Smile Politely

Geoff Merritt’s Parasol, That’s Rentertainment and the Decline and Fall of Campustown

“You used to be able to spend an entire day on campus,” Geoff Merritt ruminates with me over coffee. “It’s not a destination anymore.” That’s a shocking realization, but hard to deny, coming from the owner of the last remaining cultural hub in the bar, restaurant, and new monolithic apartment building zone that once hosted a movie theater, record stores, bookstores, a video arcade, and numerous other fun places to stop. Now Merritt’s store, That’s Rentertainment — an excellent video store featuring foreign films, music videos, independent films, documentaries, and everything Blockbuster doesn’t and does stock — seems to be the last oasis of intelligent consumption left in what was once a thriving cultural center.

That’s Rentertainment was originally a different store in Iowa City, a place to rent LPs. The owner made an ill-fated attempt to open a branch in Champaign-Urbana, and when this venture failed, and the records were being packed up to be sent back to Iowa, Geoff asked if he could buy them. He did, took their leftover signs (to save money on signage, though he is not completely satisfied with the punny name), and opened his own independent album-rental shop in 1985 in Johnstowne Centre, one of many ghostly former malls in the twin-city area. Two years later the music industry threatened to sue him — he didn’t know that renting out records was a crime — and so the store sold off its selection of vinyl and became a video store overnight. It would move a few doors up and down and to the left, but today is still everything it used to be — simply one of the best video rental places around. It experimented with a couple of second locations (one shared with an ice cream store, one with a coffee shop), but worked best as a single store. Rentertainment’s healthy impulse to support the art it believes in has survived successive media format transitions from LPs (and a few CDs) to VHS and Beta, laser disc, and again to DVD (he began to stock DVDs on the very day they hit the market) and now BluRay and HD-DVD. Uncomfortably for him, whatever the drift of formats brings, the future of physical (as opposed to electronic) media is an open question.

But, as awesome as it is, That’s Rentertainment is only one facet of Geoff’s vision. He co-founded Caffe Paradiso in 1998, the best (and almost only) locally-owned cafe on the Urbana side of the tracks. He’s also contributed his time to the University YMCA and sold toys and comic books (more about that in a moment), but his biggest contribution to local art and business must be through supporting local music.

There was once a local band called Choo-Choo Train who wrote a song for Geoff called “Parasol.” Choo-Choo Train recorded for a label called Subway in England. Inspired by small record labels with distinctive sounds, such as Subway or Bus Stop in Iowa City, Geoff formed Parasol records in 1991 to release albums of jangly pop by bands he liked. That was an optimistic time when Poster Children had been signed, Hum had emerged from the basement of the house I used to live in (my lame claim to fame), and Champaign was going to be the “next Seattle.” Local music was thriving. There never was a next Seattle, to my knowledge, but we remain the only Champaign-Urbana.

Parasol started as a mail order label whose albums were sold through Goldmine magazine. Soon it moved from Geoff’s basement to a warehouse on 1st Street that came with a storefront, which he filled with a comic and collectible toy store called Toon Town. At That’s Rentertainment, you can still see evidence of his appreciation of fine toys and contemporary cultural artifacts. Still growing, Parasol moved to a house in Urbana that was once a furniture factory, and stayed for a few years until zoning laws restricting business in the neighborhood caught up with them. Then they moved to their current location on the obscure Griggs Street. With the collapse of such local record retail traditions as Record Service, Parasol tentatively opened its doors to offer a cool but inscrutable walk-in record-shopping experience with an eclectic collection of staff-sanctioned albums, including new and used vinyl. But most of their business is done through mail order. The online storefront seems geared to interest the individual listener in a plethora of local and obscure independent releases the Parasol staff authentically endorse.

But beyond the mail order and brick-and-mortar record sales, their main function is still as a label. As it turned out, the name Parasol was an appropriate choice — under that umbrella, they have formed a number of distinct record labels, including Mud for local music (Honcho Overload, Sarge, Absinthe Blind, etc.), Spur for local music with a country tinge (Angie Heaton, Steve Pride, Tractor Kings), Hidden Agenda for more well-known acts (The Soundtrack of our Lives), Action (solely for Velvet Crush releases), Reaction for bringing back into print albums they consider important (The Action, Richard Lloyd), and, recently, Arietta — a classical music label founded to bring back into print William Kinderman’s performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The story comes full circle with the new label for children’s music: Choo-Choo Train.

A source in the local music scene (a talented singer we’ll call “Deep Throat”) tells me that local musicians are not unanimous in their appreciation of Parasol’s practices with regard to supporting or compensating local artists. But this is not too surprising: art and commerce have an unhappy marriage, and artists and musicians are rightfully emotionally invested in their life’s work. My impression is that the stereo cities are certainly the better for Parasol’s work archiving and promoting the local scene. Their presence also allows a handful of happy local musicians to make rent doing work they believe in. I rely on their presence as one of the only record stores around. But nobody’s getting rich. In fact, Geoff is a bit discouraged that he seems to have chosen two businesses that are seriously endangered by web-delivered digital entertainment options — music and video — but it’s hard to imagine he’ll give up trying to make a go of it one way or another with the art he loves, making the community immeasurably richer in the process.

Geoff strikes me as a unique guy. He’s technically an “entrepreneur,” but it seems that his enterprises benefit the consumer at least as much as they do him and his employees. I know of local real estate moguls and bar owners whose rhetoric of “art,” “music,” “community,” and “revitalizing downtown” seems to be copytalk for “profit.” And some of the best local restaurants are owned by creeps. But I get no sense of such sinister, pragmatic ulteriors from the affable, loquacious, passionately nerdy Merritt.

“Now you couldn’t fill the time between lunch and dinner on campus,” Geoff sighs, sipping his cappuccino. It’s true. And it’s not just campus. Even west Champaign’s Country Fair used to have a theater, bookstore, and video game arcade. I bought my first singles at a drugstore there, where a dollar store now sits. There is no culture west of State Street, south of Bradley. Lincoln Square was once thriving, and even boasted a branch of C-U’s now defunct premier record store Record Service. Even Sunnycrest on Philo once looked like a place to stop. When I was 14, a day on campus was like a trip to the big city: trying to sneak into R-rated movies at the Coed (I was ejected from Bachelor Party), playing video games at Space Port or in the Union, and buying Thomas Dolby cassettes at Record Service or science fiction novels at Acres of Books. Long before IUB tried to hide the fact that it sells trade books, and before Follett’s was given a makeover by a team of overzealous marketing majors and transformed from a college bookstore to a cheesy rave-like wrap stand, every Friday and Saturday night the auditoriums would fill with student groups screening classic or independent films. It was our own Paris, Illinois.

Geoff and I, sitting in the Espresso Royale cafe (corporate headquarters: Boston) didn’t need all four of our hands to count off the businesses that remained from those days. All of the survivors are places to get beer, burgers, pizza, gyros, flowers, or tobacco. And kick-ass videos: That’s Rentertainment. Well, for years I’ve been listening to locals bemoan “sprawl,” but for the point is that if I want to get Love’s Forever Changes on 180-gram vinyl, I shouldn’t have to wait a week for it to arrive in the mail. Not having cool boutiques is a drag, yeah, and chain stores suck. But a large, secular university campus where you can’t shop for books or records is just Soviet. That’s like a dry Oktoberfest.

Merritt recently came across a campus business guide circa 1987, and with wistful nostalgia, posted it online.

And, looking forward, here is his list of locally-owned businesses to support.

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