DVD player, reading the back of the DVD covers, and seeing the visuals that go along with it,” Le Roux says. “It’s just so much more satisfying than browsing endlessly on Netflix or Disney+.”

Alice’s collection is available for hire no matter where you live in the country. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

“We lose so much when everything moves online,” Le Roux says. “You remove the human experience from film.” In their heyday, video stores were essential parts of local communities. Less a place for a quick grab-and-go visit than a place to leisurely peruse titles, enjoy the air conditioning and converse with staff. Video stores serve a function that goes beyond the boxes on the shelf. “You establish this kind of magical connection with customers,” explains Le Roux. “It often starts with talking about what movies they’ve seen, but the more you talk to somebody, the more people start to open up, and I love when we can have real conversations with people and that’s what keeps me here.”

Keep going!