By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

BOZEMAN – With the advent of Redbox and online streaming services like Netflix and On Demand in the past decade, movie stores began rapidly disappearing nationwide.

In January 2014, DISH Network announced that its subsidiary Blockbuster would be closing all of its remaining U.S. retail stores and distribution centers.

“This is not an easy decision, yet consumer demand is clearly moving to digital distribution of video entertainment,” said Joseph P. Clayton, DISH president and chief executive officer in a press release.

Despite this trend, some independent film stores have managed to offer customers something they can’t get with the click of a button. And with loyal fan bases, they’re not just surviving – they’re thriving.

Movie Lovers, Bozeman’s only independent movie store, is more than a means of accessing entertainment. It’s a space where folks can slow down for a minute and interact with others.

“[People] like the ritual of coming to their bricks and mortar store,” said owner Jill Joyce. “They love the clerks and having conversations with other customers. Netflix is very convenient, but it’s very isolating – it doesn’t have a community or culture around it.”

Located at the intersection of West Main Street and South 23rd Avenue in the University Square Shopping Center, Movie Lovers opened in 1984 under the name “Tape King.” As inventory transitioned to DVD’s, former owner Doug Aita changed the name to reflect that shift.

Rumors of the store’s closing circulated last year as Aita prepared for retirement. However, longtime customer Joyce stepped in and purchased the store on April 1, 2014, to preserve the space she and so many others had come to adore.

“Movie Lovers is a really vibrant store and financially solvent,” Joyce said. “It appears it’s going to be that way for years to come.”

Although Joyce enjoys a good flick, she attributes the store’s success primarily to the clerks whose knowledge brings customers back time and again.

“It’s nice to have an actual conversation with somebody and discuss the movies because you can think outside the box, as opposed to what the machine or Internet suggest,” said Brad Van Wert, 35, who’s been renting at Movie Lovers for 10 years – as long as Tyler Hanson’s been working there.

As a passionate movie buff, Hanson, 32, spends a lot of time inside, watching films. The store offers him a social outlet and a place to connect with others, using his expertise to help customers make movie choices.

“It’s really cool to be able to express your love for your favorite thing and share it with people who are less tuned in,” said Hanson, adding that he often makes recommendations to patrons who don’t have time to browse the aisles, but still want to watch a quality film.

“Building trust with customers is what it is,” he said. “We do the hard work so they don’t have to. People can skip the process of research.”

The store’s demographic is as broad as its selection, with older customers who have been renting for years; MSU film students who admire the extensive catalog and intelligence of the staff; parents who come to teach their kids how to make choices and peruse the aisles; and younger teens whose worlds are just starting to expand.

Jim Burt, who’s celebrating his 13th year as a Movie Lovers clerk, says his favorite part about the job is conversing with shoppers on a range of topics, not just movies.

“There are a lot of educated and well-informed people who come in here, so it’s a blast to talk to [them],” Burt said. “I’ve gotten to known them so well over the years.”

Now more than ever, Burt says, the store is like a library.

“There’s a lot of history here – a lot to do with culture,” Burt said. “The current thoughts of humanity are on display. It’s important not just for entertainment, but for education.”

A space for learning and shared experiences, Movie Lovers has a strong following in Bozeman that seems to be growing. Joyce believes there will always be a place for physical media. She compares her store to Country Bookshelf, a successful independent bookstore on Main Street that has broad community support.

“Our world’s so disconnected,” Joyce said. “It’s all about convenience. You come to a place like this, and you realize that [connection] is what you’re longing for.”