The smell whacks you in the face as soon as you open the glass door to Casa Video.
You either love it or you don’t.
Kyle Schwab is most definitely in the don’t camp.
Which is a shame since he’s around it all the time. Has been his whole life.
His mom, Gala Schwab, owns the video store that hands out free popcorn and has been a midtown fixture for 32 years. Kyle — who dreamed up and manages the year-old craft-beer bar tucked inside the business — grew up running through its aisles. He still has a scar from the time he tripped and smacked into a shelf, gashing his arm.
Casa, 2905 E. Speedway, is well known for its constantly popping corn. An industrial Cretors machine cranks out gallons of the salted-just-right, nuclear-yellow fluff. As a kid, Kyle would climb into his mom’s late ’90s model Camaro at the end of the day, the radio set to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the smell of popcorn clinging to them like sweaty shirts, and he’d feel positively queasy.
“We’d hit that part of Campbell Road where it’s windy, and I’d get carsick,” Kyle, 27 and the father of two young boys, says with a chuckle. “I smell popcorn and I think of that. Popcorn just grosses me out. Customers love it.”
Boy, do they.
One regular — and that should probably be in quotes — never leaves without some.
“He comes in Tuesday nights, he doesn’t rent a movie. He grabs four bags of popcorn, looks at the TV and walks out,” says Daimen Clark, 22, who was a customer as a kid. Casa is the first place he ever applied to for a job post-high school. He’s been here ever since.
“It’s a fun working environment,” he says.
The mom-and-popcorn operation is much better than toiling for some corporate chain. “It has more heart,” Clark says.
Open 365 days a year (from 10 a.m.-1 a.m.), Casa outlasted the crush of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores and is weathering digital streaming just fine. Gala, 58, says she, too, streams, so customers shouldn’t have guilt about that. The technology is fast and convenient, but the selection is definitely limited, she says. Things come and go on streaming services, but Casa keeps expanding — it carries 50,000-60,000 titles in its 8,000-square-foot, two-story building. Customers appreciate the wide-ranging titles, which include documentaries and foreign films, as well as video games and audio books.
A clear box near the checkout counter even gives people a chance to make requests.
“If we can find it, we’ll order 90 percent of what’s requested,” Gala says.
A fan of old standards and film noir, Gala started the Speedway location with her older brother Ray Mellenberndt in 1985, two years after buying another local rental store that closed in 1990.
They grew up avid movie buffs, selling tickets and concessions and running the massive reel-to-reel projector at their dad’s Rapids Theatre in Rock Rapids, Iowa. A blown-up black and white photo of the Rapids stretches across a wall, paying homage to what kicked off the owners’ love of film. On a recent Tuesday night, you could barely see it through the throngs of people crowding the bar. They even plopped onto the wooden floor as seats ran out. The occasion: Casa’s monthly trivia contest, this one spotlighting the beloved TV show “Gilmore Girls.”
Almost every day of the week some kind of special activity is happening, ranging from game nights, cartoons for the kiddos, crafty paint-by-numbers projects or local craft-beer events.
The “Gilmore Girls” trivia, though, is really packing them in tonight.
Maya Kraft decided to spend her 22nd birthday here, wedged in with more than 100 other avid fans because she adores the show. It was her first visit to Casa, but not for Grael Norton. Far from the Gilmore crowd, he and his wife, Nona Patrick, were following their 13-month-old, newly mobile-on-just-two-feet son Conrad, who was lurching through the drama section.
A loyal customer for 15 years, Norton says he’ll stream movies now and then, but when it comes to the foreign films he and his wife love, nothing compares to Casa Video’s selection. They also appreciate suggestions from the friendly, knowledgeable staff. Though they live downtown and prefer patronizing local businesses they can walk to, they’ll make the drive for one of their favorite places — especially on two-for-one night.
“Nobody does it as good as Casa,” Patrick says.
Though customers can take advantage of its online ordering, the midtown store tends to be very much a neighborhood kind of place, with Blenman-Elm residents walking over to rent a flick or sip a beer at the Casa Film Bar, which aims for a family vibe with stacks of old-school games like Jenga as well as a PlayStation 4 so the kiddos can play video games while mom and dad enjoy a drink with friends. The bar even stocks kid-friendly Extra Cheesy Pizza Lunchables and rainbow-colored Jones Soda in the refrigerator case. And, of course, there’s always the popcorn.
Contrary to Kyle’s anti-corn stance, employee Clark is firmly pro-popcorn.
“One of the perks of the job when I spent too much of my paycheck,” he says of the snack. “It’s a good free lunch.”