Time: The Greatest Gift

by Abbey Cahill | 6/30/16 6:32pm

“Audrey Hepburn is the most popular by far. For every five Audreys, I probably sell one Marilyn.”

Bryan Smith is the manager of International DVD & Poster, and he loves to talk. We were talking poster sales. Back when the store opened in 2003, Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were flying out the door. They were celebrity crushes. Icons. But the age of the idolized celebrity has fizzled since then — Channing Tatum is okay, Smith explained, but not for everyone.

The real money is in the Winter Carnival posters. IDVD & Poster has the largest collection of originals in the world. The rarest ones sell for $4,000 to $6,000. On big weekends, alumni return to campus and buy them. Busy season is from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. In the winter, however, the store is sleepy.

“It’s cyclical,” Smith said. “The store has a rhyme and a reason; a pattern. And you start to get the hang of it after almost 14 years.”

The content, though, is somewhat unpredictable. There are maps and ads for musicals and many different John Belushi posters pasted to the walls. There are album covers and anime and sports teams and subway signs, collections of novelty items, racks of DVDs and boxes of vinyl records labeled classical, rock and roll and jazz, among others.

Smith thinks the name of the store doesn’t do its location justice. Often, he overhears customers on the phone, struggling to explain where they are.

“I’m in the record store,” they say. “No — the poster store. I’m in that cool store underneath Starbucks.”

I asked Smith why people keep coming back. Can’t they buy posters online or rent movies from Amazon? For some people, he said, it’s a throwback from their youth. For others, it’s the appeal of finding something rare ­— something you can’t get just anywhere. He produced an example: a movie by film and media studies professor Bill Phillips about a local printmaker, Sabra Field. She makes vibrant New England landscapes of red barns, snowy fields and undulating green mountains.

I said that I take art classes at Dartmouth, and Smith was eager to share something from the store’s extensive collection.

“Here,” he said, handing me the DVD, “I’d hope you bring it back, but if you don’t, I’m not going to chase you down.”

His favorite part about Sabra’s work is its idealized portrayal of Vermont and New Hampshire.

“I love to look at the pictures she based her prints on,” Smith said. “You realize the real photos have, say, a trailer or a broken down truck in the front, and she takes it out, just cause she can. She makes it iconic Vermont.”

Smith loves the iconic image. He has an idea for a poster: Rapunzel in Bartlett Tower. Or the equestrian team, riding horses in front of Baker-Berry Library.

While we’re talking, Acacia Hoisington ’18, a member of the Dartmouth Fencing team, came in with a friend. She had an idea for a fencing poster, and Smith was excited to help. 25 percent of profits will go to the store, 25 percent go to the artist and 50 percent go to the sports program, he explained. He wanted to launch a similar program for Greek house posters — but profits would go strictly to the maintenance of the houses, to avoid the possibility of spending on alcohol-related functions.

Hoisington came in with her freshman trippees, and Smith still remembered her. He said that he recognizes students from year to year.

“I have a visual memory,” Smith explained. “I can say ‘you came in here with your little brother and your mom two years ago, and you’re from Oklahoma.’ Individuals and experiences. Those are the things I keep in my memory.”

The world is speeding up, though, and our illusion of hyper-connectivity might actually be making us less connected. Smith believes that we value people and experiences less than we should. And technology is largely to blame.

“I’m a little bit of a Luddite,” Smith said. “People these days are losing that sense of person to person experiences. Our noses are buried in our phones.”

He misses when people used to come into the store and ask him about movie recommendations. Smith’s grandfather started the film studies program at Dartmouth, so he grew up surrounded by movies. The experience of selecting and watching a film has become much less personalized, he argued.

Smith drilled me: “Have you seen ‘Lawrence of Arabia?’ ‘Casablanca?’ ‘The Wizard of Oz?’ ‘Singing in the Rain?’ ‘The Graduate?’”

I’ve only seen “The Wizard of Oz,” I replied, and he was thoroughly unimpressed.

“Those are a sample of the top 10 movies of the 20th century,” Smith said. “‘Casablanca’ — a date movie. You turn off your phone, turn off the lights, get some popcorn and watch the movie. If you are texting or calling or pausing it to talk to someone else, you can’t get back from the present day to World War II Casablanca. You’re going to be taken out of the moment. Young people don’t have the attention span, now.”

Smith said that we are losing our ability to devote ourselves to a single moment.

He watched pairs of students come into the store during their freshman week with half-finished cups of gelato in their hands. They were not shopping, just looking and spending time with each other, and then suddenly someone’s phone would ring.

“And they start talking to their buddy about the date they’re on — right in front of the date!” Smith exclaimed. “I tell them, the greatest gift you can give anyone is your time, because time you can never get back.”

Smith’s work is a paradox. He sits in a shop surrounded by objects. They are anything but interactive; they are fixed items, devoid of human connection. But for Smith, it is not about the objects themselves. Instead, it is their ability to connect us to experiences and people.

Smith’s niece has a senior recital this November. If he can’t find anyone to watch the store, then it will close for the evening. That recital, he said, is more important that selling anything to a customer.

“As far as things go, they get flooded, they get burned, but you can always replace them,” Smith said. “But once time is gone, it’s gone.”