Austin’s Vulcan Video survived the transition from VHS to DVD. It endured the reign of Blockbuster, and was one of the few independent video stores in the United States to not be driven out of business by their big, blue oppressor. (Vulcan, in fact, lived long enough to see Blockbuster’s own fall.) And while it sustained even more direct hits from Netflix, Hulu, and the myriad other streaming services that have slowly replaced video stores, physical media, and human interaction in recent years, still Vulcan persevered—if just barely. But it couldn’t survive the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, Vulcan co-owner Dian Donnell announced that the store would be permanently closing its doors after 35 years, citing a perfect storm of rising rent, streaming competition, and the quarantine that’s left so many local businesses indefinitely shuttered. There’s something bitterly ironic about this: with so many of us trapped at home with our screens, polling our friends on social media or trawling online listicles for recommendations on what to watch, one of the city’s biggest film archives, staffed by opinionated, self-made movie scholars, isn’t here to meet this moment.
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Like so many casualties of this crisis, it didn’t have to be this way; Vulcan should have, could have survived. After all, it even survived four years of me—a clerk known for “being the most unfriendly, continually hungover Vulcan of them all,” as I was recently told by Austin Film Society programmer Lars Nilsen (who was there a lot and would probably know). I can only offer the usual flimsy excuses for being such an exaggerated stereotype of the grouchy video store clerk: I was in my early twenties. I stayed up way too late every night. I drank too much. I juggled my minimum-wage video store gig with another one waiting tables. But really, I just had a bad attitude. I played in bands, and I had vague aspirations of a music career, so I viewed my day job as a burden—and I was often a huge prick about it. If you worked with me, or were served by me, during the span of 2002 to 2006, I can only offer my belated apologies. Vulcan was a place I only came to appreciate fully in retrospect. I expect that Austin’s about to do the same.
Vulcan was certainly nothing like the video store I’d worked at in high school back in Arlington: 2-Day Video, a would-be Blockbuster challenger whose fate was etched right there in its name, and that spelled out exactly how long you had with your movies. (Most stores gave you at least five days.) At 2-Day, I had to wear a scratchy, tucked-in white polo shirt, and a name tag emblazoned with its “cool cat” mascot, Front Row Joe. I’d pursued the job because I loved watching movies and talking about them. But 2-Day Video stocked primarily new releases and kids’ movies. Anything older than 1970 we crammed into a single, haphazard row dubbed “Classics.” Foreign films, other than a few softcore Emmanuelle-type titles, were virtually nonexistent. I spent most of my shifts fishing tapes out of the returns bin.
Vulcan was the opposite of that experience in every way. Its shelves were not just well stocked but meticulously curated, spanning all genres and geographical regions, broken down into individual filmmakers and hyper-specific subsets beyond that. In the Hong Kong section, you’d find not just kung fu movies but an entire row devoted to the Shaw Brothers. Horror had its own space reserved for giallo, with the works of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci further separated out. Along a wall dedicated to European cinema, F.W. Murnau, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Krzysztof Kieslowski got similar tributes. You could spend a week doing a deep dive into a director’s entire oeuvre, an education that rivaled any of the film classes I’d taken. There were University of Texas professors who designed their syllabuses according to the specific films we carried, too.
Although carefully organized, Vulcan’s selection was also anarchic. It carried plenty of rare editions and bootlegs you simply couldn’t find anywhere else—including banned, unreleased, or otherwise disappeared films like Disney’s Song of the South and Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Vulcan is where I (and many others) finally saw the infamous Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, as well as Brad Neely’s Harry Potter “retelling,” Wizard People, Dear Reader, illegally dubbed over a stolen print. While a lot of these skirted the law, they also served an important purpose: Vulcan aimed to be an archive, one that only became more crucial as titles never made the jump to DVD—to say nothing of streaming. Countless films that are practically lost to history survived for decades on Vulcan’s well-worn VHS tapes.
Nowhere was its educational aspirations more evident than the centerpiece of the store, the Directors’ Wall, which was reserved not just for the usual heavy hitters like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, or Orson Welles, but deeper cuts like Nicolas Roeg, Douglas Sirk, and Ken Russell. Additions to the wall were hotly contested by my manager, the late Richard Dorsett, according to strict criteria of which he was the sole arbiter. In all my time there, I recall only one who actually made the cut: groundbreaking noir director Ida Lupino. I also remember approximately a dozen arguments between Dorsett and another employee about adding Michael Mann. One night, that employee just decided to move Mann over anyway. When Dorsett finally caught on, he angrily pulled all the DVDs from the shelves and relabeled every single one in the system himself.
Dorsett’s passion was belied by his every-half-hour smoke breaks, or the fact that his “employee picks” section remained virtually unchanged for years, so that Malcolm McDowell’s face, grinning from the enormous VHS of O Lucky Man!, always greeted you at the front door. (We’d occasionally prank him by slipping something new on there; he’d notice right away.) Dorsett was an Austin institution himself, a local legend for his years helming the counter at Inner Sanctum Records, reviewing music for the Austin Chronicle, or for getting arrested during the infamous Huns riot at Raul’s. Of course, I found out most of this only after he died. Richard and I mostly talked movies, or music, or books. We had our disagreements about those—Richard was unsparingly blunt about what he considered to be “crap”—and we argued about a lot of other things as well. He remains one of best bosses and mentors I’ve ever had: It was Dorsett who suggested I take a crack at writing up new releases for Vulcan’s email newsletter, a weekly practice that led directly to the career path I’m on now.
He was also the embodiment of what made Vulcan Video such an aspirational place to work. Like its onetime neighbor and friendly rival I Luv Video (still extant, thankfully), Vulcan kept practically half of the Austin music scene employed. I worked shifts alongside Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, The American Analog Set’s Lee Gillespie, and Zach Blair of Rise Against and Gwar fame. When I transferred to the Elizabeth Street store off of South Congress, my manager was the late Lance Hahn, of pop-punk legends J Church. It was little wonder why: Working at Vulcan was—as the Austin Chronicle’s Marc Savlov wrote years back—one of the most coveted jobs in the city. I had to beat out dozens of applicants just to get it, drafting an agonized-over list of my favorite films and directors, and, finally, sitting for an interview with Dorsett and Donnell, where I think I won Dorsett over by wearing a pin for the short-lived synth-punk band The Screamers. But then again, who knows? A lot of getting hired there seemed purely intuitive, even predestined.
Being a Vulcan was an identity. By working there I suddenly found myself connected to Austin and the underground workings of the city. Bouncers at clubs let us into shows for free. We ate almost every meal according to a barter system, trading food with nearby restaurant workers in exchange for rental credit. Once I was on a date at the Alamo Drafthouse, and one of the servers brought us some free pizza, leaning in to whisper, “You’re a Vulcan, right?” It is the closest I have ever come to feeling like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, being swept into the front row of the Copacabana. Working at Vulcan Video conferred a certain status on you, an air of expertise and tacit “cool” that, frankly, was wildly disproportionate with its low-paying, tape-sorting reality.
Of course, this wasn’t about us but about the store itself, whose reputation stretched far beyond Austin. Anyone who worked there has a story of renting to somebody famous, even foregoing the local celebrity regulars like Lukas Haas or Elijah Wood. At the Elizabeth Street location, we would wander over to watch Quentin Tarantino as he filmed bits of Death Proof at the nearby Guero’s Taco Bar, and inevitably he’d turn up later that day with somebody from the cast or crew, showing off the store like it was his own. When Vulcan entered its first major downswing in 2015, Jimmy Kimmel and Matthew McConaughey teamed up to make a Vulcan “commercial,” introducing it to a national audience. (I was selfishly pleased to spot the French ad for 48 Hrs.—with Eddie Murphy flipping the bird—that I’d brought back from Paris still hanging on the wall.) As more and more independent video stores—and video stores in general—shuttered across the country, Vulcan became a living symbol for a fading way of life.
Still, despite Matthew McConaughey’s best efforts, Vulcan continued to struggle. The Twenty-ninth Street location where I’d spent most of my tenure finally closed. By the time I returned to Austin after a seven-year sojourn to Chicago, Elizabeth Street was gone as well. Vulcan had bounced all around Austin in a futile search for lower rents, closing old stores and opening new ones, until only its most recent location off of Ben White remained. In 2019, the store took the unusual step of launching a GoFundMe campaign, asking for $35,000 in donations just to stay afloat. In what turned out to be its dying months, it also shifted focus to selling Vulcan-branded merchandise and holding live events like its Taps and Tapes series, screening obscure movies and serving beer, until that became another early casualty of COVID-19. It rallied around the idea that Vulcan wasn’t just a store but a community, a space for anyone who still saw film as a shared human experience.
But that’s just not how most people approach it these days. Even before the quarantine, many people had stopped looking to video stores and video store clerks for guidance. As stores like Vulcan die off, we draw ever closer to the day when a huge swath of films will become similarly extinct, unavailable on streaming and thus anywhere else—except someplace like Vulcan Video. Maybe then, like I finally did, we’ll realize just how good we had it.