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Video shop zooms in on its market

The little video rental shop is about one-fifth the size of the Blockbuster monster a mile or so down Ulmerton Road in Largo. But Video Wiz survives and prospers because it has something the big chain can't compete with: family. Pat Marcano's family, that is. Pat is "Mom" in the business, as in the shelf marked "Mom's Choice," which is lined with movies she has liked. Also, as in the cashmere sweater in the window with the word "Ghost" (from the movie of the same name). A handwritten card says:

"Don't even ask. This jacket costs too much. You can't afford it. Love, Mom"

"I had to pay $1,100 for 12 rental copies of Ghost," says Marcano. "They threw in the sweater as a bonus."

She shrugs good-naturedly. "Most movies cost me about $60, but this was the big hit of the year, and I had it when the customers wanted it. Of course, Blockbuster had more copies. But they were never in. What good are 30 empty boxes on a shelf?" She grins mischievously: "I wonder. Can you buy empty boxes of hit movies and put them on your shelf?"

Until a few months ago, the Blockbuster video rental chain was gobbling smaller video shops as if they were little cheese balls at a cocktail party. For heartier fare, Wayne Huizenga, owner of the chain, was licking his chops, ready to gulp down the next baseball expansion franchise.

But something happened on the way to the banquet. Over-expansion and new technology caused Blockbuster stock to tumble. Now it is less certain that Huizenga will have his way with the baseball team _ and with the independent little video shops that keep hanging in there.

One of the latter is Video Wiz, tucked into a shopping strip at the corner of Walsingham and Vonn roads in Largo. The Video Wiz family includes Pat's partner, her son Mike, 25; her younger son, Jason, 21 (when he's not in class); and her husband, Paul (when he's not on his salesman's route).

"We know most of the customers and their tastes, and most of the movies. Paul and I watch one every night after work, except the yuck ones, like horror movies or martial arts. They bore me," Marcano says.

Part of operating a family video store is protecting the generations from each other's movies. Young people can be repelled by the bogus moralism of many of the old movies. And old people can be absolutely appalled by some of the newer movies.

But occasionally, when the shop is busy, the Marcanos will let one get away from them. Recently a "dear, dear old lady, 75 at least" came in, looking shaken, to return a copy of Cruising, a movie about a cop (Al Pacino) searching for a murderer among the gay bars of New York City.

"My, my, this wasn't what I thought it was," said the dear, dear old lady. "I didn't know there were people like this."

"But why did you take it out in the first place?" Marcano asked.

"I was on a cruise last year, and I thought this would remind me of all the nice things that happened. But this wasn't about cruising at all."

Video Wiz has been in business five years. For the previous 15 years, Marcano operated a nursery school in Tampa.

"I sold the school because it stopped being fun."

As she spoke, a young couple came into the shop. "His parents are visiting," said the wife, "and we need a movie with nobody talking ugly and nobody taking off their clothes."

With a sympathetic smile Marcano handed her Three Men and a Baby.