Lion breaks the chain: A Coral Gables video hideaway for indie devotees

Walking into Lion Video, you probably won’t notice the plaques hung on the inside wall: Best Independent Video Store, Best Video Rental Store and a few other accolades from the Miami news-magazines. Instead, your focus will be on making it to the center of the store, where you’ll hit, sometimes literally, three long, narrow aisles of the most diverse and obscure selection of DVDs and tapes around.

Lion Video is in its ninth year of operation at its tiny Coral Gables location. Driving along Ponce De Leon in search of it is a tricky, almost cinematic endeavor, so expect a few illegal U-turns and spontaneous outbursts of loud cursing, but once there, it’s all worth it. Lion Video is a movie lover’s dream. The aisles are stocked with foreign films, American classics and new releases. The only problem is that in its nine-year history, Lion Video has amassed so many tapes and DVDs that space is becoming a concern.

“We’re running out of space, because we have so many films now,” said Ubaldo Zambrano – Le Coeur, one of Lion Video’s two owners. “We’re trying to make it better; to give it more space.”

About 75 percent of the store’s collection is made up of foreign films, the majority from France, Spain, Mexico and Italy. One of Lion Video’s best ideas is to put the works of an acclaimed director on a shelf entirely to its own. Spain’s Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her), American filmmaker John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence) and independent pioneer Jim Jarmusch (Permanent Vacation) all have sections dedicated to their films. The store also displays a large collection of classic films from Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Based on a short visit to the store, it seems that Ubaldo, Ubi for short, is the heart of Lion Video. His main responsibility is to manage the foreign section, and he fills a small rack in the store with his favorite French films. The regulars all seem to know him, waving goodbye as they exit and hello as they enter.

Ubi’s voice is calm and quiet, and his French heritage is evident in his accent. He seems shy when talking about himself, but doesn’t hesitate to rattle off a well-checked list of his favorite French films and some of the store’s best rentals. His love for foreign films is apparent upon meeting him, as well as his devotion to his customers.

Ubi insisted that this interview take place outside of the store. “It’s quieter out here,” he shouts above the stream of passing traffic, and he’s probably right. Ubi estimates that 400 people come in and out of the store each day, and while that might seem a bit of an exaggeration, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. For a store not much bigger than the comedy section at Blockbuster, there are at least 10 customers inside at a time picking up rentals for Saturday night. It’s heartwarming to see many of them on cell phones with their spouses, talking excitedly about the next movie from the director of the film they loved so much last weekend. Or, at least better than the guys lurking around Blockbuster contemplating whether to pick up Collateral Damage or Men in Black II.

As Ubi stands on the sidewalk answering questions, customers actually greet him on the way to their cars. They seem genuinely happy with their choices and with Lion Video as a whole, a welcome alternative to the contractual greetings of faceless video chains. Yet Ubi refuses to produce the Jerry Maguire-type rant against money-grubbing video rental conglomerates that we’d expect. Instead, he understands Lion Video’s place amongst his competitors.

“Blockbuster is a good company,” Ubi offers. “I’m not going to put them down in any way. They are a good company and they specialize in American films, and they have good deals, and they have a product that people want to see. But some people like foreign [films]. Many of our customers will go to Blockbuster to rent American films, and then to get a taste of foreign films, they come here.”

On this peculiarly cold afternoon, Lion Video has three additional employees alongside Ubi working the counter. Alain Hernandez has worked there for seven months. His motivations for getting a job at an independent video store do not follow the typical indie-hipster sentiments. Alain had never been a big movie fan, rarely encountering a foreign film. After a friend got him the job at Lion, however, he started to watch some of the movies.

“There’s so many different genres out there that I didn’t even know existed until I worked here. Isaac [Santos], the owner, he’s awesome at catching these rare, independent foreign movies.”

Alain goes on to explain the movies he’s most inspired by; a guy who seven months ago had never heard of Lion Video, now discusses an interest in Japanese directors and films. He mentions how Ubi teaches the staff about foreign films, and how he even recommends some of his favorites to inquiring customers.

While talking with Ubi about American thrillers, the differences between DVD and VHS, and the impact that subtitles have on customers’ choices, he gets that look in his eye – a welcomingly pierced tap of endless discussion. Avoiding Harry Knowles-style buttering, it’s the look that grandparents get when they talk about their youth, and the look that old retired athletes get when they reminisce about their playing days. But Ubi is only in his 20’s. He became a co-owner five years ago, joining the store’s founder, Isaac Santos.

It’s clear that Ubi loves movies, like most people. But above all, he loves introducing customers to movies that they will love. ‘This is my hobby, this is my work, this is my home,” he says.

Shawn Wines can be reached at