I Luv Video returns: Austin video rental store reborn as We Luv Video
At a time when video streaming giants offer thousands of movies at your fingertips, one iconic Austin video rental store is clawing its way back from the grave. I Luv Video — which operated for 36 years at multiple locations around Austin — is being resurrected as the nonprofit We Luv Video.
The brainchild of a group of devoted I Luv Video fans, We Luv Video aims to recapture the tangible charm of browsing physical movie rentals on DVDs and VHS cassettes. The new incarnation of the store will preserve the spirit of the original, with a focus on community events like movie screenings, eclectic film selections and an unwavering love for the medium.
"I Luv Video was one of the things that I thought really made Austin special," We Luv Video board chair Macy Cotton said. "When my husband and I first moved to Austin, we didn't have much money, so our perfect date night was to rent two or three movies, grab tacos next door, and watch the movies for the entire weekend."
I Luv Video's story began in 1984 with a first location at Slaughter and Menchaca. Within a few years, the video rental empire grew to five stores throughout Austin.
"You'd have a map of Austin and you'd put dots where the video stores were," I Luv Video owner Conrad Bejarano recalled. "Back in the early '90s, there must have been 350, 400 video stores in Austin. Literally, one in every corner. It was crazy."
With the rise of Blockbuster, independent video stores struggled as their new corporate competitor — with spacious, well-lit stores — offered multiple copies of new releases. Stocking those extra movies increased the odds customers would be able to rent the most popular titles, but it was a costly endeavor for small businesses.
I Luv Video survived the Blockbuster era largely by renting rare films and cult classics that larger chains couldn't or wouldn't offer.
"If you wanted to really watch a movie — whatever, Top Gun — back then, you'd go to a Blockbuster. But if you wanted some cool movies, weird, avant garde movies, you'd go to I Luv Video," Bejarano said.
Even as streaming services like Netflix crushed most of the video stores that remained, I Luv Video hung on. But rentals declined. By 2015, the business was down to just one location on Airport Boulevard.
The final blow came in 2020 when the pandemic brought down the curtain on I Luv Video.
"My husband and I were so sad, and we could see there was a huge outpouring of support still on Facebook," Cotton said. "Then about this time last year, my husband and I were talking and we were just like, 'You know, if we could do anything in the world, if we had all the money in the world, what would do?' And it was like: 'Let's bring I Luv Video back.'"
Macy and her husband Ryan Teel began a grassroots campaign to revive I Luv Video. They raised money through crowdfunding, and they convinced Bejarano to lend an estimated 130,000 movies that had been sitting in storage.
"We met up and she told me, 'I came up with a name,'" Bejarano said of the We Luv Video moniker. "It's like, 'Oh my god, that's so ingenious. It's perfect. It's about the We.'"
Bejarano agreed to lease the collection of DVDs and VHS cassettes temporarily with the possibility of donating them, depending on the success of the store.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, We Luv Video will offer memberships starting at $10 per month, Cotton said. Members at the first tier can rent out one movie at a time, but they're welcome to switch out the film as often as they want.
"I think it's probably the best thing that could happen," said Richard Whittaker, the Austin Chronicle culture editor and a longtime customer of I Luv Video. "Reopening I Luv Video as a commercial venture would just be incredibly expensive and incredibly difficult."
The new We Luv Video store, set to open in a few weeks, will be housed in a renovated space next to Workhorse Bar at 100 N. Loop Blvd.
An army of 300 volunteers — organized through the social messaging app Discord — has offered free labor: doing movie inventory, building and painting shelves and eventually working as clerks.
"There are so many reasons to want to be involved," said volunteer Anna Irving, an artist who was painting exterior murals and signage over the door. "Bringing back a piece of Austin that seemed like it had faded away."
We Luv Video is planning a soft opening this Saturday at 6 p.m. with free drinks and a ceremonial "first rental" by Bejarano. A surprise movie will be screened and the nonprofit will preview summer programming.
"Especially these days, it's about anything you can do to create some kind of culture and community and just escape," Bejarano said. "I think it's really important."