Siblings Sandra and Martin Felix at Fastlane Video in 1996. (Courtesy of Martin Felix)
The year was 1989. Movies like "Batman," "When Harry Met Sally" and "Back to the Future Part II" were Hollywood hits.
On the other side of Hollywood, miles from the production studios and industry gatekeepers, two Mexican-American brothers from East Los Angeles embarked on a plan to deliver movie magic to their side of town.
Martin and Eddie Felix purchased used VHS tapes from the rental stores on the Westside of Los Angeles. Once they had a sizable collection of '80s crowd-favorites, they converted their parent’s garage in East Los Angeles into a video library.
They called their business Fastlane Video, and unlike the nearby video rental spots, they took their cue from pizzerias. They advertised free delivery and pickup, with a free bag of microwavable popcorn for every two-movie rental.
Already running a successful print shop out of the same garage, 21-year-old-Martin and his older brother Eddie designed mini catalogs of their VHS inventory.
They mailed them out to households across East L.A so customers could call in their orders.
“We were one of the first to actually pioneer [movie delivery],” says Martin Felix.
More than a decade before Netflix would come to dominate the rental market and mail DVDs in red envelopes, the Felix brothers were finding innovative ways to collect their share of the lucrative movie industry.
Martin and Eddie enlisted their neighborhood buddies with cars to deliver from Soto Street to Whittier Boulevard, all the way to the 10 freeway.
Business got so good that eager customers started showing up to the Felix’s family home — the address was noted on the return address of the mailed catalogs and flyers — expecting a storefront, only to find a garage.
“We needed a new location because more people wanted to actually come into a shop than for us to deliver,” says Martin.
In 1990, the brothers expanded from their parents’ East L.A. garage to a storefront in the nearby suburb of Pico Rivera. Two years later, the brothers went their separate ways but remained close.
Martin moved Fastlane Video to the city of Whittier and Eddie opened his own printing shop, Fastlane Printing, next door.
Since Martin was a party promoter before the days of Fastlane Video, he knew how to attract large crowds to the store.
In the '90s he often organized autograph-signings with acts like Sweet Sensation and Miranda, and eager teens would show up to get the latest mix-tapes and CDs for their backyard parties.
The part-video-store, part-record-shop quickly became a hub for local DJs and big name recording artists in the house music and freestyle scene.
Unable to compete with the free digital music market kick-started by Napster, Martin discontinued the music side of the business in 2002. When his customers began requesting the newest releases on DVDs, he shifted his business model once again, this time from analog to digital.
“Our location is so small, we got to the point that we had to give away all our VHS tapes,” says Martin.
Today the only VHS tapes in the store are collecting dust in the back closet, left over from DVD transfers Martin makes for customers.
“There used to be a video store on every corner," says Martin. "I was surrounded by 15 video stores, but we're still here."
It’s not a hipster spot with retro decor and underground art house films. Instead, Martin has the big blockbuster titles on 4K and Blu Ray DVDs.
Martin says keeping his shop modern is key to its survival.
“Either we move with the technology and learn from it or just close our doors and say, 'I'm not going to deal with it,' " he says.
The modest place is crammed with more than 15,000 DVDs, leaving little room to move around. Stark fluorescent lighting beams from the ceiling — reminiscent of the early days when Fastlane Video began 30 years ago out of a garage.
“Making that customer smile. That's the only thing that hasn't changed in this industry,” says Martin.
He's even kept his free popcorn special from the early days.
Just like Martin’s original customers from 1989, who preferred the experience of visiting a store over the convenience of home delivery, so do today’s customers, like Angelo Sarni.
“I use Netflix, but I still like walking into a video place and renting videos the old school way,” says Sarni, who on this day is renting copies of "The Equalizer 2" and "Crazy Rich Asians."
For others, paying subscription fees to various streaming platforms on top of their internet bill is out of reach. Fastlane Video is an affordable alternative that comes with the bonus of face-to-face interaction.
Whittier resident Louie Davis frequents the store to rent the latest Marvel movie, and chat about superhero trivia with a familiar face.
“Many customers come here to just talk to somebody. That's what I am to most of them,” says Martin. “Some of them rent movies, some of them don't, but I enjoy being here.”
The crowded store every Christmas Eve is a testament to Fastlane Video’s popularity in the community, explains customer Donald Calkims. In order to clear up shelf space for newer movies, Martin sets up tables in the parking lot stacked with overstocked DVDs that are free for his customers to take home.
“Now, I have a lot of customers that [bring] not just their kids but even their grandkids. So I have four generations that come in here to rent movies,” says Martin.
While streaming platforms have altered the way we consume media, Fastlane Video is a reminder of a time when movies brought people together instead of isolating us on our individual screens.
And as long as the neighborhood keeps coming, Martin Felix says he plans to keep his doors open for as long as he can.
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