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Shop talk: Lee Budowsky's music-only video store

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Lee Budowsky sat behind the counter at his video store, staring blankly at a blaring monitor. On the screen, a bare-chested giant in a Viking helmet and a fur cloak grimaced and wrenched loud chords from a red-and-white striped guitar.

"Something for the metal heads," Budowsky said.

The Video Beat, the only store in the Chicago area dealing solely in music video, has plenty for the metal heads -- and for the jazzbos and the punks and almost every other socio/musicological subgroup imaginable.

The little shop on Main Street in Evanston is packed, floor to ceiling, with videos from a dizzying variety of artists: Louis Jordan, Fats Waller, Luciano Pavarotti, Loretta Lynn, the Dead Kennedys, B.B. King, John Coltrane, Sheena Easton, Bob Marley, Alien Sex Fiend, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand, Bobby Short, the Monkees, and hundreds more.

Budowsky doesn't carry Top Gun or Rockys I through IV, but if you were itching to get your hands on, say, The Cramps Live at the NAPA State Mental Hospital or Horowitz in London, Budowsky would probably have it or at least know where to find it.

Budowsky opened the Video Beat in June 1985 with only 300 titles. Now he has more than 1,000, divided into broad categories such as rock, jazz, blues, punk, heavy metal, and reggae. The only types of music that haven't proven popular at the Video Beat are country and classical. There simply aren't many country and western fans in the area, Budowsky said, and admirers of classical music "tend to be a little intimidated when they come in and see the Butthole Surfers on the wall."

The Video Beat is a very casual place. Customers are likely to find the proprietor, or one of his employees, lounging behind the counter watching a tape or picking an unamplified electric guitar, or both -- and willing to pass the time. "A lot of times, people just drop in to look around or say hello," Budowsky said. "And that's all right. We're not just out to take their money."

Which is precisely why Budowsky often doesn't even require money for a rental deposit. "A lot of our customers are students and musicians who don't have charge cards or checking accounts," he said, "so we've adopted a very loose deposit policy." In lieu of cash, Budowsky accepts other tokens of good faith: skateboards, guitars, jewelry, schoolbooks -- anything that he thinks will motivate the renter to come back with his videotapes. He reached behind his counter and held up a large pair of kelly green work boots. "I figure the guy has got to come back for these," he said, laughing. "Where's he ever going to get another pair like them?"

Followers of Chicago music might be more familiar with 39-year-old Budowsky as Lee d'Budda, who played guitar for Bohemia, a local rock 'n' roll group with new-wave elements that put out a series of records and toured nightclubs throughout the country before disbanding nearly four years ago. "We played in Chicago for years," Budowsky said. "And it got to the point where our club draw was going down instead of going up. So we decided to hit the road and try to become a national act instead of a local band. I did that with them for about a year."

But d'Budda/Budowsky was the only person in Bohemia married to someone outside of the band. On one of his home visits, in 1983, he learned that his wife was going to have a baby and he decided to leave the group. "It was a major shock to my system, " said Budowsky, who found himself working as a messenger instead of a musician. I worked like crazy for two years straight, basically to get my mind off of things, and saved money so I could do something with my life. But I didnt know what."

His first plan was to buy an ordinary video store with a partner. But by the time they had saved enough money, small video stores were being threatened by large, corporate competitors who could afford to stock bigger supplies of tapes and rent them at lower prices. Budowsky said that he thought he could get around that problem by specializing in an area where there was little or no competition. "I had the idea that nobody had a video store with only music videos," he said. "I started doing research and looking at catalogs and I saw that there was some great stuff out there."

Others were not so enthusiastic. "Everybody thought I was nuts -- my family, especially, thought I was nuts." But, as Budowsky pointed out, some people thought MTV was nuts, too. "I'm a gambler by nature," he said. "I figured if it didn't work, what would I lose? Only money."

So Budowsky took his savings and began searching for a storefront location. He chose his present spot because, though it was not ideal in terms of size or visibility, the price was right. "I figured that if I opened here, I could afford to stay open for a year and really give it a shot," he said. "If I had tried to open someplace like New Town, I would have been out of business in four months."

The location does have its drawbacks. The Video Beat shares space in a small building with a car-rental company whose huge outdoor sign tends to distract attention. Despite Budowsky's somewhat frantic window display, with two Video Beat signs, a large, color poster of the Police, big advertisements for special offers, and fliers announcing shows by local bands, his shop still fades into obscurity under the car-rental sign. "I've had people tell me they drove around the block 40 times and couldn't find the place," he said.

But the customers keep coming, sometimes from as far away as Flossmoor, Gurnee, Saint Charles, and even South Bend. Despite the shop's near anonymity on the street, it is doing quite well. "To an accountant, we'd look really good," Budowsky said. "We've done really well for a company that started with less than $20,000. We've had some real crucial periods, but the store has always pulled through."

Budowsky said that the store still goes through periods when he can't draw a paycheck, because he always invests earnings in new stock for the store and sometimes sales and rentals don't match the amount he has spent for new tapes. But as the Video Beat nears its second anniversary, he is confident about the store's future and has plans to expand his informal mail-order business. "Maybe someday there'll be a whole chain of Video Beats," he said. "That would be nice." Particularly for people who carry green work boots instead of American Express.

The Video Beat is located at 911 Main Street in Evanston. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, noon to 8 PM; Friday, noon to 10 PM, Saturday, 11 AM to 10 PM. Music videos rent for $1.50 to $3 per day, with quantity discounts available. Call 475-7335 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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