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Davis Journal

Local video store has outlasted other franchises

Jun 17, 2021 01:44PM ● By Becky Ginos

Top Hat has been in several locations over 38 years but customer service has stayed the same. Photo by Becky Ginos

BOUNTIFUL—It’s been 38 years since Lee and Lona Earl started a small movie rental store in the old Five Points Mall. It’s had several different locations, but as other rental places like Blockbuster came and went, Top Hat Video not only survived but continues to thrive.

“We had a friend who told us that Adventure Land was selling a franchise so Lona and I decided to give it a try,” said Lee. “We opened a small store in Five Points with 190 movies and 12 VCRs. We went door-to-door trying to get people to rent it overnight. Most hadn’t tried a VCR.”

Then it became a little bigger store, he said. “We expanded in the mall three times. When the new owner came in and said he was going to tear it down, he asked us to wait for two years to be in the new place. That wasn’t going to work for us so we went to the Square on 2600.”

Top Hat opened on the west side then eventually moved to the east side of the square, said Lee. “We sold the video store a year ago but we still have family there who manage it.”

There were 18 employees at all times, said Lona. “We’ve seen 300 employees come and go. Some still work there, it’s like family to them.”

“For us the employees are like our kids,” said Lee. “We got close to them. Young kids need someone to talk to and that happened to be us. Past employees still check in on us.”

In addition to the movie rentals, Lee started Memories in Motion which he has continued even though he sold Top Hat. “I do the filming for dance performances, shop with a cop, American Cancer Society, weddings, etc.,” he said. “It actually almost started by accident. My neighbor bought a video camera and I suggested he record a wedding as a gift. It was such a favorable experience I went through some classes and learned how to edit and film. My son did it too. We did hundreds and hundreds of weddings. It was fun but not very profitable because of the time it takes.”

Lee said Top Hat opened even before Blockbuster and other rental stores. “One of the things we learned early on was that family and classic movies were more popular in the community than A-titles. We carried those too but we offered a different variety of movies instead of just volume. We knew we needed to be more concerned about our community.”

Redbox and streaming has taken its toll, he said. “There’s 200 in there (Redbox) but ours goes into the thousands. At one point we had over 40,000 movies. People like those old classics like Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller that they can’t find but we have.”

One of the hardest parts about selling it is losing that contact with customers, said Lee. “One customer started coming in when he was a young boy. He played the video games and then when he started dating a girl he’d come in to get a movie. He ended up marrying her and now he has kids who come here. We watched him grow up. It makes a difference.”

Lee said it was hard selling the store. “We’ve had a year of mourning. Honestly it’s been difficult but we’re in our mid-70s so it was time. It was a fun experience and a fun way of life.”