One of Utah’s last movie rental stores is thriving as the industry fades. ‘We have customers that threaten us — if you ever close, I’ll kill you.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Top Hat video in Bountiful. Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

Bountiful • Lona Earl has never watched a movie on Netflix. Or Amazon Prime. Or Hulu.

“I’m one of those who has never streamed. Ever,” she said.

“But she has 30,000 movies here, so she's OK,” her husband, Lee Earl, added with a laugh.

The Earls own Top Hat Video in Bountiful — which is sort of a blast from the past. It’s a traditional video store stuffed full of DVDs, Blu-rays, 4K and video games.

Nothing rents for more than $4. Memberships are free. And the store is thriving.


Where • 521 W. 2600 South, Bountiful

Hours • 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday; closed Sundays.

Prices • New releases on Blu-ray are $4; new releases on DVD are $3; other movies rent for $1 — and there are all sorts of specials.

Contact • 801-292-2221; TopHatVideo@gmail.com; TopHatVideo.com

“Growing up, we’d come in here all the time,” said Jessica Wilson Nish, a Bountiful native who now lives in New York City. “And every time I come back to stay with my parents, I’m like, ‘Is Top Hat still open?’

“It has everything. It's better than Netflix or Amazon Prime. The [streaming services] might not have a certain movie, and you know you can pretty much get any movie here.”

Make no mistake, Top Hat is not some sad little store with a paltry number of movies on dusty shelves.

“We have over 32,000 titles,” said Shanna Earl, the owners' daughter-in-law and longtime store manager. “The streaming world can't match us.”

Netflix’s numbers fluctuate, but it has about 4,000 movies and about 1,600 television shows in its lineup these days — more than 80 percent fewer than Top Hat.

And, to be clear, that's 32,000 titles at Top Hat, not 32,000 DVDs and Blu-rays. That's new movie releases, classics, family films and tons of TV series.

“I’ve been coming in here since I can remember. Since they still had VHS tapes,” said 19-year-old Ashton Luddington of Bountiful. “And you get more variety than at Netflix and places like that.”

If video stores seem sort of quaint in 2018, they were anything but when the Earls opened theirs 35 years ago.

“Oh, it was very cutting edge,” Lee Earl said. “We had 197 movies and 10 VCRs, and we thought we were pretty big stuff.”

“It was a big investment,” Shanna Earl said.

VCRs were big, clunky and cost $500 apiece; VHS movies cost about $100 each. But the Earls were convinced it was an idea whose time had come, so they took out a second mortgage on their house, spent $32,000 for an Adventureland franchise, rented 600 square feet at the Five Points Mall in Bountiful, equipped it with shelves and counters and opened their doors.

And business didn’t exactly boom.

“It was a slow build at first,” Lee Earl said. “She’d call me and say, ‘Hey, we haven’t even done $25 today. How are we going to pay the rent?’

“And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry.’”

They carried those big, clunky VCRs and VHS tapes to their neighbors, loaning them out for free “to convince them to at least try it.”

Lee Earl kept his job working for Dee’s Restaurants. Lona Earl ran Adventureland — renamed Top Hat a few years later — and they plowed all the money from the video store back into the business for eight years.

“We pretty much doubled the store each year,” Lee Earl said. “It gave us our foundation, and then I left Dee’s and went to work here.”

And then, about the time they left the since-demolished Five Points Mall for The Square at 2600 shopping center in 2001, they began facing heavy competition from national chains like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster.

“When Blockbuster came in, they wiped out probably three-fourths of our business,” Lee said. “That was scary.”

“Those were nervous times,” Lona said.

In the early 2000s, they were surrounded by three Blockbusters in Bountiful. Whereas a Blockbuster guaranteed the latest release would be available by having dozens of copies in each store, “We could never do that,” Shanna Earl said.

“We just accepted that,” Lee Earl said, “and said, ‘OK, what is our niche?’ And our niche was to have a variety rather than having 20 of the latest release.”

The variety at Top Hat is astonishing. Sure, they have the latest releases, but they also have hundreds of classic films. If you know who Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis are, you'll feel right at home.

(They don't carry NC-17 movies, and they'll occasionally pass on a hard R.)

But stand-alone Top Hat was competing directly with a company that had more than 4,500 outlets in the United States. And against all odds, Top Hat is still standing. Today, it has the same number of stores as Blockbuster — which is down to just one, in Bend, Ore.

And there isn’t a lot of competition for the movie/TV rental business anymore. There are Redbox automated kiosks, which feature mostly new releases, and the Salt Lake Film Society’s Tower Video, which features an eclectic mix of mostly older films.

Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are gone, and the days when seemingly every grocery store and gas station rented movies are over. But don’t use the word “survive” around the Earls.

“It's a success story, not survival,” Lona Earl said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever wanted to survive, we’ve wanted to thrive,” Shanna Earl added.

What keeps Top Hat going when virtually all of its competitors have closed their doors?

“We’ve established a really good, loyal customer base,” Lee Earl said — about 40,000 in the active customer base who have rented within the past two years. “We have customers that threaten us — ‘If you ever close, I’ll kill you.’”

It’s not just people who rented video before the advent of the Internet, although there are plenty of those.

“We have seniors that come in, and they don’t want to have to figure out streaming,” Shanna Earl said. “They just want to put it in their player and push play. We have people that were coming in in the ’80s that are now bringing their grandkids in.

“But then we have a lot of people in their teens and 20s who come in and say, ‘Whoa! This is so cool!’ They’ve never even heard of a store like this.”

The store has become “kind of a community hub,” she said, adding that she recognizes “most of the people” who come in. And, as a matter of fact, she readily identified the customers in the store on a recent afternoon.

Those customers recommend Top Hat to their friends.

“Come here!” Luddington said. “It's very homey, and you don't get this kind of experience anywhere else.”

Lona Earl said Top Hat has always emphasized customer service — that customers “spend hours just talking and asking these guys all kinds of questions about different movies.”

Kate Hanks and her family recently moved from Draper to Bountiful “and some friends told us about Top Hat and said, ‘You absolutely have to go.’

“They’re brilliant. They’ll help you. You can reserve a movie. They’ll work with you. If you’re running late, you can renew it for another day. The selection is tremendous, and it’s current. And they’re completely affordable.”

It’s a family affair — and not just because the owners' son and daughter used to work there; their daughter-in-law manages the place; and their grandchildren work there part-time. Current and former staffers recently had a reunion, and several employees who work full-time elsewhere still work a shift or two a week.

“There’s something at Top Hat that runs through your veins,” Lona Earl said.

It’s not like the store hasn’t changed with the times. It started out with a mix of VHS and Betamax tapes … until Betamax lost that battle and disappeared from the shelves. There have been other failed forays (like Mpeg-3) on the way to DVDs and Blu-rays.

Now it’s 4K, and all the changes have been “positive in the end,” Lee Earl said. “At first, it was really difficult dealing with all that. It was, like — where do we go? But 4Ks gave us a shot in the arm. There’s a new format coming out, and none of the others have that yet.” The Earls aren’t planning any big changes, but they’re quick to point out that the store has been evolving since the day it opened.

“We have reinvented ourselves so many times,” Lona Earl said. “The layout of the store and what we bring in and how we deal with it.”

And they're open to whatever comes next — as long as they can keep the homey, customer-service aspect of the business alive.

“If the suppliers will supply us, and there's still demand, we'll stay. It's just that simple,” Lee Earl said.

“We could be here ’til doomsday, I guess,” Lona Earl said.