Fiscal cliff: Sneak Reviews may not last the month

It's a beautiful, 70-degree December day, and that's killing Mark Tramontin, the owner of Sneak Reviews, a virtually extinct type of retail establishment– the video store– and one that is a beloved Charlottesville institution.

Because it's so warm, the door is open to the movie mecca, perched on a knoll overlooking Ivy Road, with its vintage posters and unparalleled catalog of art, indie, and foreign films. There's not a customer in the shop.

Remember the days when people flocked to the video store on Fridays to grab movies for the weekend? Since Netflix and streaming video appeared on the scene, it's certainly been a tough slog for video stores. Once-powerful national purveyors Blockbuster and Hollywood Video both closed their doors here in 2009.

By the Hook's count, besides Sneak Reviews, there are two other video stores in business in town and one in Crozet, and none of them are raving about how great business is.

Upstairs at Sneak Reviews, the 32,000 DVDs and videotapes– yes, they still carry video– are arranged by director, or country and director.

"We don't have a comedy section," mentions Tramontin. But there is a Shakespeare section, a kids room, and a documentary room.

"We can find anything in five seconds," he boasts.

Tramontin and a partner bought Sneak Reviews from Ragged Mountain Running Shop owner Mark Lorenzoni 20 years ago. Now Tramontin says, "I don't know if we can make it through December."

Despite holding on for years, Tramontin says he's seen a downturn since September.

"Summer business was good because it was hot and humid," he says. "September was beautiful. People were doing everything except watching movies."

Tramontin has a staff of five who are highly knowledgeable about film. "The entire staff is movie smart," he says. "We can connect customers with what we know that they will like."

Sneak Reviews regular Audrey Dannenberg agrees. "I prefer to rent from someone who knows movies, has a great selection, and can identify movies that I don't even know I want to see."

Dannenberg also says she's a big believer in locally owned. "It's not a big box," she says. "It's one of a kind. It's convenient, and it's open 363 days a year."

"What I love about going there is that often I don't know what I'm going to get," says filmmaker Chris Farina. "Sometimes I pick a room. You can't get that with the Netflix experience."

Farina compares Sneak Reviews to another nearly extinct entity, the local bookstore, for instance, the fondly remembered Williams Corner, where everyone there really loved books until it closed in 1996.

"That love of film," enthuses Farina. "For me as a customer, I share that love. It's a passion, not a number."

Sneak Reviews supports local filmmakers and carried his 1995 documentary, West Main Street, adds Farina.

"When I was younger, that's where I'd find all my art films," he reminisces. "Now I get kids films there."

Of the possibility that Sneak Reviews might be forced to close, Farina says, "That's terrible news. That really would be a loss for the community."

Even the remaining video store proprietors are not rejoicing at news of a possible shuttering of Sneak Reviews.

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," says Ken Meyri, owner of Videos Etc. on Fontaine Avenue. "You should feel good about competition going away, but it doesn't work that way."

Meyri has been open since 1985, and he concedes that his own business is not that great.

"I feel," he says, "like the last buggy whip manufacturer on the Santa Monica Freeway."

He describes the plight of the video store owner as "death by a thousand cuts," which include Redbox, the DVD-vending kiosks.

Videos Etc. has a "ridiculously big number of general and adult movies," he says. But with the advent of online porn, "the adult industry isn't what it used to be," he observes.

Tom Browning has been the manager of Universal Video on Mill Creek Drive for 12 years. "It's a tough struggle, but we're still hanging in there," he says.

Action movies, family fare, foreign films, and TV series do well at Universal, according to Browning. Still, he feels the creep of obsolescence.

"I hope we're still here next year," he offers.

At Sneak Reviews, Downton Abbey is a brisk rental, as are many other British television series not broadcast on this side of the proverbial pond. It's also the only place in town where you can find the Dogme 95 oeuvre–in the Danish section.

It's a place where friends run into each other on a Friday or Saturday night, and talk about movies.

It's a place that may not exist for too much longer.

"I think there are a lot of people who don't know we're here," worries Tramontin. "Maybe it's inevitable we can't stay open, but we want everyone to know we're here."


Ugh - most. depressing. news. ever.

Say it ain't so Mark!

Yes, how disappointing and tragic that none of the people who think this is disappointing and tragic are going to Sneak Reviews....

@Cville Resident...or paying their late fee's... :)

Late fees -- you hit it on the head. That is the sole reason I stopped going to Sneak Reviews. I love love love the place and I would have spent lots of money renting movies, and yes, paying reasonable late fees, but I finally decided to stop over the outrageous late fee policy. Can't risk it! I do still go to Universal Video, which has a much more humane policy. Too bad -- Sneak Reviews is indeed a treasure.

So sorry to hear this. Money never stopped me from going there; I'd forget about the late fees until I had to pay them, say sheesh, and get on with my day. The selection is unparalleled and the service is great; can't get that with Redbox or my Internet-only Netflix subscription. What has been a stopper for all these years is location. I live downtown. I imagine the rent is lower for them out on 250. But I wonder whether a move to, say, Preston Ave., closer to (I think) its true target audience, could have given them a boost.

The late fees were also the reason I stopped going . Otherwise I loved the service.

Late fees?/!, I never thought they were bad. Being charged pretty much a re-rental for something you kept, seemed fair to me. You can't say they'd charge you for being a few minutes late either, I've called many times and they were kind enough to to extend a grace period. So much for personal responsibility.

James - you're right...

When I lived in Charlottesville and worked at UVa, Sneak Reviews was in regular rotation during my lunch break. I often skipped lunch just so I could browse. What a selection they have!

Nowhere in Charlottesville could you find Ingmar Bergman's entire career output. Or Stanley Kubrick's. They stocked Scorsese's earliest pictures, and had entire shelving units devoted to world cinema, organized by country and director.

I always thought Sneak Reviews was a phenomenal resource unlike any other in Virginia -- easily the equal of the best video rental stores I have haunted in New York or L.A.

Meanwhile, grotesqueries such as that ugly Regal megaplex on Hydraulic pop up like mutant mushrooms in dung. What have they got -- 14 screens? -- and they're showing maybe 5-6 titles at any given time.

Sneak Reviews maintains an admirable collection of great cinema, be it classic, obscure or contemporary, as well as a rich selection of offbeat documentaries, short subjects and TV shows that, as the article notes, you will not find anywhere, including online.

I would bet that all the offerings on Netflix and Hulu combined overlap less than 20 percent of Sneak Reviews' inventory.

For film lovers and the intellectually curious, Sneak Reviews is as good as it gets.

If a business like that cannot thrive in Charlottesville, that only reinforces my contention that C-ville is one of the most overrated places to live on this big blue earth.

For all the pretension to cosmopolitan living, C-ville looks, acts and smells just like any other city of its size.

One day an Olive Garden will finally sprout in Charlottesville and then, perhaps, its denizens will be happy. Or at least get what they deserve.

Unfortunately Cinephile, you are correct...was having this very same discussion with Melody Supreme (vinyl(!) record store(!!!!) on the Downtown Mall) via Facebook...I hope for my sake and my kids sake your vision of the future for Charlottesville does not hold true...

I treasure my DVD of Brokeback Mountain, one of several that Mark had donated to a charity ASG auction. He not only enriches the community with his library of great films but supports it with his personal generosity as well. I will be deeply saddened to see the hard work, the decades of accumulated knowlege of film, the tremendous financial investment in a magnificent library of images that is Sneak Reviews go the way of the dodo. But go it must. Scary fact: in 2012 Google brought in more in advertising revenue than all--ALL--all print publications in the US combined. This is why print is doomed. And it is why DVD rentals eventually are doomed too. You just can't compete with the Internet. And a business cannot survive just on the kind feelings of its loyal clientele. It is a business after all, and the market is unsentimental, uncaring, unmerciful. Here's hoping Jeff/Mad library buys his collection (Clemons stopped letting the public check out DVDs some years ago).

I miss the Williams Corner Bookstore, and I'm going to miss Sneak Reviews. I also miss my old Walkman and the Smith-Corona typewriter last used to fill out my college applications, but unfortunately MP3s sound better and are more convenient, as is word processing. Technology gains and losses.

Sneak Reviews is a treasure. I've been a customer for 20 years, and could not be happier with the selection and helpful service.

I once misplaced a DVD from Sneak Reviews and, having given up finding it, paid for the DVD. Mistakenly, I assumed that the late fees would not be added to the purchase price. How silly of me. I complained about what seemed to be an unreasonable fleecing of me and was told no dice.

After having rented from them for many, many years, I vowed never to return and had a very bad taste in my mouth from my last interaction with Sneak Reviews.

If you treat customers poorly, you are burning bridges with the only people that can keep you afloat as a business. No amount of knowledge of film or charitable donations of DVDs can replace the feeling a cash-paying customer feels when he/she gets burned. The ever dwindling number of film snobs cannot keep your business afloat if you choose to rip off your regular customers.

Bottom line: Do not conduct business as this one did and your business will not meet the same fate.

really scary news. we're all rooting for them over here.

Re: meanwhile... So technically, you shouldn't have to pay the rental fees if you loose the item. The lose of such an item (from a rental place)constitutes a sale of said item, at one low price. Ahem, okay.

Sneak Reviews is like a curated collection, carefully assembled over the years. Nothing but the good stuff. That's what we'd be losing if this store closes.

Oh, and when you rent a DVD, you get to have it and the store doesn't. The store can't rent it to anyone else while you have it. And if you lose it, you have to pay to replace it, but that doesn't mean that you don't have to pay for the time that the store didn't have it and couldn't rent it to anyone else. How is that unfair?

James, since you ask, every bit of that is reasonable -- reasonable late fee, and absolutely you would pay for replacement. But . . . $60 when I was in the hospital, for example? Universal, in contrast, stops the late fee when it gets to the cost of the replacing the movie. When I suggested the fee was a little high, the staff laughed and said they had charged much higher fees, even in the triple digits. Let me stress that the staff is great, the store is a cultural treasure, but this one area stands out and actually does cut into the business. I used to come in regularly, but the last fee was the last straw. I don't want this to sound too negative; it's a great place. I am posting this only to explain to James. I truly wish them well and hope things turn around.

James, every business needs returning customers. Charging me more than the cost of the DVD and refusing to reduce the late fees even a little bit may look reasonable from your perspective, or from the perspective of anyone that was not in my shoes. However, if you want a business to last, this is NOT the way to treat your customers, and I used to be one of those customers. I don't have some obligation to frequent this business because some immature film buffs such as yourself think it is a worthwhile place to rent DVDs.

Unfortunately for fans of this business, the attitude you are expressing has led directly to the loss of more than one regular customer to Sneak Reviews. Apparently, those that agree with you were incapable of sustaining this business.

You know what else was incapable of sustaining this business? Your smug, and sadly typical, sarcasm.

No movie rentals in Crozet. Closed down about a year ago.

Sneak Reviews is a treasure trove of movies one could never find online. There ought to be a way to convert it to a nonprofit (like a library) and run it on grants and donations. No rental charges, but steep late fees.

Meanwhile..., talk about bitter. I bet this isn't the only business in town that done you wrong. Smug? Sarcastic? If I knew what these words meant, I might be offended.

I wish them the best of luck, It's a tough market to be in. Peace out.

Not to pick over the bones yet, but it would be nice for the collection to somehow remain intact or at least large portions of it. Rather than a firesale of inventory, perhaps a donation to a library(that could present logistical problems) or an entity that could take the stock and archive it for use. Many of the items will never show up online.

Apple announced that the new imacs will not have an optical drive. This is a sign of the times--cds and dvds are going the way of the cassette tape and floppy disk. Just as those technologies did not 'carry over' all of the media within them, so will it be for the dvd. Hopefully, at least the most valuable and rarest titles can be saved for preservation. Maybe the UVa library would be interested? This may not be feasible from a financial standpoint, but it would be a shame to see this scattered to the four winds.

@ Shempdaddy: "Apple announced that the new imacs will not have an optical drive."

Ouch. I'll bet the folks who ponied up for BluRay are getting mighty steamed.

With 4,000 film titles in my personal collection, I had to stop at DVD. Studios have been double-dipping for so long that I had to draw a line somewhere (kids need college $).

Now I acquire Criterion Collection titles almost exclusively.

Streaming services like NetFlix are so inconsistent with their offerings (available today, gone tomorrow), that it's hard to fathom a substitute for owning your own copy of a beloved film -- or having access to a store that does, like Sneak Reviews.

I agree with you that UVa would make a good repository for the vast collection at Sneak Reviews, though my great wish for the store is that it might somehow survive.

I am sure I am in the minority when I say that having access to the films of Jean Renoir is always a good thing, or being able to locate a documentary that will never appear on a streaming service, or being able to rent a copy of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, etc.

This is not so much an issue of clinging to antiquated technology or outdated business models, but an issue of having access to choices. Sneak Reviews and stores like it prvide choice. Netflix, Hulu,, cater mainly to the masses.

What better thread to highlight the arrogance and pomposity of this town. Commenters' illusions that, somehow, Cville is "better than other towns?" "An Olive Garden will open and then we will get what we deserve?" Comments like these sound like they were crafted by the writers/performers in Monty Python. I haven't seen this type of upturned-nose hoity-toity since Keith Moon used to feign a aristocratic bemusement in his drunken hazes.

The place is closing, folks. It's called technology and market share. Perhaps the supposed film lovers in this town just were not renting enough movies from the guy, eh?

For those of you who want a real tear-jerker of a story of cinematic demise, check out the Philly paper today: the Forum Theater at 22nd and Market has closed. Now that IS sad.

R.I.P.: Bobby Astyr

I will add that the UVa library has a pretty extensive collection of dvds and videotapes and that members of the community can get a library card and check them out. It has drawbacks(inconvenience, parking, inconsistent inventory)--but there is a large repository of documentaries, foreign films, and other features there including a number of dogme films and others.

It is not a replacement for a venue like Sneak Reviews--but may have to do in a pinch.

Shempdaddy, it's true that the UVA library has a great selection of movies, but you have to be a student or teacher to get them. They stopped letting the public check them out a few years ago.

It's not a done deal - tell your family, your friends!! We've done it for stores on the Downtown Mall - let's again show that Charlottesville cares about the local small business employing your neighbors and providing reasonably priced entertainment during these tough times for so many!! You'll have the pleasure of expanding your horizons with films, shows and documentaries you can't find anywhere else! If you haven't been there before, check it out and give yourself a treat! We can make the difference and save this Charlottesville treasure!!

Before Hollywood Video was forcably ousted from Barracks Road, they hit upon a profitable model and turned their business around. They went to a monthly membership subscription where you rent as many movies as you like, but only a certain number at any given time. I liked this model because it is nice to have human beings that you can ask questions. Plus, while Netflix may be convenient the choices are pretty limited. I'd be willing to bet people would pay a membership subscription to Sneak Reviews, they just didn't want to do the fee per movie and big late charges. I think there are ways to fix the system, at least for the short term, and if the owners are willing. Of course, it's always better to change direction when the winds change, not wait many years later after you've already gone adrift.

The location in Crozet and Scottsville closed within the past couple of years. Out in Fluvanna there were two locations, one closed last year. There is still the long lived video rental store called Video By The Lake. It was the first video rental store opened in Fluvanna years ago and still kicking. It has always been family operated and the family that operates it now is great. They have helped me with late fees when I'm late, will hold movies for me for certain days, haven't changed their prices for several years now, and have great customer service. When ever I'm out with my family at local fundraiser events or community events I hear their name because of a donation they have done. They have suggested the public library, Universal Video, and/or Sneak Reviews if they happen to not have the rental I'm looking for. I think supporting your locally owned businesses is more needed now then ever. Don't just do it once to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, make a point to only shop local. The local grocery store, local gas station, local rental store, local resturant, and basically anything that is locally owned and operated. We are losing the true backbone of America, the true American dream to start a business and provide for your family. Good luck Sneak Reviews and hope your future becomes brighter. And good luck to all local business owners, keep your heads up.....hopefully people will see what needs to be done and will show their support.

I'm still upset that there are no longer any good blacksmiths in downtown Cville to shoe my horses.

Funny timing here, since I was a new customer at Sneak Reviews last week. Started out well, they had the DVDs I was unable to find elsewhere, and even offered me an extension over the weekend, so that I would have time to watch the entire series. I loved Sneak Reviews, was all set to be a new regular customer.

But - it went a bit sour when I forgot to return the discs on my way into town on the deadline day & called to ask for an extension til the following morning. They refused (they did offer me a 2-hour grace period, nice gesture, but didn't solve the problem), so I made the 35-mile round trip to avoid paying another $12...oh well. It was their right to charge it, but it means that it is just not convenient for me to return to rent anything else there.

Fyi, Maupin's Music & Video (823-2244) in Crozet is still alive & kicking - a locally-based, family business with knowledgeable, friendly staff who make useful suggestions (and No late fees, although they will make the occasional gentle-reminder phone call for late returns).

Not true, Aldous. See Clay Hill Forge. Used to be in the Utz warehouse on the east side of town:

The comments here have opened my eyes. I will still shop there, when I happen to be in the neighborhood and know I will happen to be in the neighborhood again the next day. But I will caution anybody I recommend it to to watch out for the late fees. And I will shake my head at what I am beginning to see is a reasonable, but not customer-centric, business policy. Really? Someone was in the hospital and incurred late fees because of it? You own the place; if you want to cut one person a break but not others, you get to do that. Wal-Mart doesn't. Best Buy doesn't. But you do. So be kind. Even four times a year would be better than nothing. Nobody even needs to know...

@ancym. So they changed their rental policy once to accommodate you, by giving you an extension. They weren't willing to do it a second time, so you blast them on here.
Four bucks and change for a four day rental, if you're late, they rent it to you again. Don't seem too harsh to me! Peace out.

James, you sure are sensitive about criticism of Sneak Reviews. Ancym hardly "blast"ed them, but simply stated what his experience was.

It's not the 90s anymore. Customers can now easily stream videos without late charges. Video stores that don't accommodate these customers are (were) not doing themselves any favors.

Meanwhile... I'm sensitive to when people don't take personal responsibility.
True, it's not the 90's anymore.

@James hmm,a bit harsh, no? i was just trying to chime in to agree that their business model could use some rethinking, after all, other video rental stores manage without late fees. As i said, they have the right to charge the fees, but in the days of netflix & $3/gal gas, it means it is easier not to rent from them, even though i would love to support them...

@meanwhile i was trying for fair, not blasting, so thanks!

James, you really do seem invested. It's not about personal responsibility. It's about context and how Sneak Reviews differs from other video rental stores my family has used in my decades of going to these places (aside from its wonderful archive and knowledge). Here is where Sneak Reviews splits from other stores -- and therefore why the late fee policy makes them lose customers (and I have heard *many* people voice this, regular friendly people, not bitter souls looking for a bone to pick). Let's say a person forgets about a dvd, or just can't find it, or is, as has happened to me more than once, just too sick or unexpectedly can't get around. Remember the world is increasingly populated by aging people? The majority of policies would call for charging a replacement fee or stopping the charges at the point where the charge is the same as the replacement fee. But at Sneak Reviews, there is never an end to the late fee, never an adjustment for circumstances. It keeps adding up, day after day, week after week, month after month. Or if you or your family misplace a movie, despite your best care? You will pay for every day even if it's been three months, six months, nine months, even if you pay the replacement cost, because they will say exactly what James said -- that during the time you had it, they were losing the chance to rent it, so you are responsible for the lost potential revenue every late day you have it, even though probably someone would not have rented it every single one of those days. Personally I would think it would make more sense to just say, hey, after a set period of time, maybe two weeks, let's cap the charge before it gets out of hand and let's replace this movie, and then everyone would feel better. Sneak Reviews would have a movie to rent out, the customer would not face a staggering fee, and they'd have a humane policy that matches most other places. But instead they choose to lose customers who may pay one or two surprising fees and then just never come back, even though they really would like to come to such an awesome place -- you just can't risk it, because we're just human, and life happens! There, too many words, take it or leave it.

For me, the late fees were significant, but not a deal-breaker. I've always hated the location. That stretch of Ivy is very chaotic and too removed from the center of town, too much student traffic to fight to get there. Personally, I rarely have any reason to be over there.

If Sneak Reviews had been closer to downtown, in a location that would have had a lot of foot traffic from Belmont, North Downtown, Park/Locust, they would still be flourishing today. Of course, it would hinge on having a parking lot that makes it easy to run in quickly to return a movie.

I wish there was some way an investor could help them make the move to downtown, or that they'd done so years ago. Sneak Reviews is an incredible resource.