The last days of Koala Video

It wasn’t a simple decision for Zeng to shutter Koala Video. He didn’t want to, that’s for sure, and the judgement call was made after months of agonising. Still, the door will close permanently on the Balwyn East business in a matter of days (or when most of the remaining stock is sold).

“It hasn’t been easy,”  says Zeng in his understated way, about winding up his 17-year operation.

Koala Video and Zeng are among the last hold-outs of the disappearing breed of suburban video dispensary. When I have let it slip to friends that I rely on DVD borrowing as the main method of viewing new films they are incredulous – at my old-fashioned habits certainly, but also at the continued existence of an anachronism such as a video shop. It’s like hearing about a strip-mall blacksmith, or horse-and-cart milkman.

There is no doubt that the DVD is a disappearing artefact.

Online digital streaming services such as Stan, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (as well as YouTube and illegal movie downloading) have killed the video store.

For the longest time Zeng didn’t want to admit this essential but unpalatable truth.

He argued passionately that articles in the Fairfax press about the demise of a classic suburban institution such as his were hopelessly compromised, since Fairfax itself (now subsumed into the Nine behemoth) was an owner of Stan, and therefore far from objective about the subject.

Yet the evidence was compelling, as all the nearby video libraries gradually went belly-up.

The Blockbuster in Balwyn (and then Mont Albert), the VideoEzy outlets in Hawthorn, Kew and Blackburn South – all now long gone.

It’s hard not to see this as an ineluctable trajectory. For a long time, though, Zeng chose to view this trend as an opportunity.

Customers determined to borrow their films in hard-copy form found their way to the Belmore Rd business, often through word of mouth. Liquidated stock from defunct businesses was absorbed into the Koala collection.

And truth be told, there are some advantages to having movies available in physical form. Families with young children made up a considerable portion of Zeng’s customers.

They could place an order at the fish and chip shop next door, and while they waited, wander around Koala Video and examine a large but finite (curated, if you will) offering.

Over the years Zeng had implemented a variety of generous offers, so that eventually it was possible to borrow a lot of movies for not much money (yet somehow still more than a monthly fee for Stan). Many customers often wound up being slugged hefty fines on their optimistic transactions.

The other audience that benefits from video libraries are the enthusiasts – the cinephiles and obsessives.

Online versions of films invariably don’t include the extras available on disc – the directors’ commentaries, making-of documentaries, and how-to guides.

Without these you might never learn that Ocean’s 12 was made from an existing script that had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. Or how Tony Scott used a hand-cranked camera for parts of Man on Fire, or that a mate of director Edgar Wright wrote the “Is He Slow?” track for the music-heavy actioner Baby Driver. Without DVD extras you might never learn the secret to the perfect toasted cheese sandwich (see the special features on Chef).

Zeng has an incredible work ethic.

Operating a video store means that it stay open for 70 hours plus per week. Ten years ago some of those could be worked by casuals. But as business tightened this became a luxury, and for quite some time Zeng was working all of these himself – 364 days a year. Good Friday was usually permitted as a full holiday; Christmas and New Year’s Day were open for business.

A couple of years ago a regular customer recruited Zeng to the real estate business. It made sense. With his incredible customer service, patience, determination, meticulousness, and drive – not to mention fluency in his native Cantonese and excellent English language skills – there are plenty of things the 48-year-old Zeng could do.

Since that time Zeng has been running the business in partnership with his wife.

During the day, Zeng focuses on real estate – the relentless “sell, sell, sell” of the national obsession. But you’ll find Zeng in the shop from about 6pm most nights, until the close of business at 9pm (10pm on the weekend).

This Herculean workload has taken a toll. Last year there was a health scare – a liver issue – and sometimes he simply looks, well, fatigued. Working a 12-hour day seven days a week will do that.

A few years ago Zeng took a few days off to spend it with a childhood friend over from China.

And this year the shop was closed on January 1 because Zeng’s three children had pleaded with him to take them to a waterslide park outside Geelong. Despite forgoing one of the best business days of the year, Zeng had no regrets. By then he knew that Koala Video did not have a future. The tricky balancing act of two jobs and family life was becoming increasingly precarious.

Attempts to sell the business, however, came to nothing.

One business broker even had the gall to ask for $10,000 up front before even thinking about taking on the assignment.

As for Zeng, he’s bitter-sweet about the business’s demise. And he says it will be at least six months before he feels emotionally capable of watching a movie. That’s a big statement; Zeng will cheerfully sit through any film a customer complains about (usually for technical reasons). A little while ago I caught him watching Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and seemingly loving it.

The local shops situated near the big roundabout at the intersection of Belmore and Union roads will miss Koala Video in the same way that Mont Albert mourned the demise of Pick-A-Flick a few years back, eventually taking with it the Silky Swallow Chinese restaurant on one side and the convenience store on the other. Having a variety of different shops is key to a shopping destination’s health; homogeneity (say, too many restaurants or coffee shops) usually spells trouble.

Koala Video is set to close for good on March 15. In the meantime there is a sale on, and everything must go. If you’re quick, you might even get to take home Herbie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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