FARGO — Where do old movies go when they die? Answer: To a new home.
That’s the thinking behind the used DVD market, and perhaps no other local business typifies its viability more than Electric Underground, 3109 13th Ave. S. in Fargo.
“Everything used in the store walks through the door,” said Cody Ciesielski, Electric Underground’s manager.
There are healthy collections of used Blu-rays and video games, as well as the recently repopularized vinyl LPs, but they don’t compare to the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 DVDs on the sales floor.
Pricing is based on the condition of the disc, how likely it will resell, and, in some cases, how hard it is to find.
“If it’s something that turns quick, we’ll pay more, versus something that’s gonna sit six months,” he said.
How many titles they buy also has a wide range, anywhere from 100 to 2,000 pieces per week.
“It really just depends on if it’s a big collector selling stuff or just people coming in with a shopping bag of stuff to sell," he said.
The location is carrying on a tradition. It used to be the site of Take 2 Video Express, Ciesielski said, then Vidcycle. It was rechristened Electric Underground in 2016.
It’s still a big enough business to employ three full-time employees and two part-timers.
“We try to diversify as much as we can,” Ciesielski said.
Streaming, and other digital services, have taken their toll on physical media sales, according to the 2018 Motion Picture Association of America THEME report, a comprehensive analysis of the theatrical and home entertainment market environment.
Overall spending on physical entertainment plummeted from $10.3 billion in 2014 to $5.8 billion in 2018. Physical, in this sense, is defined as “Sell-Thru packaged goods, brick and mortar rental, physical subscription, and kiosk rental.”
Digital spending, by contrast, has increased a whopping 170% over the same period.
Ciesielski doesn’t need the MPAA to analyze the trends he’s seeing every month. He knows his customers.
“It’s a pretty even wash,” he said. “The people who are getting out of collecting DVDs or physical media, it’s about the same ratio of people coming in to buy.”
Playing the game
Games, which Ciesielski said are sold all over the area, can sometimes show up new, but mostly they’re used. They have titles for Nintendo NES systems up through PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
“The only stuff we really don’t carry is the Atari stuff,” he said, “and the ColecoVision.”
They sell gaming systems, too, and vaping and CBD supplies. There are a few posters and other collectibles. They have roughly 400 to 500 used vinyl LPs, another 100 to 200 brand new, and approximately 500 to 600 CDs in stock.
“We carry a few other odds and ends, but it really just depends,” he said.
Vaping supplies are likely the biggest revenue generators, Ciesielski said, second would be movies. Games rank third.
The DVDs average $5.99, but it’s possible to get them much cheaper from the discount wall and clearance bins. The bins alone have an estimated 2,000 titles.
Some sales come with deals. There’s also a rewards program: Customers get 1 point for every $5; at 50 points they get $10 off.
“We have a lot of regular customers,” Ciesielski said. “I really don’t know the actual number on that, but there’s quite a few people that come in.”
Eric Strande’s been shopping there for years.
The 39-year-old Fargo resident said he stops in at least once a week, and the store has been known to call him when something comes in they think he’ll want.
“I’m addicted to plastic crack, also known as video games,” Strande said.
He likened shopping second-hand to going to a farmer’s market: Sometimes they have sweet corn, sometimes it’s just cucumbers.
“It’s whatever they get in,” he said.
Sometimes, it’s pure gold.
“I got a huge score of completely boxed NES games from them once,” he said.
The Nintendo games, he said, came in low-quality cardboard boxes that every kid wrecked. Finding them intact is next to impossible, according to Strande, and he got a dozen of them missing from his collection at a superb price.
“It was crazy,” he said.
It’s only part of the reason he keeps coming back.
“It’s 100% customer service,” Strande said. “100%. No doubt in my mind.”
Crossing the line
Across the state line in Moorhead, RetroDisc sits at 1215 Center Ave.
Owned by Elaine and Tim Gaslin, the popular second-hand store specializes in CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays.
“Music is probably two-thirds of our business,” Elaine said.
She estimated they have 5,000 CDs for sale, 1,000 DVDs, and 600 Blu-rays. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 CDs, 1,000 DVDs, and 150 Blu-rays are waiting in the store room.
“We get a huge flow of discs that come into our store on a regular basis,” Elaine said. “The refurbishing process for each disc limits how quickly we can get them out onto the shelf, and we limit how many copies of each title are put out for sale.”
They opened in 1993, she said, and they’ve gone through one name and two location changes. They’ve been at their current 3,000 square-foot store since 2004.
The couple, who are former disc jockeys, used to be on the lookout for CDs, and they stumbled across a popular Twin Cities second-hand store for physical media. There wasn’t anything like it in Fargo-Moorhead, she said.
“We saw the need in the market and thought, we’re the ones to fill it,” Elaine said.
They focused on used discs, not bothering with cassettes or vinyl LPs, and after seven years added in DVDs, and later Blu-rays.
The average cost of a CD at RetroDisc is $4.99, but many are much cheaper. DVDs average $3.99 and Blu-rays $5.99.
Keeping titles in stock has never posed a problem.
“We should’ve known it was a harbinger of things to come,” Elaine said, “when the very first person in the door, the first day we opened, was selling CDs.”
The reasons people unload items have changed over the years, she said, but it’s usually because they want to simplify their lives. Some want to go digital, while others are the exact opposite. It’s not uncommon for someone to bring in many boxes filled with up to 800 titles they’re looking to sell.
“We see people moving both directions, really,” Elaine said. “We have a large core of customers who are really hardcore collectors that just buy, buy, buy.”
When it comes to pricing, who or what it is has to be taken into account. It’s got to be profitable, repairable, or, preferably, in mint condition.
“Condition is a big thing,” Tim said.
Nothing gets out on the sales floor in poor quality.
“It’s a complete refurbishing of the product,” Tim said. “We’re selling peace of mind. That way, you’re not getting something and wonder if it’s going to work.”
They take their business seriously, but there’s also a lot of joy.
“It isn’t exactly your huge, money-making kind of business, but we love movies and music, and we love being self-employed,” Elaine said. “We’ll go on indefinitely.”
Moorhead resident Mark Anthony has been buying from the Gaslins since the 1990s. He started with CDs to boost his personal collection.
“It was a way to do it without going bankrupt,” Anthony said. “The quality was as good as anything new.”
As time went on, Anthony started to buy television series seasons on DVD and Blu-ray.
"Sometimes I'll just gamble on something," he said. "For $9, you'll say, 'Well, I'll try a season of this and see if I like it.'"
He said the Gaslins have always been wonderful to deal with, and their prices have always been a better value than a subscription service, especially for a popular series like “The Sopranos.”
“I just watched it a little later than everybody else,” Anthony said.
Complements, not competition
The stores are less competitors than they are complements.
Both stores also have expensive resurfacing machines that buff out scratches on DVDs and CDs. Both have loyal customer bases, but they also share a fair number of those customers. Both have reputations for superior customer service.
But, Electric Underground does have something in the corner that makes it unique.
It’s called Gadget Garage, and although it shares space near the movies, it’s actually its own entity. Joe Hanson, its owner, will repair almost any wireless gadget from iPhones to tablets and laptops.
“It looks like an electric shop around here,” Hanson said.
It’s actually the size of a good walk-in closet, and it’s tucked in the southeast corner of the Electric Underground space. Hanson said the symbiosis has been good for business.
“In my opinion, we’re so opposite," he said. "I can snag some of their customers just because they come in here all the time.”
Hanson also sells accessories, such as phone cases and thumb drives, as well as “gently used” handsets. He’s always honest with his customers, he said, and always straight forward and realistic about repairs.
The store has been there for eight years, and Hanson’s owned it for the last two.
“I think the thing that kind of sets us apart is that we’ve survived," Hanson said.
On the ground
DVD sales might be down, and it might be impossible to track the used market with accuracy, but there's more to the story than just numbers; you only know it from being on the ground, working with the customers who are consuming all this media.
Ciesielski said a lot of people are cutting their cable television subscriptions, and he knows a fair amount who don’t even have internet connections in their homes.
“It’s kind of a monetary thing,” Ciesielski said. “It’s cheaper to come in and buy a disc and own it forever than it is to pay Netflix $10 a month to watch the same movie.”
There’s also the cyclical nature of both the business and the business of collecting.
“For a lot of big collectors,” he said, “a lot of stuff gets rereleased on different versions, and they want the newest version, so they’ll sell us their old version. We resell that and give it to a new home.”
What: Electric Underground
Where: 3109 13th Ave. S., Fargo
Phone: (701) 293-6727
Where: 1215 Center Ave., Moorhead
Phone: (218) 233-4656
What: Gadget Garage
Where: 3109 13th Ave. S., Fargo
Phone: (701) 356-3763
MPAA 2018 THEME report: www.motionpictures.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/MPAA-THEME-Report-2018.pdf