The beginning of a beautiful friendship

By Rigel Penman

Casablanca Video has a reputation for being the home of hard-to-find movies in Calgary. However, 30 years ago it was still the brainchild of a then 24-year-old Jon Lord, and it was getting off to a rocky start.

“Weeks before we’re set to open, I’m basically told there’s no money in it. That $70,000 I’m supposed to be getting to open with ain’t there,” says Lord.

After losing much of his financial support, things began to look bleak. But Lord wasn’t about to turn back. Determined to bring movies to Calgary no matter what stood in his way, he opened the store with only 150 movies split between Betamax and vhs.

“One hundred and fifty movies isn’t even a Mac’s store stand. If I was a different person I would have just walked away.”

Undeterred, Lord filled up the near-empty store with homemade furniture, potted plants and anything else he could find. When he was finally as ready as he was ever going to be, he opened his door to find the city tax collector. He seemed to have been waiting outside Lord’s door to bring him the good news that he owed another $2,000.

Lord quickly realized that without the capital to invest in a large selection of films, he was going to have to secure his customer base another way — by using his natural charm.

“My first 1,000 customers I knew by first and last name. I had my Rolodex file and I would sit at night memorizing everybody’s name.”

He used his knack for remembering names along with his gift of gab to build relationships with both customers and local newspapers who helped to spread news of his store. Through countless hours of conversation with reporters, customers and people who just walked through his door with nothing better to do than to chat, Lord earned himself both a name and a niche.

“They would come out to interview me as this new video store in town that’s making a big splash about the old classics and foreign films and all this kind of stuff. I could sit there and talk movies all day long to these guys.”

In 1984, a new strategy emerged for small businesses in Alberta — the Business Revitalization Zone. brzs allowed a community to temporarily raise their business taxes and the government would provide means of collection and allocation for advertising and improvement of public spaces. In order to initiate a brz, a minimum of 25 per cent of the businesses in an area were required to sign on. Given the predatory attitude the tax system was already taking toward small businesses, some people were hesitant to add their names to the petition. Despite this, Lord got the signatures and started one of the first brzs in Alberta.

The brz was a hit, and helped Casablanca and many other locally-owned businesses to thrive. Today Lord can still be found in Casablanca Video, helping to maintain the business he built. While he can no longer remember each and every customer by name, he’s still willing to talk movies and local history with anyone who comes into his store, and hopes to help as many small businesses as possible grow and flourish in Calgary.

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