Swimming Against the Stream(ing): Odd Obsession Movies Survives and Thrives

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 14, 2014 7:00PM

2014_09-OddObsessionBarber.jpg
A barber shop sign from Ghana sits among thousands of DVDs at Odd Obsession.

Movies really matter at Odd Obsession.

That might seem obvious for one of the few surviving DVD rental stores, but think about it. How many places still treat movies like something special?

Not the local big box store, where bargain-priced DVDs are dumped carelessly into a bin for you to dig through like a scavenger at the dump. Not the homogenous multiplexes, where smaller or more interesting films rarely get a theatrical window to compete with the same 10-12 overhyped blockbusters playing everywhere.

And, despite the instant availability of thousands of movies, not the streaming and on-demand services that have quickly become the main way many of us watch movies at home. Sure, there's a whole lot to choose from, and the prices are great, but when was the last time you showed off your Netflix or Hulu queue to visiting guests, the way you might show off a shelf stocked with favorite movies?

As these providers get more into original programming, older library titles are getting cut. Still more than enough choices, you say? OK. But is browsing through streaming selections or download options a special experience...or just more content to scroll though as part of your daily online routine?

Of course there are theaters and even some video stores (Facets, with probably the largest rental selection in town, is always worth a mention) fighting the good fight. But for a combination of vast, eclectic choices in a distinctive environment populated by die-hard movie buffs, it's hard to beat Odd Obsession Movies.

Brian Chankin.jpg
Brian Chankin models a 'Foe' (as in William Dafoe) shirt. Photo courtesy of Odd Obsession Movies.

Brian Chankin, owner of the Wicker Park store and its impressive collection, freely admits his store's success has come to some degree at the expense of the failure of others—picking up loyal renters left behind in the lightning-fast industry changeover. But there's another reason why his unique shop is still standing tall after 10 years: passion. Chankin is first and foremost a collector, and Odd Obsession reflects his love of film and his enthusiasm in sharing it with others.

The store's shelves cover the gamut of cinema, from landmark foreign films and art movies to Hollywood classics to seemingly every nook and cranny of genre specialization and the just plain weird. Want to rent Jean Renoir's masterpiece The Rules of the Game? Or maybe '70s porn is more your thing. Prefer British Gothic Horror? Experimental films? Or maybe you're itching to hitch a ride on the next comet to Crazy Land, so you really want to see that Heaven's Gate Cult recruitment video? Yep, all that and so much more is available at Odd Obsession.

Chankin was a photography major who moved to Chicago from New Mexico, with only a couple of years as the manager of an antiques store as his business background, when he decided to open Odd Obsession back in 2004. When he couldn't get a small business loan, he threw the dice and maxed out his credit cards to obtain retail space and double his DVD inventory.

"I've never taken a business class or anything like that. I probably should," Chankin adds with a laugh. "But I've gotten the hang of it to an extent."

Indeed, the store's business has actually increased in the last couple of years, while the overall movie rental business has gone on life support. Picking up some more mainstream titles from closing Blockbusters and other chains helped him enlarge the overall library, but it's largely been a procurement of offbeat, hard-to-find titles that has earned him a loyal customer base.

2014_09_TheyDon't_Cut.jpg
With a title like this, how can you pass it by?

The store's unique categorizations stand out in an era when recommendations via aggregators and purchase profiles make truly unexpected discoveries less common. But a stroll through Odd Obsession can take you from Maverick Directors to Eurosleaze to German Contemporary and dozens of more very personal, algorithm-unfriendly categories.

"That was something that actually motivated me to open the store in the first place," notes Chankin. "I was already thinking about the groupings, and how I would differ from a normal store because of the way I grouped things."

It's more than offbeat categories that lend Odd Obsession its unique personality. Large, unlicensed movie posters from Ghana (which take the basics of a Hollywood movie and then add insanely garish, violent, and often nonsensical visual elements) hang above the shelves.

You'll also find pop culture knickknacks and unique merchandise, like the store's exclusive "Bron" (Charles Bronson) and "Foe" (Willem Dafoe) design apparel. Until her passing this summer, a long-haired cat named Precious could also be seen exploring the aisles or perhaps lounging on a box of VHS tapes. (Yep, they still carry some VHS titles).

This quirky yet cozy environment creates a sense of community among customers, Chankin, and his small volunteer staff. If a passionate discussion is underway, you may have to wait a little while to check out your DVD, but chances are you're going to overhear something fun or interesting while you do. Quick in-and-outs are for Redbox users. Odd Obsession patrons like to linger.

While blistering speeds at the checkout run counter to the spirit of the store, customer service is very much a top priority. After a decade in business, Chankin has a good idea of what new titles to purchase, but he's always open to recommendations.

"We keep a hard copy of requests, and if two or more people make the same request, we usually buy it. But also, if someone mentions something offhand that I think will rent, I'll get it right then. I aim to please, big time," Chankin said.

2014_09_Odd_ObsessionWall.jpg
One colorful wall of films, posters and knickknacks at Odd Obsession.

Customers looking for something specific will always get guidance, but the store's diversity makes it a browser's paradise. Turn around the corner to a different shelving unit, and something unexpected will often catch your eye. Perhaps it will be Deafula—a low-budget vampire movie with the cast interacting in sign language. These fun, random discoveries sometimes even surprise the man who built the 20,000-plus video library.

"I buy every movie here," says Chankin, "And man, you don't know often I find stuff, and I'm like, 'Oh shit! What?' Like I have no idea where I found it or where it came from, but...hell yeah! You know?"

Despite the store's surprising longevity, Chankin is aware that he is going against the grain, as more people embrace an environment where DVDs and most other physical media are devalued.

"At some time, I guess we're going to reach that point where the most significant amount of people don't care about physical media," Chankin acknowledges. "But as of now, we have those customers that do and those customers are really happy here."

And while bigger companies are cutting back their DVD production or licensing films out to smaller operations as the market fades, boutique labels have filled the void with a rich supply of quality releases.

Chankin praises companies like Mondo Macabro, Vinegar Syndrome and Raro Video for giving first-class treatment to overlooked or forgotten genre and exploitation titles; Oscilloscope for their independent releases; as well as local label Olive Films and longtime collectors' favorite The Criterion Collection for quality releases of classics and foreign films.

With movies occupying his working hours, Chankin's personal viewing fluctuates, but he says he's now back to watching around two films a day strictly for personal appreciation.

In the store, it's a different story. Aside from screening new purchases to check for flaws, Chankin mainly wants something on in the background for an occasional burst of eye candy distraction as he works. So while he's ready to talk French New Wave cinema, don't be surprised if a Chuck Norris or Jean Claude Van Damme movie plays on the store's TV monitor when you arrive.

"It's funny, a lot of people mention it. Like, 'When I come in now, it's always '80s movies playing and they usually have someone in the jungle with machine guns'," Chankin says with a laugh. "That's the vibe it's been the last 6 months or so."

Odd Obsession Movies is located at 1822 N. Milwaukee Ave., and is open every day from 2 p.m-10 p.m..