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Suspect Video at 20, Dirty and Beloved: An Oral History
The people behind the video store at the heart of Toronto's film scene tell its story

Suspect Video co-founder Luis Ceriz

If you live in Toronto and give half-a-rip about movies, you’ve been to Suspect Video. Tucked into Mirvish Village, it’s more than just a video store: It’s at the centre of Toronto’s film culture, where bootlegged exploitation films and high-art masterpiece of the French New Wave, where copies of the horror movie rag Fangoria and the academese film journal Cineaction are collected under one low-ceilinged roof. It’s like a Parisian salon of trash.

This week, Suspect is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, with a party Friday night at neighbouring watering hole The Central. To commemorate, we talked to a whole bunch of people who orbited in and around the store in the past twenty years, who spoke with great enthusiasm (and speed) about what makes Suspect one of Toronto’s most legendary video stores and retail spaces. Then we organized all those conversations. Mostly arbitrarily.

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Little Shop of Horrors – Suspect Video’s flagship store at Markham and Bloor opened in August of 1991. The brainchild of two then-recent Ryerson grads, Luis Ceriz and Merrill Shapiro, the idea was simple: run a well-stocked, curated video store. The kind they wanted to see.

“We thought it was going to be a short-time thing. We had just more-or-less graduated from Ryerson. We’d both written scripts and it was difficult to raise money for a script. We didn’t want to borrow money from family because we thought the chances of them getting it back was pretty minimal. We thought it’d just be easier to open up a video store, the kind that we wanted to see: with a lot of weird stuff and interesting things. We’d source out the stuff that, at that time, you could only really see if you ordered it through mail order. We figured it’d offer us access to a lot of video distribution avenues. But then of course it became a long-term project.” —Luis Cerez, co-founder and owner, Suspect Video.

“Suspect Video, what’s beautiful about it, is that it’s a fucking time capsule dungeon of the grunge era. It’s ’91. And it still looks like ’91 in there. The aesthetic is there. It’s got a grungy fucking aura that’s badass.” -Eastern Yoo, Suspect staffer (2007-present)

“The Markham Store hasn’t changed. It was exactly like it is now…The smell has always been there. It’s like floor cleaner and moss. It’s not mildew exactly. I think it’s just because of the building itself. I don’t think it’s Suspect’s fault.” -Norman Wilner, NOW Magazine’s Senior Film Writer; Video and DVD Columnist (Toronto Star, MSN.ca)

“I signed up pretty quickly. I think my membership card was number 52. It was a haven for odd, strange, and unusual films. A lot of people really forget that back then—and it sounds strange to say “back then” about twenty years ago—but you didn’t have the access to all these films. You had to know someone who knew someone to get obscure horror films or foreign films.” -Colin Geddes, Suspect staffer (1995-2002); Current programmer of TIFF’s Midnight Madness programme

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The Good, The Bad, and the Weird – For many—renters, employees, even the owners—Suspect has served as a subaltern film school; a salon of trash where like-minded people could find films spanning genres, continents, and the high-art/low culture border. Art house staples, classic horror films, and exceptionally rare VHS bootlegs have always rubbed shoulders in Suspect’s bins.

“We were film students. My particular interest was horror and exploitation and stuff like that. A lot of international films. I remember when [John Woo’s] The Killer was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, we just immediately latched onto that Hong Kong stuff. But our interests were varied. Between the two of us it was a pretty wide range.” -LC

“One of the things we did have under the counter was the infamous Speaker’s Corner outtake tapes. Someone had edited together all these clips from Speaker’s Corner of people having sex in the booths and going on these horrible drunk rants; stuff you could never put on the air.”-CG

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Johnny B. Bad – Among Suspect’s rarest, weirdest, nastiest videos is an adult movie starring rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry-one of its hard-to-find, under-the-counter offerings that are so extraordinary that they’ve become urban legends in their own right.

“One of the things we had to do, pre-Internet, was order things through the mail and go to conventions. And I picked that up at a little shop in Times Square. It’s a pretty strange little movie.”—LC

“It’s real. It’s scary. And it was in the ‘80s too, and really not flattering. It’s called Johnny B. Bad. It’s him and a lady of the night, let’s say. He makes her do weird things. And he’s having trouble making it work, too. And he just keeps trying. It’s awful. Then it flips to all the stuff from when he owned a chain of chicken restaurants and got busted for putting cameras in the toilets.”—Chris Colohan, Suspect staffer (2001-present); songwriter/vocalist of T.O. rock bands Cursed, Burning Love

“I’ve never seen that. Maybe that’s what the kids who work there now are into.”—CG

“We don’t have it anymore! It’s missing. It’s lost. Someone stole it or something. I want to see that shit. It sounds fucking evil.”—EY

“No. No, no, no, no. God no. I’d never want to see that. Some things can’t be unseen.” —NW

“We’ve always carried lightning rod kind of things. We’ve had people complain about carrying blasphemous things. At that point, I figure you shouldn’t even be in [the store]. Like, ‘This is filth!’ But yeah, that’s what we’re here for.” -CC

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Late Fees – Visitors to the Markham Street store may have noticed the leaflet outlining unreasonable excuses for weaseling out of late fees. All video stores rely on late fees, often more than base rental prices, for income. But when you stock so much rare stuff, you’re extra diligent about getting it back.

“You know what’s fucking stupid about these students? And I know because I used to be one of them. They’ll rent like ten fucking movies for some final paper and then they won’t bring them back for two months! It’s like I know you’re focused on your studies, but school’s done, dude, and you have a fucking $200 late fee!” -EY

“I’d run into people at parties who would cower if they had a late charge. My biggest suggestion was, if you have a late charge, go in and out a six-pack of beer on the counter and say, ‘I want to talk about my late charge.’ That’s how you negotiate.” -CG

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City on Fire – In 1995, Suspect expanded its empire of disreputability, opening a second store near Queen Street West and Bathurst. On February 20, 2008, the location was engulfed in the six-alarm blaze that ravaged that stretch of Queen West.

“When Suspect on Queen Street burned down, nobody really understood what had been lost in Toronto’s cultural landscape. There was stuff that was extremely rare, that you’d never be able to get again. Everyone thinks that with DVD and the Internet, that everything’s out there. But it’s the opposite.”—CG

“It devastated the people at Queen. It devastated Dan, the manager there. He was like a zombie.” -EY

“It’s such a massive event that you know absolutely no control over. You kind of don’t react. You either accept it or put a gun in your mouth. You don’t have too many options. You can’t sit around going, ‘Oh man, if only I had woken up at four in the morning and managed to go by the store and had a pumper truck with me!’” -Daniel Hanna, Suspect Staffer (1995-2008); Current owner, Eyesore Cinema

“It’s not something you envision happening. You see this stuff in the press and after the fact you think, ‘Well why not me? It has to happen to somebody’…Thankfully I had the other store to focus on, or else I’d just have been stewing in my own memories.”—LC

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Urban Legends – Over the course of two decades, Suspect’s mix of fame and infamy has made it indispensible. Apart from serving as a film school for employees and renters alike, it’s been a stop for filmmakers passing through or working in town, and (unlike the chain rental places it seems to blow raspberries at) a vital part of Toronto’s larger culture.

“When he was shooting Long Kiss Goodnight in Toronto, Samuel L. Jackson was a regular customer. He waited in line to get a membership card. He’d come in and rent movies and talk, which was pretty amazing.”—CG

“Sometimes people will send us small independent films to put out on the shelf. They’ll just show up in the mail, unsolicited. I always thought that was really cool.” -LC

“The dignity of the store will always be there. We have a niche market, so business is steady. And we have customers who come to us because they love us. It’s part of their routine. We’re part of their culture.”—EY

“Sometimes you wouldn’t even go, necessarily, to rent. You return something and then get caught up in a conversation with someone.” —NW

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Future Shock – Against most odds, Suspect and plenty of other indie video stores (Queen Video, The Film Buff, Eyesore) are thriving, or at least keeping their doors open, while major chains like Blockbuster and Jumbo tank. In the face of Netflix, BitTorrent, and other Internet et cetera, Suspect has creates a loyal customer base, and a niche retail space, that keeps bringing people in. And this will probably be the case for some time, at least until we can download Martyrs (or Johnny B. Bad) directly to our brains and project them on our retinas.

“It’s interesting to see the big guys make as many mistakes as they did, and to be able to keep doing what we’re doing. Increasingly you start to feel like the last living cell in a dying body. I think there’s still a lot of length to go, and a lot of things to get. We’re always searching for a lot of stuff. We’re just film fans.”—LC

“We’re mainstreaming society into corporate mediocrity, to the point that people don’t even realize there are movies that don’t star Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Or Bradley Cooper. Like there’s a whole world, literally, a whole world of movies out there that nobody in North America even knows yet.”—DH

“You see a lot of things come and go, changes in format, and the Internet. But ever since Netflix, we’ve had more people coming in because they’re really dissatisfied with it, with still having a pretty Blockbuster-y selection of things.” -CC

“Do we want to live our lives when we sit down and everything comes to us? What if you met the love of your life at Suspect video? You go out of your home, and you get what you need, and you come back home. It’s in your hand and you’re excited. When you download, you never meet a soul. You never meet us. And we’re happy to meet you.” -EY

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