BOUNTIFUL — Set in the shadows of the Wasatch Range, a neon sign beckons customers to take a step back in time. Once inside this relic of the past, employees greet Top Hat Video patrons with a friendly welcome. Racks of movies fill the floor, boxes of candy line a wall and friends gather at the store that credits its 35 years of success to the human connection.
“There isn’t a day that we don’t see a customer that says don’t you dare close this door, and that is kind of encouraging,” said owner Lee Earl of Bountiful.
He and his wife Lona opened what was then called Adventureland Video on April 1, 1983, at Five Points Mall in Bountiful. After a name change and a move to several different locations, Top Hat Video is now at The Square at 2600.
When asked how Top Hat Video survived when so many other video stores have gone out of business, Lona is quick to point out it is not about survival but love.
“We don’t look at it as being a survival story. We look at it as a success story,” Lona said. “There are all kinds of media that bombards us and we have always loved what we are doing.”
That love has not come without a lot of hard work. Lee and Lona recalled the early days of the business. At a time when rooftop antennas were popular and satellite and cable were new, VHS tapes entered the entertainment industry. Armed with 10 VCRs and 197 movies, Lee and Lona went door to door peddling their new business venture.
“There was a lot of hesitation at first,” Lee recalled of the early days of video. “But once they (customers) tried it, they were on board.”
The inexpensive cost of renting and the ability to watch a movie in the privacy of one's own home received a warm reception. Almost immediately Lee knew the business was going to be a success.
“It was fun. It was exciting and it kept growing,” Lee said.
Growth came through a variety of changes. The 197 videos that the Earls started with included VHS and Betamax format. As VHS pushed out Beta in popularity, and DVDs stormed the market, Top Hat Video grew with the times, including bringing on the new 4K format. Today, Top Hat has almost 34,000 videos in a 3,000-square-foot store.
“We’ve always been on top of the new technology,” said Shanna Earl of Salt Lake City. She is the manager of Top Hat Video and has been with the store for 22 years. “We’ve always been the first to carry DVD, the first to carry Blu-ray and the first to carry 4K.”
Brendon Elwood of Lehi is the assistant store manager. He explained the new ultra high definition format and said that a 4K disk holds four times the resolution as a normal Blu-ray, with images that are more vivid, colors that are more deep and better sound.
“It’s a feature that studios have invested a lot of resources and money into to continue to hone that home video market,” Elwood said. “We as an independent want to support that.”
Brian Wiser of Salt Lake City has been a frequent visitor to Top Hat Video since it was known as Adventureland. He said that being able to pick out the quality on disk, whether it be DVD, Blu-ray or the new Ultra 4K is far superior to streaming.
“That is all people think exist these days,” Wiser said. “(With streaming there is) lower quality, more waiting time for the video, lack of extras, lack of human interaction.”
Even though he enjoys being able to view the latest technology, it is that nostalgia factor and human interaction that keep him going back to the video store. He likened it to the song from "Cheers," “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”
“The staff is friendly and they make it a point to greet you,” he said. “(Lee and Lona) are real, down-to-earth friendly people. Their values are reflected in their staff.”
Elwood said that customers and the community are the heart of their business.
“Everything we do is to help the customers and the community have the best possible experience for them and their families when they come in,” he said. “We are here for the community.”3 comments on this story
“It’s about human connection,” Shanna added. “I don’t think there is any algorithm of recommendations out there that can compete with human connection.”
The Earls are looking forward to the future. Lee said with the switch to 4K, they have a new, fresh start. And they pass on those updates to the community that supports them.
“We might as well all have the last name as Earl because that is how we look at each other, as family,” Lona said. “It is just that connection with the human soul.”