Opera House Video in Belfast. Photos courtesy of Denis Howard

First up, an apology.

A while back, when writing about the exciting news that Brunswick’s Eveningstar Cinema was opening a video store as a side business to that theater’s consistently excellent arthouse movie experience, I may have lamented the sad fact that the days of the video store are gone. Well, I should have known better.

The day after that article ran, I got an email teasing me for not knowing that there is a full, long-running, and still viable video store that’s been in business since 1995, right here in Maine. That’s Opera House Video in Belfast, which, through three owners, 27 years and a business-threatening pandemic, is still doing the holy work of video rental, all just (checks Google maps) an hour and 55 minutes north of Portland.

Anybody who’s read this column knows about my long and storied history working for 25 years behind the counters of various video stores. (Including Portland’s late, still-beloved Videoport – RIP.) So the news – to me – that there’s someone still carrying the torch of physical media right here in Maine made my day, even if owner Denis Howard had a little fun with me for not knowing that Opera House Video was still fighting the good fight. (Howard chidingly mentioned “the imaginary line between southern Maine, somewhere around Brunswick.”) Again, so sorry.

Still, I wanted to know how this supposedly dead and buried form of entertainment venue could stay viable in a world of ubiquitous streaming services, especially in a town like Belfast (population around 6,000). Turns out, at least according to Howard, Belfast is a pretty special place.

Denis Howard behind the counter at Opera House Video.

“We’re a funky town,” said Howard, taking intermittent breaks from our phone conversation to wait on Opera House Video’s Wednesday crowd. “People here have tons of pride. We have three bookstores, three active theater troupes and our own, independent, three-screen movie theater (The Colonial), all in a town of 6,000. But we’re also a blue-collar town. Not to paint Belfast as a utopia, but there’s just a different feel here than other places.”


Paraphrasing a former Belfast resident, poet Bern Porter, Howard explains, “Belfast is made up of 17 groups of people. There’s no reason for most of these people to have anything to do with each other.” Yet, as Howard says of Opera House Video’s clientele, “There’s an acceptance and a tolerance here of people completely different than you. I’ve seen debates in the aisles between people on completely opposite ends, politically, who then ask each other for advice on movies and TV. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but in the big world where tolerance is shrinking and there are less reasons to interface with people not like you, this is a place where the movies and TV are what matter.”

Like any great video store, Howard stocks Opera House Video with an eclectic and wide-ranging variety of films and TV shows. “When (widely-derided anti-abortion drama) ‘Unplanned’ was released, I ordered it, thinking anyone who wants to rent it can. I’ve heard arguments about abortion at the counter, and there are plenty of people who’ll never rent it, but we carry any movie, of any controversial type.”

Of course, stocking your video store lovingly to the rafters with everything people could want to watch didn’t ultimately help Videoport, or any other of the once-ubiquitous rental stores that once made all our lives better. (OK, I’m still bitter.) So I ask again – how has Opera House Video survived?

On a nuts-and-bolts level, Howard has some interesting thoughts. “We’re in the country, and for some people whose internet connection isn’t the best, streaming is problematic,” he said. “I heard a customer just the other day complaining that Disney-Plus buffers terribly for them. Another customer brought up something I hadn’t thought of – in a town where everyone buys local, and drinks artisanal beer, why are we spending money on Amazon? It just clicked in my head. There’s a hypocrisy in making the richest person on earth richer while you do everything local except renting.”

(Brief interlude of me nodding in “I told you so” so vigorously, I gave myself a headache.)

It hasn’t been easy for Howard and Opera House Video, no matter how Belfast’s residents appear to be able to see the big picture. The pandemic was a crippler, seeing the dedicated Howard spending 50 straight days perched at the door of his COVID-shuttered store, doing business with loyal and entertainment-deprived customers through the mail slot.


“I know people love to browse, so I pasted every square inch of the windows with box art from movies and TV shows. It was a weird time. People started renting things because they saw them on that window – the British TV show ‘Vera’ remains one of our most popular rentals, simply because people saw it there and rented it.”

Still, Howard (who splits time at the store with his one part-time employee) has relied on the support of the Belfast community.

“Things are tight, trying to make it work,” Howard said. “During the shutdown, people would come and put money on their rental account, which was incredibly helpful. The summer people are here now, which helps, since they love the novelty of us. I’d like to think that it’s our selection, and how we treat people that keeps people coming back.”

The science fiction shelves at Opera House Video.

Opera House Video’s Instagram page boasts the store’s collection as over 17,000 titles, which is genuinely impressive. And while Howard is all too happy to talk about the store’s colorful past (complete with eye-opening rumors about the mysterious original owners’ possible CIA connections, fake names and romantic intrigues), he’s clearly delighted to be one of Maine’s last holdouts in an industry he’s always loved.

“On the Ides of March, 2018, I bought it,” laughs Howard, whose sister was one of the previous owners (although not the mysterious possible spy ones). Another family was going to purchase it, and I found myself emotionally bothered by that. It hit me in the gut.” So Howard, who’d been laid off from his longtime position at Maine Public, and who’d been working a few nights a week at Opera House Video, made the leap, convinced his sister, and made running a video store in the 21st century his passion. Bravo, I say.

You can find out more about the store (hours, weekly highlights, and general awesomeness) on the store’s Facebook page, Instagram page and Twitter account. Sure, it’s a long way from Portland, but as Howard reminded me, there’s a big, much more interesting world north of Brunswick.

Dennis Perkins is a freelancer writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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