By Sarah Alvarado
“I bought a theater for the house,” Manuel beamed.
He had been waiting outside the apartment complex to catch Sonia when she pulled in.
“What’s that?,” Sonia asked eyeing the huge box Manuel was holding. Manuel started for the door with an impish grin. Once inside he tore open the box and began connecting the contraption to the TV.
“It’s a VCR!”
They had two kids named after themselves – Manuel Jr and Sonia Veronica. Sonia worked at a cafeteria downtown. Manuel drove a furniture truck. Sometimes he took four year-old Sonia Veronica with him. He never came home late and always helped with the cooking, the cleaning, and the kids. The family was close to leaving their small yet happy, $170-a-month apartment in Huntington Park. They had been saving to buy a house for four years. The neighborhood wasn’t bad, but Baby Jr.’s clothes were always being stolen off of the clothesline.
As soon as Manuel finished he realized he had no idea where to find VHS tapes. The young family piled into their car, excited to find movies for their magic VCR machine.
Eventually they found a VHS rental store on Atlantic Blvd. The place bustled with recently VCR’ed patrons, everyone clamoring to find something to use on the gadgets. Sonia and Manuel rented “Escape from Alcatraz,” and were required to leave a $70 deposit for the privilege.
Later, in the afterglow of the excitement, the couple pondered what they’d seen at the store.
“Why don’t we open our own VHS rental store?” said Sonia.
The store on Atlantic had lines of customers, and there were no other rental places for miles around. So they took a chance with the house money to start a business.
“Where can we buy VHS tapes for ourselves?” Manuel asked nicely, as he returned their rental the next day. The tapes weren’t available at any store he could think of and he didn’t know anyone else who could possibly know. The video rental shop-keep was wary, but ultimately relented.
“Well, there’s a warehouse…”
Later that day, Sonia and Manuel were digging through large boxes of tapes in a nondescript warehouse. She was from El Salvador; he was from Mexico. They didn’t know if any of these old American movies were good. Most of the movies were in black and white, from the 50s or 60s, and starred actors they didn’t recognize. They picked their tapes based on the pictures on the boxes and hoped for the best. They walked away with 70 tapes, 16 of which were marked “XXX,” and each costing between $60 and $150.
They rented a space in a small shopping center near the Anthony Quinn Library. Manuel built two racks to display the empty VHS boxes; the tapes themselves would be tucked away behind the counter. The 70 boxes were placed far apart in an effort to make the place seem less bare. The one-time membership fee was set at $100; the rental fee was $2 per movie with the movie to be returned the next day.
On the first morning, Manuel affixed a handmade 12’x8’, red, wooden “Video Rental” sign to the front of the store. They made $2,000 from membership fees alone that day. By that afternoon all the tapes were out. They began telling the customers that if they returned the tapes within the day they would get $.50 back. The tapes started coming back within two hours. No customers dared steal or not return the precious tapes because no one wanted to risk losing their membership to one of the only video rental stores around.
Every day Manuel traveled from Los Angeles to Orange County looking for places to buy VHS tapes for his anxious customers. Sonia minded shop with Sonia Veronica playing in the foreground and Manuel Jr tucked into a baby-swing in the back. The provisions for the day were in a small ice chest packed with snacks and baby food. Customers called constantly.
“Do you have any movies?”
They didn’t ask for a specific movie, just something to play on their VCRs. People weren’t sleeping – they would rent 10 movies at a time, only to bring them back the next day, jonesing for more. Manuel loved to call and ask, “Have we rented anything yet?” happy to be reminded of their success. Every night Sonia and Manuel were hungry and exhausted. Between watching the store and driving between warehouses there was no time to eat. They often ordered burritos from the Apache Café.
In the early days they experimented with fashion. Manuel built changing rooms and brought in a shipment of lady’s clothes to utilize the extra space. Sonia noticed that the neighborhood cholas weren’t interested in buying the clothes, just trying them on and staining them with their heavy make-up. The clothes were quickly out.
Five months in, they found a better, higher-traffic location at Eastern and Brooklyn. The new store was christened Sonias Video, as the family contained two Sonias. They were making $8,000 a week, about half of that was made on weekends alone. Other stores sprang up, but none came close to Sonia and Manuel’s selection. Quickly they opened a second store, V&M Video, named after their kids Sonia Veronica and Manuel. Next came Happy Video, named by Manuel because he was so happy. The last store of their empire was Sono Video after Sonora, Mexico.
They hired family members to run them. Soon they were in a position to undercut any new competition and they had long since established customer loyalty. Blockbuster barely threatened them. Sonia dressed for work in a smart business skirt with a matching blazer; Manuel generally opted for a leisure suit with a jacket. They were in love with each other and partners in a lucrative business.
Once, when Manuel was minding the shop alone, three men hog-tied him and left him in the bathroom. They took his wallet and his car keys and drove to his home. They rang the doorbell and told Sonia’s mother (who had moved in to help care for the children) that Manuel had told them to come into the house to wait for him, and as proof he gave them Manuel’s wallet and car keys to show her. Sonia’s mother glimpsed at Manuel’s prized Corvette parked outside and knew the men were lying. She locked the door and called the police.
On a separate occasion, when Manuel and Sonia were both in the shop, Manuel noticed a suspicious man trying to steal empty VHS display boxes. Manuel locked the door and politely asked the man why he was stealing his boxes.
“No, no, I’m not stealing!” the man stammered.
Manuel took a gun from behind his back and fired a warning shot into the floor.
“Who told you to come here and steal these boxes?”
The man shouted his answer in panic and peed his pants in fear.
“I’m going to give you the opportunity to leave. If I see you within five blocks of here its su pajaro o su huevos!” Manuel barked.
Leaving Sonia to mind the shop, Manuel raced to a rival video store owned by a couple whom Sonia and Manuel thought were their friends. Unknown to these rivals, the insides of Sonia and Manuel’s videotape boxes were marked. Manuel opened various boxes while proclaiming, “this is mine, this is mine, this is mine” and promptly left the store with what was his.
Still life was better than a dream. They bought a house with a pool. Everyone had their own room, and the neighbors were white. Sonia Veronica was their princess, with rows of white leather shoes, puffy socks, and fluffy dresses. Manuel Jr. was their angel. He had all the action figures he could ask for. Sonia had a GTA Trans Am, new from the dealer, paid in cash. Manuel was able to comfortably spend his Christmases in Mexico with his parents without worrying about missing income. Each Christmas away, Manuel would call to say “I have a surprise for you!” then he would hold the phone over a tape player singing the Chipmunks’ classic hula hoop song.
Friends from Manuel’s hometown began to migrate to the United States and soon Manuel found himself enjoying their company. The dinners he used to have at home with his family were replaced with drinks at the local seafood restaurant with his hombres. Manuel went from dressing like a Bee Gee to dressing in cowboy boots and hat. He started coming home with lipstick disgracefully smeared on his collar.
Winter came and Manuel made his yearly trip home. As he was driving back from his Christmas in Mexico he looked out on the horizon.
“I’m going to stop cheating on Sonia. I’m going home and we are going to be a family again.”
When he arrived, the house was half empty. Sonia had taken the kids and every piece of furniture she deemed hers. She made no announcement. She just left.
Sonia gave him his two-store share of their empire and forced the kids to keep visits with him because he was still their father. She would not let either of them disrespect him.
To this day, Manuel insists he was the victim of witchcraft. He claims it was Sabrina, the woman he cheated with, who lured him away from the family he loved because she knew he was married. On days when he is more honest with himself, he knows he was weak. With the success of the video shops and the panache of a Corvette he began carousing with men who inflated his ego. They told him he shouldn’t just have a wife, but also a girlfriend.
Sonia and Manuel have been on the phone for over two hours.
They talk about their kids who are now in their 30s. They talk about his kids, the ones he has with his ex-wife Sabrina and with his latest wife, Vanna. Before Manuel got on the line, Sonia was saying good night to little Harold, Manuel’s second youngest, who he had with Vanna. Sonia and Harold are very close because she used to babysit him. He calls her My Tia Sonia.
Manuel and Sabrina’s relationship withered away in the deserts of Arizona. Soon afterward Manuel met Vanna. Manuel and Vanna seem happy but she frequently jokes, “When Manuel dies, he isn’t going to run to me at the Pearly Gates; he’s going to be looking for Sonia.”
Sonia tells Manuel how her ice cream shop is doing.
In the early 2000s the people who once paid $2 for rentals on Brooklyn Avenue now preferred paying $5 for burned DVDs on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. The travel restrictions imposed after the 9/11 tragedy resulted in fewer immigrants crossing over for work, and hence fewer Mexicans to rent films. Netflix and Red Box joined forces against her. The 2007 recession was another blow. Customers who were used to renting a half dozen movies had to cut back to one, or none at all. Sonia converted half of the space into an ice cream counter. She hoped that the ice cream would be a temporary life raft to weather the storm, and people would embrace their love of home theater again.
Sonias Video closed in 2009. She was heartbroken. All of her family members had been employed there at one time or another. All of the neighborhood knew her as The Sonia of Sonias Video. She had started with 70 VHS tapes and had ended with 40,000 DVDs. Sonia keeps a quiet pride that her shop outlasted the local Blockbuster.
Sonia now runs Two Scoops of Fudge. American ice cream, Mexican ice cream, bionicos, raspados. Her customers still love her. When they come in for treats they reminisce about way back when they had a neighborhood video store.
After Manuel says good night and hangs up, Sonia thinks about why she still loves him. She smiles about how Manuel never said a bad thing about her mother.
After Sonia’s mother passed, and they had been separated for many years, Manuel came back to California to visit the cemetery with her. He stood before his suegra’s grave and vowed, “I promise I will never leave Sonia alone – every time she needs me I’ll be there.”Share this story on social media