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Video store isn't just hanging on. It's thriving on horror.

There is a place where the video store never died. Where movie posters plaster the walls and a giant novelty VHS tape hangs above the checkout counter. Where, on a recent afternoon, the owner placed an order for more inventory via an honest-to-goodness telephone.

"I'm sorry, I just have to get his order in today," said Mike Sandlin, owner of Grindhouse Video. He turned his attention back to the vendor on the line. "Puppetmaster, right, I need two of those ..."

There are racks for the "staff picks" (Kortney likes Horns, Colton likes Beaks: The Movie), and a small, adults-only room, obscured by a beaded curtain. There are nearly 2,000 square feet of shelves lined with DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

There's an entire room of VHS tapes.

Who would buy those? Almost on cue, a man in a beanie walked into the room and began plucking tapes like Elvira: Mistress of the Dark and The Mummy. Sandlin shrugged and pointed at the guy.

"A friend of mine told me about this place. I come here as often as I can," said Hunter Barnett, 32. "With Halloween coming up I'm trying to get as much horror, monster, anything themed like that, that I can."

Grindhouse Video is not family-friendly Blockbuster reborn. It has been open for five years in an unremarkable strip mall on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The store does have a wide selection of used, mainstream movies in all genres — The Peanuts Movie sits on a shelf next to Pineapple Express. But the soul of the place is horror, mostly the obscure stuff and cult classics hardcore fans seek. Need a copy of Dude Bro Party Massacre III, Cannibal Claus or Blood Diner? You're covered. Same if you want an Omen T-shirt, a Chucky standee or an autograph from the director of Human Centipede II.

The store carries other genres of exploitation flicks and B movies, too. It's the kind of stuff that's so bad it's good, marked by bizarre plot points, sex and sensational violence, movies once shown nonstop at the "grindhouse" theaters from which it takes its name.

The niche has brought Grindhouse customers from all over the world, Sandlin said, even though until recently he had only invested $250 in advertising. This year, he sponsored the film festival at the upcoming Spooky Empire horror convention in Tampa where he'll have a large vendor booth.

The rapper Slug from the hip-hop duo Atmosphere has been in the store to buy movies for his tour bus and gave Sandlin VIP passes to his show. Sandlin said one couple traveled from Australia to Orlando for Disney World. When they heard about his store, they made a detour across the state to visit Grindhouse.

"I've had people from Japan, Europe, literally coming to Tampa because of the store," he said. "It's becoming a bit of a destination because there's nothing like it."

Grindhouse Video is among a handful of stores in North America that stock new releases by Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow Video, Shout Factory and other companies giving new and out-of-print films high-quality DVD and Blu-ray releases, sometimes limited to a few hundred copies. Many have never been available on a disc, and they're unlikely to ever show up on Netflix or Amazon Prime. The store even keeps a well-stocked rack of rare horror movies filmed in Tampa.

Sandlin buys so many movies from those distributors that they've come to know him. That helps him get priority on more limited releases. It also helps that he's a good curator. His weekly new release videos on Facebook have made him a bit of a tastemaker among collectors.

Detroit's Chris George, who runs the website the Movie Sleuth and seeks out video stores around the United States, visited Grindhouse while vacationing in Clearwater Beach. He called it a "magical unicorn" for the breadth and volume of its inventory.

"There are maybe three or four stores like it in the country," he said. "Nobody has what he has."

Sandlin, 45, got a taste for cult films as a teen during the '80s rental boom. He'd rent the same movies again and again, stuff like Microwave Massacre and Frankenhooker. When he got a driver's license, he immediately drove to every video store in town to get a membership card.

"It was all about the box art," he said. "Some of the worst movies had the best art because they had to sell it. So you would just rent stuff based off the artwork, and then you start liking all these really bad movies"

Tampa Bay was once home to dozens of video stores. Most disappeared around the time industry giant Blockbuster collapsed and shuttered the last of its corporate-owned stores in 2013, after being decimated by digital streaming and Redbox kiosks.

In Pinellas County there is a single store, Game On Movies & Games in Largo, which still rents movies. Other stores might sell DVDs, but they're generally an afterthought on a smaller, neglected shelf inside a record store, bookstore or pawn shop. In the entire state, there are about half a dozen video stores left.

"Video stores are dying," said Elias Breitner, 25, a collector of rare and vintage VHS tapes. "I feel extremely lucky that such a great resource for niche movie collectors is located right here in Tampa."

And while Sandlin does sell movies online, it's the brick-and-mortar shop that brings in the majority of his income. He's as surprised as anyone.

"I did like $2,000 in sales on Saturday," he said. "I make a living selling really terrible movies."

Meanwhile the strip mall where Grindhouse is located has become a mini hub of old-school, physical media retailers feeding off each other. At one end of the plaza is Steelworker Records, which sells mostly vinyl albums. Directly next door is Nerd Out Comics run by Glenn Papp, a friend of Sandlin's since they were teenagers in Fort Myers.

And yes, they are aware of their Clerks vibe, as in the characters from Kevin Smith's classic 1994 film about a convenience store clerk and his friend who abandon their stores to hang out.

On the day the Tampa Bay Times visited Grindhouse, Papp, unaware an interview was going on, locked the door to his comic shop during business hours and walked to the video store to tell Sandlin he was borrowing his car. For Clerks fans — it was not to go to a funeral.

"You'll see us standing out front a lot smoking," said Papp, who is originally from New Jersey, not far from the actual Quick Stop where Smith's film was set. "I'm over there at his store hanging out all the time."

"The only problem is I don't have a trench coat," Sandlin said, referring to iconic Clerks character Silent Bob.

Sandlin worked as a restaurant server for 15 years before he got mad at his boss and quit. He was running out of money and began selling DVDs from his own collection at the Big Top Flea Market, which gave him flexibility to care for his ailing mother during the week. It went well enough that he opened a tiny storefront on Hillsborough Avenue in 2014.

When business took off, he moved to a far bigger space at his current address. Before long, he expanded again by taking over a salon next door. He only imagines getting bigger.

"The next place won't be less than 5,000 square feet," he said. "We're definitely expanding."

And he hopes business will remain good long into the future. He's teaching his daughter, Kortney, so maybe she can run it one day. At 23, she remembers video stores. But only from when she was a kid.

___

Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, http://www.tampatrib.com

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