Suspect Video Closes, After 25 Years

At one time, almost 41,000 films were crammed into Mirvish Village’s Suspect Video.

Hard-copy titles of everything from Hollywood classics to trash cinema cover the walls of what customers called “the Internet before the Internet.” Before the video rental store’s five-month liquidation, owner Luis Ceriz struggled to find space for new copies.

Since 1991, Suspect Video — opened by Ceriz and former partner Merrill Shapiro — has been a dimly lit chamber tucked under the wing of Honest Ed’s. Ceriz, a former Ryerson film student, describes it as a spot where alternative ideas assault visitors.

Luis Cerviz, the owner of Suspect Video and Culture, stands among empty store shelves. (Courtesy Allie Downham)

A quarter-century later, it’s January 2017, and Ceriz has announced on social media that fate is telling him to close already.

Fluorescent lights beam down on now empty black shelves. Two CRT televisions on display play nothing but static. There hasn’t been heating for days and a nearby burst pipe has gushed muddy water into the storefront. Ceriz predicts “locust and pestilence” will come before his store shuts down.

Fortunately, those plagues never came, but Suspect Video’s doors would close forever by the end of the month.

The store, Honest Ed’s and other tenants in Toronto’s Mirvish Village are making way for Westbank, a real estate development company that bought the 1.8-hectare site in 2013 from David Mirvish, son of “Honest Ed” Mirvish. Before his death in 2007, Ed had subsidized village tenants and businesses for over 50 years.

In a December CBC interview, David said his father’s low rents let people “have their dreams and do new things,” but didn’t foster strong retailers. Westbank is planning to tear down existing buildings and develop over 1,000 new rental apartments, a public market, retail space and more on the lot.

Ceriz and staff feel good that Suspect managed to live far into an age where streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube dominate the entertainment industry.

The store’s been named among Toronto’s best video rental stores by blogTO and NOW magazine, citing its extensive collection in horror and exploitation genres.

“A lot of cult video stores would just have an exploitation section. But because we’re so anal about it, we go way further,” Ceriz says. “In terms of sections, everything from hick-sploitation, vet-sploitation, rape-revenge, when animals attack, we’d subcategorize everything. There’s a shark one, bear one, bees, everything.”

Jesse Marcelo Sarkis, a fourth-year image arts student, frequented Suspect Video for three years. He describes his visits to the store as “media archeology.”

“You’re going on a dig,” Sarkis says. “There’s a lot of stuff here that doesn’t exist anywhere else anymore. It’s gone.”

Ceriz and former partner Shapiro, who left the business years ago, offered a mere 450 films at Suspect’s grand opening on Aug. 3, 1991. Neither had any retail experience or long-term business plan.

In fact, the pair wanted to make movies instead. Both planned to use the store to build relationships with film distributors. Ceriz wanted to make horror films, while Shapiro preferred black comedies.  

“After a couple of years of knowing them, we’d say, ‘Actually, we have a couple ideas we want to do. If we have them done, would you distribute them for us?’ A solid idea we never followed up on,” Ceriz says.

Although Ceriz says he didn’t have a clear vision for Suspect, he described the common video rental shop with one word: boring.

“It was very much like going into a supermarket, where everybody bought the same carpet, grid walls, all that stuff,” says Ceriz, adding that store owners oversaturated their inventory with Hollywood titles.

“I was present many times when the customer representatives would say, ‘You should get five copies of that, five copies of this.’ I was just thinking: this is all shit. Why the fuck would you want that many?”

Ceriz says his goal for Suspect’s film collection was to uncover interesting releases and stock up on classics. But, what he learned at the Silver Snail — where Ceriz had his first job — set Suspect Video apart from competitors.

“With comic book stores, you don’t just carry comics,” Ceriz says. “You carry magazines, books, statues, toys, posters, whatever. With every video store, and it sounds ludicrous now, they would only carry movies.”

Neatly placed on shelves and tables inside Suspect are issues of Rue Morgue — a Canadian horror magazine — and figures of Godzilla and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Other collectibles like an out-of-print VHS copy of Wes Craven’s Last House On the Left and a CD recording of a mass at the Church of Satan sit behind a glass pane. Prices ranged from a few bucks to almost $100.

Ceriz and staff also hosted fan signings at the shop, welcoming filmmakers like Lloyd Kaufman, Dario Argento and Peter Jackson — who directed violent horror-comedies like 1992’s Braindead before making the internationally acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy.

One of Suspect’s more memorable guests was Gunnar Hansen, otherwise known as the frenzied “Leatherface” in 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The horror icon attended the shop’s grand opening to mingle with fans.

“He’s quite tall, very imposing because he’s very wide too, but very nice,” Ceriz said. “He came and chatted with everybody and signed tons of stuff. He gave us recipes too.”

Afterwards, Hansen, Suspect staff and friends finished the signing and went for dinner at Southern Accent. Ceriz and Shapiro went home exhausted, but longtime employee Glenn Salter says Hansen was bent on seeing the wilder side of Toronto.

“We took Gunnar out to a strip joint on Yonge Street, The Brass Rail. It was actually pretty fun, especially when we said he was Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw. The DJ announced it on the PA, and immediately, all these strippers started surrounding our table.” Salter says Hansen was treated like a celebrity.

“Appropriate though,” he says with a smirk. “He is Leatherface, after all.”

Ceriz says Hansen remembered the whole night when they crossed paths at a Niagara Falls convention 20 years later. By that time, Suspect had grown into a staple for Toronto film lovers.

Ceriz and staff had collected thousands of titles for sale and rent, released an over 80-page magazine, and opened a Queen Street West location in the late ‘90s, only to watch it die during a six-alarm blaze in 2008.

“The buildings around us burnt,” Ceriz says, adding the building’s condition made attempts to recover “one-off” collectibles, titles and personal scrapbooks too dangerous.

“It became a very busy time because you’re dealing with the insurance company, and this place was still around.”

The way film lovers found new movies had also shifted.

The store has been liquidating its inventory for five months. (Courtesy Allie Downham)

“When new things came out in ‘91, you were paying a lot for those VHS copies,” Salter says. “Thankfully, people were renting big back then, so they turned big profits anyways. Once DVDs came along, the ratio of rents just really decreased. You may have paid $90 for a tape, but it might have rented 300 times. In the DVD era … if you rented it 50 times, that was a good rental.”

Like most video stores, Suspect Video felt Netflix and other streaming services imposing on its profits, as Netflix introduced on-demand streaming to its catalogue in 2007. By 2011, the service had toppled industry giants like Blockbuster, whose brand was eventually bought in a bankruptcy auction.

Some standing video rental stores in Toronto have managed to stay afloat by offering obscure, rare and out-of-print titles streaming services won’t offer.

But Queen Video owner Howard Levman still says Netflix is a “bad word” in his house, attributing the closing of his business’s flagship location to the streaming service. Eyesore Cinema founder Daniel Hanna, who worked at Suspect Video’s Queen Street West location, said operating a video store isn’t a “capitalistic goal” anymore, but a service.

Jack Cameron, another Suspect Video staffer, added when video rental shops with vast collections close, some titles simply vanish.

“It’s a real shame, and the most disappointing part is that people are more concerned with convenience than real choice.”

Although most of Suspect Video’s rentals — classic and obscure — have been sold off, Ceriz continues to order in new DVDs and Blu-rays to sell.

“I think there’s a future too, but I don’t think in rental,” he says.

Some DVDs are releases of modern favourites, while others bring forgotten films back from the dead. Buyers receive remasters of these obscure flicks with additional hours of commentary, documentary footage and more.

These titles — along with Suspect Video’s usual books, toys, vinyl soundtracks, collectibles and other oddities — will be sold on the business’s website; Ceriz says it will be revamped in the next two months.

“I’d always urge people to get hard copy,” he says. “When it’s gone, who knows when it’ll be available.”

He says he plans to draw Canadian horror fans that order from American websites. If online Canadian customers order films and collectibles from Suspect Video instead, Ceriz says they won’t get dinged with exchange rates, international shipping and customs costs.

“In the long run, you’ll get three DVDs for the price of two,” Salter says, adding the site will better handle small labels that are often expensive on Amazon.

Ceriz says he’ll also launch a podcast where he’ll discuss upcoming films, retrospectives and more.

Although the physical location is closing, Ceriz says going online will let him devote time to exclusive releases and smaller distributors.

With Suspect Video, Honest Ed’s and a string of other tenants relocating or disappearing, Torontonians wonder what will become of Mirvish Village.

“When you tear this place down, it’s just one less reason to live in this city,” says customer Alex Macleod, who discovered Suspect Video 14 years ago. “Any other video store that goes out of business, fine. That’s what happens. It’s sad, but time to move on. But (this development) is just a symbol of destruction — something much bigger. I don’t like it.”

Like many regular customers, Macleod treated the store as a social club. They don’t always buy, but they always talk. Patrons gather round the counter long after the money and goods go through, ranting about films most have forgotten while others listen and contribute from afar.

“Going online, that’s a very sheltered thing,” Salter says. “This is a social thing. If you’re lazy, (online’s) a great pro.”

Before Macleod leaves Suspect, he lingers at the door. He scans the aisles one last time, the shelves and bins he’s been sifting through high school. As he opens the door, he turns to Ceriz and waves goodbye.

“Luis, give this fucking place a Viking funeral.”

 

Check out a photo gallery below.

 

 

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