Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

La Cañada Video – The Oldest Video Store in America?

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

It probably is! It’s hard to believe that here in ever-changing L.A., in our relatively young community we have the honor of having both the oldest children’s book store (Once Upon A Time Bookstore), and the oldest video rental store, but it appears so.

This subject came up when I was in La Cañada Video recently, talking to the owner about having just celebrated their 30th anniversary – in the same location at 520 Foothill Blvd. no less! Hamlet Shahbazian told me he opened his business in 1981, and mentioned that he had recently read an article in a national magazine about the seemingly short-lived business of video rental. The article cited the oldest video rental stores in the nation, but Hamlet said they weren’t as old as his store, now at 31 years and counting. I did an Internet search and sure enough, all the stores that claimed “oldest” title were either now closed or were opened after La Cañada Video. As we see another giant Blockbuster Video closing (at Foothill and Castle), the resilience of this “mom and pop” store is worth noting as well.

Hamlet started out as a film student in London. Enamored with cinema, he made the pilgrimage to Hollywood in the late ’70s to work in the field he loved. But as we all know, Hollywood dreams are hard to attain, and he found meaningful work scarce. But there was a new opportunity on the horizon. Video cassette recorders and players were coming on the scene and more and more American households were buying both VHS and Beta players and recorders. Hamlet realized that by renting out tapes – a fairly unusual business back then – he could indulge his love of movies and share his passion with others. In 1981, he opened La Cañada Video in the eastern half of his current location. Rental fees were $2 for two days, and you could also rent the more expensive Sony Betamax player. Technology has come and gone, Beta and VHS being replaced now by DVDs and BluRay, but Hamlet told me what hasn’t changed is America’s love affair with movies.

So how has La Cañada Video survived and thrived when national chains have failed? For instance, a Blockbuster Video came and went right across the street from La Cañada Video. How does a business weather that? Hamlet told me that several factors have contributed to his success. First and foremost is good old-fashioned hard work. Hamlet and his wife Noriko put in long hours, seven days a week. Service is key as well. Hamlet knows his customers and their tastes, and can make suggestions of films they will enjoy, or place special orders of hard to get or out of print films.

But some success is due to Hamlet’s passion for movies and he stocks his shelves with the movies he loves. Customers come from all over L.A. to sample his selection of foreign films. What’s the latest film from Tibet? Or Africa? How about something from Scandinavia, Portugal, Eastern Europe, France, or Italy? If you don’t like subtitles, how about a movie from Ireland or New Zealand? What about the classics? Hamlet has shelves and shelves of your favorite old movies from Academy Award winners and the great musicals, to obscure silent films. He’s certainly got the current movies as well, plus hundreds of “indies.”

Although you’ll usually find Hamlet behind the counter, when he isn’t there the counter is staffed by young film students whose enthusiasm and passion for film rival Hamlet’s.

As the big video rental chains fade away, Netflix and movies-on-demand rise up to challenge the independent video rental business. But Hamlet says he’s not worried about those guys, and he’s not going to try to imitate other businesses. He’s going to follow his heart, doing what he loves, sharing the films he loves with our community.

For those of us who still enjoy the hands-on experience of browsing video shelves, and a friendly face behind the counter, La Cañada Video will retain its “oldest” status for some time to come.