VINELAND - The business Jeff Mitsui and wife Wendy started in 1985 is still around.

That's impressive for any small business, but more so for Mitsui's business - movie rentals.

The Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos that once threatened to put Four Star Video out of business have all closed, wiped from the landscape in favor of digital video boxes, streaming Internet services and Redbox kiosks.

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Mitsui remembers when a Vineland Blockbuster opened in 1996 a mile from his store. Volume fell 30 percent in a week.

Four Star Video outlived that Blockbuster and the entire chain as well, which closed its remaining company-owned stores in January.

"I'm definitely not making a lot of money," said Mitsui, 68, of Bridgeton. "It's more a love of what I do that has kept me here. I really enjoy the people who come in that I see. They're like family."

Mitsui estimates he rents about 300 DVDs a week - "way down from what it used to be" - and hasn't changed the $3.25 price for two-day first-run and five-day rentals for 18 years.

The store's windows are plastered with movie posters - not relics like "Terminator" or "Goonies," but modern ones: "Frozen," "Anchorman II" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

The store still has a small rack selling previously viewed VHS tapes and boxes of comic books.

Four Star Video opened during the heyday of video nearly 30 years ago, when VHS was still battling Betamax for format supremacy, and even mom-and-pop video stores had staffs of a dozen employees.

Mitsui was working as a quality control manager at a food-processing business amd owning a video store "was a dream," until he lost that job.

"I had all these plans I developed the last few years. I told my wife, 'Why don't we just give it a shot?'"

The doors opened on Dec. 5, 1985. There was plenty of competition then, but nothing like he would see develop in the 1990s.

"My accountant back then told me you can estimate your costs pretty closely, but the part you have no idea about is the income you'll generate," he said. "About a month into it, we started to generate some good income. And that's when everything started to really become a dream come true."

Four Star expanded into a much larger 2,900-square foot store. There were 13 employees at its high, including one dedicated solely to taking phone reservations. The list was 15-pages long some days.

"On a busy Friday or Saturday night, with bad weather maybe, you couldn't walk out of the floor, there were so many people out there," he said.

As with many other independents, those days would not last. Blockbuster, West Coast Video and Hollywood Video developed a deeper foothold in the industry and the region, pushing smaller players out of business.

Mitsui could not compete on price, but focused on customer service and providing niche titles not readily available at other locations. Refurbished previously viewed DVDs also have become a large component of business.

But the weight of industry shifts changed the business and its operations.

"When chains started showing up, (my wife), who had worked along with me, she had to go out and find a job, primarily for the benefits," he said. "That was one of the things that helped us survive. The other was we ended up downsizing and cut down our overhead."

Four Star Video downsized from 2,900-square feet to 1,200 square feet about 14 years ago, he said. Its only staff now is the owner.

Few industries have seen such a dramatic shift in retail as video stores, where the biggest players 15 years ago don't exist today.

The Dish Network bought Blockbuster in 2011, after the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy the year before. The last of the Cumberland County Blockbuster stores closed in 2012.

Other chains left earlier.

Hollywood Video, whose last southern New Jersey store was on Tilton Road in Northfield, closed nearly four years ago during the liquidation of its parent company, Movie Gallery. The logo there was incorporated by the smoke/pipe shop that took over the space, Hollywood Smokin'.

Among competitors now is Redbox, whose revenue was $496 million in the fourth quarter of 2013, parent company Outerwall reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Last year, Redbox - the red kiosks at grocery stores and Walmarts - drove more than 775 million rentals.

And Netflix - a streaming video and a DVD rental-through-mail business - says its Internet network of TV shows and movies logs more than one billion hours of views a month.

At Four Star Video, Mitsui said he might have been able to sell the business in the early 1990s but now it's too late.

He has no plans to retire, but at 68 years old he sees it on the horizon.

"I'm not sure exactly when though," he said, sitting back at 10 a.m. and waiting for a nearby eatery to open so he could grab an egg sandwich.

"It could be within the next couple years, it could be longer. I do eventually intend to retire," he said. "I just have a good time hanging out here."

Contact Brian Ianieri:


Four Star Video

Location: 2630 E. Chestnut Ave., Vineland

Owners: Jeff and Wendy Mitsui, of Bridgeton

Founded: 1985

Employees: Owner operated

Phone: 856-696-3240

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