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Popular Electronics is located at 2455 W. Devon, a half block west of the Muslim Women’s Resource Center (formerly Robert’s Deli) and smack in the middle of a highly animated retail district. The one-room store is flush with goods, requiring you to goose-step through suitcases and stacks of boxes in order to find what you’re looking for—the storage area is probably even hairier.
I discovered the place a few months ago when my region-free DVD player stopped working. As any fan of world cinema will concur, you can’t be long without a region-free player before you feel like you’re missing out on a lot of important stuff. There are too many great films that remain without official DVD distribution in this country—and not just foreign titles, but American masterpieces like Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight. The enterprising cinephile, however, will know how to search for a title if it seems like it’s worth the effort. This makes him or her especially well prepared for a visit to Popular Electronics.
I stopped by the store last week to talk with Ahmed Maniar, who runs the place with his two older brothers. (One of them, Taha, sat on the far end of the business counter and sometimes interjected with comments I couldn’t understand.) He appeared to be in his mid-to-late 20s, but behaved like someone with an entire career behind him: a real no-nonsense type who gave the sense of knowing his business inside and out. I imagined that my grandfather—a lifelong Chicago cabbie who often fraternized with independent business owners—would have liked his style.
Ben Sachs: So, your brother told me a few months ago that you sell a lot of region-free players.
Ahmed Maniar: Yes. We sell a lot of DVD players, and they’re all region-free.
BS: How many would you say you sell a month?
AM: Well, daily we sell about 50 piece, so monthly it goes around 1,000 or 2,000 piece.
BS: Do you watch a lot of movies?
AM: Yes, we do.
BS: What’s the last good movie you saw?
AM: Well, we watch a lot of movies—current movies, Indian movies, whatever. It’s hard to remember just one.
BS: I don’t watch a lot of Indian movies. What’s a good one to see?
AM: Maybe Don.
BS: That’s from the 70s, right?
BS: Is that your favorite?
AM: Not really, but the people in my family like it a lot.
BS: Do you have a favorite movie?
AM: In American movies, it’s Batman.
BS: What about in Indian movies?
AM: None of them.
BS: You’re not a fan?
BS: Why not?
AM: I just don’t like them. (Taha exchanges a private joke with Ahmed in their native tongue. They laugh, I don’t.)
BS: How long have you been selling region-free DVD players?
AM: It’s been over eight years.
BS: Do you get a lot of people coming in asking for them?
AM: We get more online orders than local pickup.
BS: I actually discovered you guys from your eBay seller profile. I was about to order one from you, but then I noticed the address and just bought it in person.
AM: We’re actually the top sellers on eBay.
BS: Since when?
AM: (to Taha) Since when?
Taha Maniar: It’s been, like, three years.
AM: Yeah, about three, four years. We also have a poster right here from eBay. (He takes me over to the display of cell phones and chargers, where the eBay award hangs modestly between two smartphones.)
BS: Nice. When did they send that to you?
AM: Every year they send us a new one.
AM: We get nice feedback from customers.
BS: Do any of them tell you what they use the players for? Like they’d been trying to watch movies from other countries?
AM: A lot of people let us know how the DVDs play. Normally they tell us they went well.
BS: I remember when I bought mine, your brother told me you have about a thousand in stock at any time.
BS: Where are they coming from?
AM: We work with a lot of dealers. There’s no one place we work with the most—we order from all over the world.
BS: I imagine you could run into some communication issues when you’ve got to ship merchandise across a bunch of different countries. Do you have any funny stories about that?
BS: I guess when you order so many you’ve got to keep everything in order.
AM: Yeah, [our suppliers] are good. We get everything on time.
BS: How long has the store been around?
AM: We’ve been here 18 years, so when I came in, it had already been here 13 years.
BS: What are your typical customers like?
AM: We have great customers, actually. They take care of me, I take care of them. They’re perfect.
BS: A lot of movie lovers?
AM: Sure. They’re the ones who buy the DVD players.
BS: Do you get any movie tips from them?
AM: (flatly) I don’t take tips.
BS: No, I meant recommendations for movies to see.
AM: Not really. The customers are watching their own movies from their own cultures in their own language. So, if I tried to watch [their recommendation] I wouldn’t understand it.
BS: You don’t like subtitles?
AM: I do like subtitles, but sometimes it’s a little too hard. I’m just like, why? Why couldn’t this just be in English? Because when you’re really tired and you want to watch something, you don’t want to waste any more of your energy.
BS: What’s the most common language of your customers?
BS: You said that they’re watching them in their own languages . . .
AM: Mostly their movies are in English. But sometimes there’s not even any talking [on their DVDs] and it’s just the video. Like when people have a wedding video that they want to look at with their families.
BS: Are a lot of your customers buying DVD players to watch their wedding videos?
AM: A lot of them, yeah, because they get married in their home countries. They bring the DVDs over here and they find they can’t watch them. The DVD player they buy [in another store] isn’t multiregion.
BS: Where are these people getting married? India?
AM: No. They’re from all over the world.
BS: So that means you meet people from lots of different countries every day.
BS: So you’re like the UN, but for electronics.
AM: Of course. That’s why we sell everything from overseas, not from the U.S.