Time no longer prime for Butler Township video rental business

| Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, 6:22 p.m.

Stephen Dreher trusted his instincts in 1983 when he decided to get into the fairly novel business of renting movies on video cassette tape.

After 30 years in business, his instincts are telling him the time has come to close shop on the last of three Prime Time Video stores he has operated in Butler County.

“I always loved movies and was intrigued by the idea of having a business doing something I really enjoy,” said Dreher, 55, of Center.

“At the time there was one little store in Butler that rented movies, but it was disorganized and didn't keep regular hours. However, when it was open, it was packed. I knew I could do better than that.”

Dreher opened his store in Butler Township with about 800 used tapes he bought from a video store in Ohio that was also advising him on his new venture. He figured out that he needed to take in $53 a day to keep the doors open and began charging $2.50 per rental. The price is the same today.

“When we started out, it was so new that people didn't even care about the title of the movie, they just wanted something they could watch at home,” he said. “Sometimes, customers would rent movies and I'd end up going out to their homes to help them hook up the VCR because they couldn't figure it out.”

Although Dreher eventually carried a large selection of classic movies among the nearly 40,000 films in his rental library, he learned a valuable lesson from his first customer.

“We were open for three hours before a local teacher came in looking for a movie,” Dreher said. “I suggested ‘Casablanca,' but he was looking for ‘I Spit on Your Grave,' which I happened to have.

“I learned that day that it isn't about the movies I liked, it was about the movies customers want: horror, action or anything with a picture on the cover of woman in a bikini holding a gun,” he said with a laugh.

Getting to know his customers and catering to their needs by reserving movies and stocking titles they requested helped Prime Time fend off competition from major national chains such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, Dreher said.

“On a Friday night we'd have two full pages of a legal pad filled with customers' reservations,” Dreher said. “The chain stores weren't doing that. We weren't just a video rental store, this was a place where people socialized.”

Fred Barth started going to Prime Time after the Blockbuster store near his home in West Sunbury closed.

“I didn't even know the place existed, but when I started going there I immediately struck up a friendship with Steve and his family,” said Barth, 69, of West Sunbury.

“Steve got a kick out of the fact that when I returned a movie I would include a rating from one to 10 and a little paragraph I wrote up about what I liked or disliked about it,” Barth said. “They would post it on the wall for customers to see when they asked about a movie. It's really sad to see them go.”

Dreher said the decision to close the store at the end of the month is based on the gradual changes in the way people watch movies.

“It's a matter of convenience,” Dreher said. “People no longer want to get in the car and drive to a video rental store when they can watch the same movie on Netflix, pay-per-view or even on their computer or smartphone,” he said.

“I realized it was time to close when my son, who lives a few minutes from the store, told me he watched the ‘Hunger Games' on pay-per-view because he didn't feel like going out,” Dreher said. “I had seen this trend happening for a while, but that was the moment I realized that this business model is outdated. We've had a great 30 years, but it's time to move on.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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