Suspect Video is a place I loved even before I became a regular. It was a video store built to amaze: wall-to-wall selection of classic and hard to find films, cult classics and household names alike, organized exhaustively and obsessively. A little shelf of old magazines and books. A ruddy old TV playing a VHS tape while below sat some of the many tapes the store was clearing out. It’s the kind of place where one becomes a film fanatic, a cinematic cavern with 25 years of history. But that beautiful shop is soon to fade into memory – Mirvish Village is to be gutted for a new condo, taking down many historic Toronto shops including Suspect. It’s a familiar story – even if you didn’t grow up with a video store, you certainly have a special place that has changed or vanished in the shuffle of new developments. In a time of dramatic urban change worldwide, I took a moment to sit down with Suspect founder Luis Ceriz and learn about the history of his shop.
What initially drove you to open the store? What was the inspiration for Suspect?
It was roundabout. Me and my partner, who left the store quite a few years ago, studied film at Ryerson. We technically graduated, and we both created scripts and wanted to raise money to make films. We knew that the chances of anyone backing the film getting their money back was minimal, so we decided “let’s open a video store, we’ll have ins on a lot of distributors, and over time we can parlay that into distribution agreement for these films.” But that never happened, things just kind of took over.
Things went a different way.
Do you think there was something that made Suspect different from other video stores at the time?
There’s a bunch of stuff, and I guess a lot of it was conscious, but also out of ignorance, because neither one of us had gone into video stores a whole lot before. When I was a little kid, I worked at comic stores, and comic stores don’t just carry comics, they carry statues, they carry figures, they carry graphic novels, they carry posters, all that stuff, so when we opened the store here, I thought, “well, why don’t video stores do that?” Back then, if you remember Jumbo and Blockbuster, all the video stores looked exactly the same – the carpeting, the grid walls – it was really homogenous and boring. And because of my background, I thought “why wouldn’t we carry toys? Why wouldn’t we carry magazines?” and that immediately differentiated us. It wasn’t your typical video store. Plus, there was the stuff that we carried. We came from a film background, so we were very interested in international cinema and documentaries, and I’m into horror and exploitation, so we would actively order stuff from the States and elsewhere, that you couldn’t get here, just because we wanted to see it. Thankfully, it took off pretty quickly. Anything that we got in that was really weird or figured nobody would want to see but us we ordered any. We figured everything else would cover the cost, but we were surprised because people would start experimenting with their viewing.
You’d have an “only here” kind of experience.
Kind of, yeah. It’s hard to talk about it being inside of it, because you don’t really get a sense, other than peripherally, of what other people thought about the place, other than that people seemed to like it. When we would go out, drinking and stuff like that, people would always come up to us to chat about the store, which I thought was great but unusual – in our mind it was just a retail store. When I see my grocer, I don’t want to go up to him and talk about peaches or apples and stuff like that. Film is such a personal kind of experience, especially back then because there was no internet or anything so anyone with a specific interest would have to tell us what to find for them.
You wouldn’t find like-minded peers as easily.
No, no. So, over here, we were very non-judgemental about any genre. Whatever you were into, it was fine by us, right? I think that projected to everybody, made people feel welcome. On the other hand, I have heard some people, especially kids, outside… So, I was outside once, and there were these three kids, saying things like “You should go in!” “No no, YOU go in!” “I don’t wanna go in!” and I realized “Wait, are they talking about MY store?” Are we scary? I dunno.
I feel like a place like this doesn’t really exist anymore, so it has a unique aura to it perhaps.
It’s a retail space, but it’s almost like somebody’s… den, or a clubhouse…
And that’s part of the appeal.
So I’ve heard that when the store opened, you brought in Gunner Hansen, the original Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as a guest, and I hear there’s something of a story to that.
Well, we had a guy who was supposed to do PR for us, and he wasn’t very good, but he did know Gunner Hansen. Hansen was going to be up here anyway (we didn’t pay to have him or anything), so he offered Hansen to be our opening day guest, and I thought it was great. I love Texas Chainsaw.
It’s a brilliant movie.
Yeah, it really is. So, we don’t really have any photos of [the signing] or anything. We had less than 500 tapes and some books, a few magazines… it was pretty empty. [Hansen] brought his own stuff to sign, and everyone had a great time. Me and my partner were exhausted, but after that we went to a restaurant down the street here. I bailed after that, but one of my guys here accompanied Gunner and this other guy, a friend of his, to this strip club downtown, and apparently they told him Gunner Hansen from Texas Chainsaw was here and he even announced it and these girls would go over and gravitate to Gunner. I saw Gunner at Niagara Falls Comic Con about five years ago, and I said, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember this, but twenty one years ago you were at my opening…” and he said “Oh, I do remember, we went to that restaurant!” I said “That’s right,” and he asked, “How’s Glenn? I remember going to a strip club…” He remembered everything! I thought that was pretty cool.
Have you had other guests at the store since then?
For signings? Yeah, well, we had a Queen Street store, so initially we’d have signings here. I was never a big fan of signings because usually they were in conjunction with TIFF, and back then there was no social media so we couldn’t get the word out. The signings were fun and they were cool, but they were pretty poorly attended. We had Peter Jackson here, we had Dario Argento, we had Jörg Buttgereit who did Nekromantik, we had a bunch here.
If you did that now, the line would probably be around the block.
Oh, definitely. But back then, it was just after [Peter Jackson] had done Brain Dead, and there wasn’t much of a way of getting the word out. We’d only have a day or two days notice, and you couldn’t place any ads, we’d just tell customers. [Jackson] was very nice, he was a short guy, very unassuming, very accommodating – I basically had to push him to have a drink. I said, “Do you want something? Do you want a water, do you want a coffee, do you want a pop?” and he says, “Oh, no, that’s okay…” “How about… just… something?” “Oh, okay, I’ll have a Coke…” And he wouldn’t even take any money for a cab ride, you know? I said, “You want a cab ride back to the hotel?” “Oh, no, I’ll just walk there…”
Seems to have worked out for him, though.
Yeah, yeah! He was very nice! I have a customer who does have photos of that… he actually took 3D photos! So that’s pretty neat.
But we’ve also had a lot of people come in to become members too, that were relatively regular. Samuel Jackson was in here all the time.
He was really nice. He’s very imposing, he’s a tall guy, his voice is booming… but he’s really nice. I was just talking to a former employee who remembers a time she was talking to him, and he looked over, and there were customers kind of looking, looking at him, and he said, “Watch this.” He goes over and introduces himself, “Hi! I’m Samuel Jackson, how are you?” and then he came back to the counter and said to her, “You know, you Canadians are so polite, you’ll see me but you won’t come up and say hi.”
Suspect’s been around for 25 years now, is there anything about the store you’re particularly proud of?
I think that we introduced a lot of stuff to people that they wouldn’t have been introduced to otherwise. Like I said, the different sections that we have and the basic feeling of the store is very open to whatever you’re into, so people took a lot of chances with their viewing here that they might not have done outside. Some people, some customers open up their own shops, and they adopt this idea that, “If these guys can do it, I can do it.” We were always very accessible, and we’d tell them that we go out and drink and party, so they always saw us within this social context.
You recently started a horror movie convention, Horror-Rama, that’s in it’s third year now. How’s that going? How does running a con compare to running a shop?
It’s similar but different. I have a partner, Chris Alexander, formerly of Fangoria Magazine and Shock Till You Drop, he does all the guest aspects, which I’m not terribly interested in. You know, if you look at exhibitors as customers, you deal with less of them but the stakes are higher. The biggest difference is that everything is focused over one weekend as opposed to a daily sort of thing. But it’s similar. I’ve done a lot of conventions, so I kind of know what exhibitors want and need. This was something that I really wanted to do. There were no standalone horror shows in Toronto. There was Shock Stock in London, but other than that…
It’d just be a room in FanExpo
Pretty much. They were smaller, and there wasn’t very much attention. I like FanExpo, and we do really well at FanExpo, but FanExpo’s experience is for the mass audience as opposed to the fan. There’s just so many people.
Yeah. Some people really like that, they’re immersed in it, but the horror fan is treated as the red-headed stepson, you know? We’re just kind of shoved in a corner. When I looked at magazines, especially the horror magazines from the States, there’s so many horror conventions in the States, and I just thought, “Man, I’d love to see that up here.” I got into a conversation with Chris, and decided to go for it. It’s a small show, but it’s intimate. I think it’s a good convention, and I hope people come out to it.
So, Suspect is closing in December.
Yeah, it’s the end of this chapter of it.
It’s been all this time, and video stores in general are becoming a rarer sight in Toronto. What do you think the future holds for the cult film scene? Where do we go from here?
I don’t know. In terms of socially, like a hub, there really isn’t much, and there’s less all the time. I mean, we’re going to go online like many people do, but I dunno… There’s not a lot, even if you look at the ancillary horror interests, like goth. That’s partially why I wanted to get the convention going too – increasingly, conventions are the one place where people can meet physically, not online. We kept waiting for the whole thing to switch around, like how records became this big thing. It may happen again, maybe in ten years or something. We’re closing this, we’ll sell off all of our rentals, sell off most of our stock – we’ll keep a bit for conventions – maybe in a year or two we can open a retail-only store, do what we’re doing but without the rental thing. We’ll see. We’re going to move online, and we’ve never really had an online presence in terms of retail, so we’re going to concentrate on that this upcoming year.
So you’re trying new things, seeing if you can start eking out a bit of a space again.
Yeah. It would be great, if the convention works well, to do another one, maybe not Toronto but just outside, have ‘em every six months or something, but we’ll see. I just see this as a closing of this 25 year long chapter.
Well, a quarter century is definitely better than many places can say they’ve done. It’s a real legacy, best of luck moving forward.
Oh, thanks! As I said, we’ll still be around online, and I’ll be trying to do a podcast.
Oh, that sounds awesome!
We’re not going away, we’re just… changing addresses.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].