VisArt aims to strengthen film community while championing small business development in East Charlotte

By Charlie Leonard

August 4, 2020

The demise of video stores in the late 2000s and early 2010s has been well documented. With the ascent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, big video store chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were forced into bankruptcy. But, in defiance of change have been independent video stores. Adapting to the new media landscape but staying true to themselves, these stores preserve film and video while serving as an important community resource.

Martial Arts section at VisArt Video. Photo: Jalen Marlowe

Once a chain like the big video stores, VisArt had several locations in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area in addition to Charlotte in the ’80s. But, also like the big stores, VisArt struggled to make ends meet when new media was introduced. The Raleigh area stores were forced to close, leaving Charlotte as the last bastion of the VisArt brand.

Charlotte’s location was run by Gina Cerniglia, who had been the manager since 2003. One day, local attorney Mickey Aberman walked into the store to rent a movie. At the time, the store wasn’t doing great, selling off rare titles to stay afloat. After seeing how dire the store’s situation was, Aberman made a quick phone call and purchased the store right then and there. Just like that, he was buying more than a video and in 2010, Aberman became a co-owner of the store. 

VisArt houses over 30,000 titles available to rent. The largest collection of film and video on the entire East Coast. Photo: Jalen Marlowe

In the mid-2010s, VisArt had undergone some changes. The store moved from 7th Street to its current location at the Eastway Crossing Shopping Center in 2015. In 2016, Cerniglia left VisArt and Aberman became the full owner of the store. Aberman’s vision included a film screening room, but he didn’t quite know how to create it. 

He called on Gina Stewart, then the manager of Plaza Midwood’s Common Market, to assist in construction. Stewart was more than qualified to help Aberman. She had experience ranging from management to audio engineering to acting, even making an appearance on the post-apocalyptic drama, The Walking Dead. Stewart was also a member of the Charlotte rock band, Doubting Thomas, in the ‘90s. Coincidentally, Aberman’s law firm managed her band at the time, so she and Aberman had already been acquainted. 

Gina Stewart, Executive Director of VisArt Video, co-owner of Eastside Local Eatery, and co-founder of ’90s Charlotte band Doubting Thomas. Photo: Jalen Marlowe

With a new decade dawning, VisArt has evolved into more than a video store. In January, they became a 501(c)(3) non-profit after a year-long application process. The change helps the video store better preserve their mission of conservation and community outreach. 

It’s a model originally adopted by Scarecrow Video in Seattle, a sprawling mega video store with 130,000 titles in their collection. When Stewart and the VisArt staff asked how Scarecrow was surviving, the Seattle store’s Executive Director, Kate Barr said, “we’re not surviving, we’re thriving,” essentially validating their decision. “It made me become aware of what a valuable resource to a community a film library like this is,” said Stewart. Barr ended up personally assisting VisArt through the non-profit process, acting as a mentor. 

VisArt also offers T-shirts, memorabilia, posters, and action figures. Photo: Jalen Marlowe

Made in the image of Scarecrow Video, VisArt houses over 30,000 titles available to rent. That’s the largest collection of film and video on the entire East Coast. The store also offers T-shirts, memorabilia, posters, and action figures. The quirky collection of physical tapes and movie gifts has given VisArt a cult-like status.

“We get so many people who would come out of town hearing about us,” said Matt Christiansen, the store’s current manager and an employee of 12 years.  

A major draw is the multitude of rare titles VisArt has attained over the years. Christiansen noted that many come into the store specifically hunting for rare VHS and movie tapes. Even with preexisting knowledge of VisArt’s collection, patrons tend to “lose their mind” over just how broad the collection is. There are times that even VisArt employees aren’t fully aware of what they have in stock. In 2009, the store found out they had a copy of Spike Lee’s college dissertation tape, one of four copies ever made. When researching the rare video, they discovered they legally weren’t allowed to have access to the tape at all. In the end, the store was forced to return it.

Matt Christiansen, the store’s current manager and an employee of 12 years. Photo: Jalen Marlowe

VisArt’s commitment to building a film community involves numerous ways of “preserving stories,” Stewart explained. The store began using the screening room she helped build around a year ago. Before COVID-19, the 30-seat room was used for many different events. There were kids birthday parties, stand-up comedy, and independent film screenings. Some of the screenings included a collaboration with the Charlotte Film Society, another non-profit film organization. Together, they co-hosted a variety of films, some of which include: the dark comedy, The Misogynists; the coming of age drama, Premature; and the surreal satire, Greener Grass.

More recent plans include digital options with an educational focus. VisArt recently hired Chris Pittman onto the board of directors at the store. Pittman has previous experience in film editing professionally and currently acts as a Learning Resources Specialist in CPCC’s Digital Film and Videography, Digital Media department. He was brought in to modify a curriculum that would fit the store’s educational ambitions. Some of the planned modifications include converting the screening room into an impromptu podcast and television studio. With donations from film and corporate video professionals, VisArt acquired a new green screen and resourceful equipment for the studio space. The goal is to eventually launch a podcast and YouTube channel with educational programming. 

VisArt Video screening room utilized for kids birthday parties, stand-up comedy shows, and independent film screenings. Photo: Jalen Marlowe

VisArt’s commitment to fostering community has expanded beyond the video store. Eastside Local Eatery, a vegan restaurant that’s run by the video store, opened directly beside it in 2018. The idea for a restaurant came as VisArt transitioned from for-profit to non-profit. Eastside Local Eatery provides an additional avenue to attract customers into the Eastway Crossing strip mall.

An assorted portfolio of business offerings is part of the greater vision Stewart has for Charlotte’s Eastside. She is a big proponent of the neighborhood, calling the area a “frontier of great diversity.” It’s unique, she explained, because the diversity in the area goes beyond race and ethnicity to include various age groups as well. “It’s an opportunity for celebration by the city of Charlotte,” Stewart said.

L to R: Matt Christiansen, Gina Stewart, and “Fuzzy.” Photo: Jalen Marlowe

VisArt Video continues operating despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced even more people to streaming services. Browsing inside the store is closed but the store itself offers contactless video rental through curbside pick-up and delivery. The employees sanitize constantly, taking proper precautions to ensure safety. The store is also enhancing its website which will debut within the next month. Store memberships (a tax write-off) will also be available.  

Resilience in the face of change speaks to VisArt’s importance in Charlotte. “We have such great customers who know films,” said Christiansen. He extends much of the credit to the employees, many of whom have stuck around as long as he has. “Every section is an employee pick section,” he added. “It’s a great community of people that just know and helped build this library.”

Search their inventory online and stay tuned for the new website coming soon. Follow VisArt on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

VisArt Video
3104 Eastway Dr.
Charlotte, NC 28205
(704) 343-3031

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