Way before Blockbuster there was Erol’s (Erol Video Club)

Erol’s can refer to any of three companies, all founded by Erol Onaran, a Turkish immigrant to Virginia.

Erol Onaran we the original Video King!

In 1960, Erol Onaran left Turkey with $32 in his pocket. Having spent half that sum in Rome, the television repairman arrived in the United States with only $16. In 25 years from his arrival, Onaran had single handedly parlayed his $16 into a multi-million-dollar enterprise that was at the time the nation’s largest privately owned videocassette rental company. In 2000 Erol’s had 63 stores that bear his first name in Washington, Baltimore, Norfolk and Philadelphia, Onaran had around 2,000 employees and about $80 million in annual revenue back in those days. Although that may be far from his humble beginnings, Onaran’s company was really quite modest and ran like a family business compared with his ultimate dream. “Our goals are very simple — we want our business to double every year,” he said once during an interview. Onaran’s success at that time in capturing about 40 percent of the rapidly growing local video-rental market had earned the 51-year-old entrepreneur the title of “Video King” among his competitors. Among other things, they credit his company’s massive advertising campaign — which costs about $6 million a year — with calling attention to the area’s video-rental industry, greatly enhancing the overall video business in the process. “Erol’s is a real positive force in our market,” had said Tom Ray, president of the local chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association. “A lot of other companies have learned a lot from him.”

Erol’s Inc.

Erol’s Inc. was a video rental and electronic sales and Repair Company founded in 1963, which included video rental in 1980. By 1985, Erol’s was the country’s largest privately owned videocassette rental company.[1] It was sold to Blockbuster Video for $40 million in 1990. At the time of the sale, Erol’s was the nation’s 3rd largest video rental chain with 208 stores in 5 states and the District of Columbia.[2] Its success was widespread enough to spawn imitations. In Chile, Juan Pablo Correa created in the late 1980s a copycat of Erol’s, named locally “Errol’s” (with two R’s), using the same typeface and color schemes of the American one.[3] The same Chilean company opened several video rental stores called Errol’s in Bolivia during the 1990’s.[4]

Erol’s Internet

Using the money from the sale of the video company, Erol would then expand his TV repair company and began selling and repairing computers. Soon afterward, he created an ISP bearing his name in the mid-1990s, called Erol’s Internet. The ISP was based in Northern Virginia, at the longtime Erol’s headquarters at 7921 Woodruff Court in Springfield, Va., and was the Washington D.C area’s main competitor to AOL and smaller ISPs such as ClarkNet and CAIS. While owned by Erol Onaran, the business was run by his son, Orhan Onaran. Services provided by Erol’s Internet were basic dial-up access with e-mail accounts and web space. Initially, Unix shell accounts were also provided. Unlike AOL, Erol’s did not provide subscriber content, though limited attempts at this were made in later years. Erol’s popularity was due to its locally based customer support, as well as cheaper prices. At one point a 5-year contract for dial-up access could be purchased for just over $300, bringing the monthly cost well below $19.95, which was the average price for all other competitors.

While focused mostly on residential customers, a unit called the Business Services Group (BSG) was set up to provide business services, such as custom domain names with web sites and email, RealAudio, dedicated servers, and static IPs or network blocks. BSG was phased out after less than two years, although business services were available for several years longer.

In the late 1990s, Erol’s sought to become a publicly traded corporation and began the process toward an IPO. Instead, the Internet portion of the company was sold to RCN.[5] It was rebranded Erols Internet (note the lack of the apostrophe). Slowly, over time, the Erols brand was reduced in favor of the Starpower and later RCN brand, although the domain name still resolves to RCN servers.

Erol’s Computer

The Onaran family retained a small store in the nearby Ravensworth shopping center under the name Erol’s Computer; it sold computer parts and repaired computers and video equipment. It expanded later to include a modest selection of DVD rentals. It was located where one of their old video rental stores used to be, which was taken over by Blockbuster Video, which was then converted back into an Erol’s store. Later, the store moved down the street, near its old ISP headquarters, to a converted storage unit at 5232 Port Royal Road, Springfield, Va., where it operated as Erol’s TV-VCR & Computer Service. Around 2007, the store had reportedly gone out of business (unconfirmed), with no more Erol’s presence, other than a few remaining erols email accounts currently supported by RCN, known in the area after 20 years.

Here is my own personal interaction with Erol’s:

I met Erol Onaran and his partner Yuksel when my father was stationed in Washington DC at the Turkish Embassy (from 1973 to 1977). There was a small but tight-nit Turkish-American community in the metropolitan area (DC, S. Maryland and N. Virginia). In 1975 Erol had a TV and Electronic repair shop on Columbia Pike, Arlington, Virginia. I don’t know if any of you remember the old tube style TVs (no remote), they used to break very often. His shop was one of the only one in the area repairing TVs and radios. I remember the very first time entering his small store in Arlington and being mesmerized with the amount of TVs and other electronic equipment all over the store. A small team of technicians were working tirelessly to fix things. We were invited several times to their barbecue outings and get togethers at their homes. The thing most striking to me was how well he was treating his employees, it was like a family affair rather than a business. I saw how he single handedly turned this small electronic repair shop into a video rental business that grew to be the first name in video rentals of that time. When he sold his business to Blockbuster in 1990 for $40 M almost no media mentioned the incredible person Erol Onaran was. Nobody mentioned how he came to the US with few dollars in his pocket and turned his dream and vision into reality, making millions of viewers happy by providing them a venue to watch the latest movies, play the latest games and enjoy videos in general.

 

The last US Blockbuster video store is in Bend, Oregon, and it will be closing in July 2018. https://qz.com/1328012

 

References:

Erol’s on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erol%27s

“EROL’S VIDEO-RENTAL KING MADE ‘THE AMERICAN DREAM’ HIS OWN”. Mayer, Caroline (1 July 1984).The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/business/1985/08/26/erols-founder-earns-title-of-video-king/60fccf68-109d-404b-b93e-68742bfce53b/

“Company News; RCN To Buy Ultranet and Erol’s Internet” New York Times, 22 January 1998, NYtimes.  https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/22/business/company-news-rcn-to-buy-ultranet-and-erol-s-internet.html

Ghost from the past: https://ghostsofdc.org/2016/10/17/erols-video-sold-blockbuster-40-million/

Popville, VA stories: https://www.popville.com/2011/07/the-history-behind-erols-video-club/

 

Erol’s in pictures: