One of the last remaining video stores in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta closed up shop on Jan. 10 after holding on for a remarkably long time. Most video stores in the U.S. closed over a decade ago. In Bethel, the exorbitant cost of high-speed internet kept the business alive.
Jenny Suh is hauling the last bags of trash out of Video World, which first opened in 1986. She handed in the keys on Jan. 11. Her store sits in the Bethel Native Corporation building under a big wooden sign that bears its name. It’s utilitarian, but the peeling paint patina adds a certain nostalgia for simpler times when you had to go to a store to borrow a movie instead of endlessly scrolling through options on streaming platforms.
The dusty, light blue walls are lined with empty slots that once held racks of DVDs. The carpet is best described as “neutral funky”. This was where Suh worked almost every day for the last eight years.
“I worked, like, 12 hours every day, you know, we.. this place has never been painted or changed carpet because we only close Christmas Day,” said Suh.
Suh and her husband took over the store from her husband’s uncle. Her husband is from Bethel, and was raised here by Korean immigrants. Jenny spent her early childhood in Seoul, and then her family relocated to Hawaii’s big island. That’s where she met her husband. She’s the one that brought him back to Bethel. “I wanted to try something new and had to convince him,” said Suh.
Suh said that her small business slowed to a halt during the pandemic. But even without COVID-19 lockdowns, the video sales industry was on the way out due to the popularity of online streaming services. “I mean, we only lasted this long because the internet, they charge so much,” explained Suh.
Melissa Valadez, a friend and customer of Suh’s, said that when the movie theater opened a few years back, business got so bad that the store needed the income from selling pull tabs to stay open. “It kind of just started not doing so well. Rippies still kept it alive, but even that, you know, and then with the pandemic,” said Valadez.
Suh officially stopped renting out videos a few years back, but she continued renting to a select group of 30 or so people who requested the service, including Valadez. “Because she trusted us. She knew we were going to return them,” said Valadez.
Suh said that one of the shop’s struggles had been customers who broke or mishandled the videos and tried to get their money back, but she that said she liked most of her customers.
“The regulars that I met, even when they don't, you know, not for buying anything we went in, they stop by and talk story. And it's, like, one of the most things I like,” said Suh.
Valadez and her sons will miss them when the Suhs return to Hawaii. Their families share a Korean culture, which is not uncommon here in Bethel. Korean Americans are a higher portion of Bethel’s population than of any other community in the state, according to U.S. census data from 2010.
“My kids love them. They call Jenny "imo", which is "aunt" in Korean,” said Valadez
On the other hand, Valadez said that she is happy for Jenny’s upcoming move, explaining simply, “She's going to Hawaii. It's warmer.”