I used to buy VHS tapes at the mall. The shopping center’s heyday as the center of suburban life is well behind us, with thousands of shuttered “dead malls” becoming objects of morbid online fascination. VHS is similarly obsolete, not just as a technology but as a philosophy, as more and more people have made peace with never truly owning a movie. Streaming and online shopping—both conveniently offered through Amazon—have killed this once quintessential consumer experience. Unsurprisingly, it also took Suncoast Motion Picture Company with it.
Suncoast launched in 1986 as Paramount Pictures, a tentative alliance between the eponymous Hollywood film studio and Musicland, an erstwhile monolith of mall-based entertainment. Their arrangement would last only a couple of years, but the concept they tested proved to be slightly more enduring. At the time, everyone from grocery stores to U-Haul had experimented with renting videos, but no one had quite figured out how to sell them—primarily because VHS tapes were still insanely expensive, usually going for around $80-$100 a pop. But when Paramount released Raiders of the Lost Ark for just $39.95 in 1983, generating thousands of preorders, it proved there was a sell-through market for VHS that was only semi-ridiculously expensive. So dedicating an entire store to selling movies, much like Musicland had done for music, seemed like a logical gamble. And though it officially broke away from Paramount in 1988, the newly reborn Suncoast Motion Picture Company continued to thrive throughout the nineties, eventually commanding some four hundred locations in its prime.
Today, just a few of those Suncoasts are still in existence. One of them stands inside the Parkdale Mall in Beaumont, where it’s lingered for decades now. It’s the only Suncoast for many hundreds of miles in any direction, with its estranged sister locations all in states like New Jersey, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Ohio. Somehow it survives, even as the franchise, the industry that supports it, and the entire concept of a mall that surrounds it continue to falter.
Like a lot of mall chains, Suncoast seemed unstoppable until it wasn’t. After a successful decade of expansion, Suncoast and all the other Musicland offshoots were purchased by Best Buy in 2001. The electronics giant had hoped to lure young shoppers into buying stereos alongside their CDs—at the exact time people stopped going to malls and buying CDs. When it finally sold off The Musicland Group in 2003, taking an embarrassing loss, its new owners at Sun Capital then filed for bankruptcy, closing hundreds of Suncoast and Sam Goody stores in the process. Whatever was left was sold off to Trans World Entertainment in 2006, which transformed the whole of the venerable Sam Goody chain into its signature FYE stores. Although it kept around 170 Suncoast locations, most of those were killed off by 2009. The handful that remained, like the one in Beaumont, represent the final vestiges of the brand, their days seemingly as numbered as the physical media they sell.
Of course, if Suncoast had only sold movies, I wouldn’t remember it nearly as fondly, nor would it have inspired myriad YouTube eulogies. More than anything else, Suncoast sold the idea of film fandom, years before everyone started casually dropping “movie geek” in their Twitter bios. Suncoast stores began popping up in local malls in the late eighties and early nineties, and this dovetailed with a new, broader wave of appreciation for classic films that was jump-started by cable television. By 1990, American Movie Classics (now AMC) had become a part of most basic cable packages, while Ted Turner’s purchase of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library had introduced the likes of Gone With the Wind to newer, younger audiences through his TNT and Turner Classic Movies networks. In 1989, MGM also partnered with Disney on its Disney-MGM Studios theme park, where animatronic robots acted out scenes from Casablanca and Alien along The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.), and Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin impersonators capered among the Goofys and Mickeys. “Classic movies” had become a rich, minable commodity by the early nineties. Suncoast was right on time.
If you were a burgeoning movie geek like me—the kind of kid who cajoled his family into going to Disney-MGM as soon as it opened—then Suncoast was your store. It was a little taste of Hollywood, even in the middle of suburban Texas. The neon marquee and metal palm trees of its entrance beckoned you into a space lined with black and white photos of John Wayne and of Michael Keaton as Batman, glowering down at a space absolutely crammed with movies and film memorabilia. Digging through its vast library of film titles, you could often come away with some classic or cult curio that furthered your movie education, like the Citizen Kane VHS I picked up at thirteen. Even better for an insecure adolescent, you could purchase various accoutrements that would give you the appearance of someone who had that education already. Suncoast was where I acquired the many movie posters and 8-by-10 stills that lined my bedroom walls, along with an exceptionally dorky clock shaped like an old film reel. It was where “being into film” became something you could buy. Without Suncoast to foster that identity, I’m not sure who I’d be today.