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Video store hero is lawyer's latest role
[March 06, 2011]

Video store hero is lawyer's latest role

Mar 06, 2011 (The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Mickey Aberman is a lawyer at a high-powered uptown firm with a parking lot full of luxury cars.

Yet he drives a Toyota Prius that could use a visit to the carwash.

Aberman moonlights as a harmonica player in a bluegrass band.

Yet he's so shy that at gigs he practically stands with one foot offstage.

Aberman is no stranger to irony, to being contradictory. So perhaps it's no surprise that his most recent major purchase flies in the face of everything you would expect from a man whose job requires him to structure transactions for much larger businesses.

In January, Aberman took a huge leap when he saved Charlotte's last independent video store and its tattooed staff from extinction, even as Netflix and Redbox prepare for world domination.

Still, the question is: Why buy VisArt Video -- a place with an apparently dim future -- and its collection of 30,000 titles? On the one hand, Aberman, 54, has become a cult hero to the store's fans. On the other, he is now in a precarious position, in danger of winding up on the losing end of a bad business decision, something he's tried to protect clients from making for years.

Although he often speaks at a volume that would please the strictest of librarians, Aberman enjoys talking. He's prone to long, wild tangents about topics as broad as politics or as narrow as Fuel Pizza.

One of his favorite subjects? Movies.

He claims he's not a film buff, but he and his family have been regulars at VisArt for years, and he moves around the store with the joy of a teenager as he points out favorite flicks. "Empire of the Sun." "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Buster Keaton movies from the 1920s and '30s.

The store -- in a strip shopping center on Seventh Street near Pecan Avenue in the Elizabeth neighborhood -- is organized chaos, with 7-foot racks packed with cases; many have stamps of approval in the form of stickers signed by its five employees.

In addition to the usual Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream movies, there are dozens of sections divided by sub-genre: Japanese horror. Sherlock Holmes. Exploitation. Rare Criterion Collection titles.

Aberman opens his mouth to explain VisArt's uniqueness, and though the voice is small, the enthusiasm is big.

"Like some people might go down to SouthPark and browse the stores at the mall, I like looking at the racks here," he says. "It's the last place in Charlotte where you can get a huge breadth of movies, where you can get an enjoyable experience just browsing the shelves. It's really hard to think of a movie that isn't here." He disdains Redbox, which has at most 200 titles in each of its omnipresent red kiosks. As for Netflix, though the rental giant has 100,000-plus titles on DVD, Aberman says it lacks many movies that aren't yet on disc (VisArt has a surprising number of VHS tapes), that its streaming service offers no extras, that its computer-generated recommendations don't offer nuanced expertise.

"The VisArt staff has always been extraordinary," he says. "Some of them are strange-looking people ... but they know movies to an extent that's scary. They're able to discern the intangible aspects that make a movie enjoyable and relate it to others in a way a computer algorithm could never do." Then two middle-aged women walk into the store and smile as they recognize Aberman. One says, "Thank you, Mickey. We appreciate what you did for the neighborhood." He smiles, too, but says no more than "Thank you" back.

'He's a little introverted' Aberman's main jobs are being a good husband to his wife, Linda, and being a good father to their three children, Alex, 18, Kate, 14, and Layla, 11. (Not only was Linda supportive, but she says she "sort of had a hand in it. ... I'm not sure if it was his idea or my idea. He was the one who ultimately decided, though, that he could swing it -- that he had enough money.") He spends 55 to 60 hours a week at James, McElroy & Diehl, where he has practiced since graduating from the University of Virginia Law School in 1984.

Aberman's work has run the gamut from helping to defend Pepsi in an antitrust case in the 1980s to representing wrestler Ric Flair in business matters.

Over the years, he says, he has dealt "with virtually every issue that businesses face." The majority of his work involves helping companies, and sometimes accountants, analyze and solve problems; he describes his job as being "a lot like working out a Sudoku puzzle," and "a little bit like being a business psychologist." Says Ed Hinson, who helped hire Aberman and still works down the hall from him: "He's a little introverted, although he's very combative on behalf of his clients. He is a real fighter." Aberman attributes some of his feistiness to what he calls "an extraordinarily low bull-- tolerance." "I react badly to people who are slinging crap or being heavy-handed, and I can turn into a first-class jerk," he says. "Several people (will) tell you I can be -- or am -- a pain in the butt." 'He was hooked' But when not in lawyer mode, Aberman can be timid, almost painfully shy.

For the past few years, he has played harmonica in a band called Simpler Times organized by longtime friend and former law partner Ralph McMillan.

"It took me about five years to get him to come play with us," says McMillan, a former Charlotte City Council member. "Mickey's so funny because he's so reluctant; he's always worried about everything. He'd say, 'I'm not good, I'm not good.' I said, 'Mickey, just come over, see how you like it. ... He came over once and he was hooked. It was a big addition to us. He's a great harmonica player." Aberman says he enjoys practicing but gets anxious about gigs, which draw maybe 50 to 100 people.

"They give me a hard time because I generally don't stay that visible," he says. "... At this most recent one, I was tucked back in a corner. We also have this ongoing debate about whether I should sing, with me being the naysayer." On the occasions when he's sung, it's because his bandmates have forced the issue. At some shows, Aberman says, they've played the opening riff of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" continuously and refused to stop until he starts in with the first verse.

McMillan laughs at that. "He says he doesn't like singing. But he does." Aberman has long had an affinity for the arts.

The Rock Hill native started acting at the University of Virginia, then spent time during the late '70s doing plays while living in Scotland. ("I theoretically attended Edinburgh University. I was enrolled and did well on exams, but class attendance wasn't too good.") While abroad, he got serious about theater: He earned praise (and paychecks) for playing Caliban in "The Tempest," and as comedian Lenny Bruce in "Lenny." "I kind of like being other people," Aberman says. "In a courtroom, juries don't really want anybody being theatrical. They definitely don't want you pretending to be another character. ... But I miss that a lot. My dream job would be to actually be a successful, good actor." 'This can't happen' In a way, of course, he is playing a role again -- as a hero to VisArt's devoted fans.

Gina "Twiggy" Cerniglia, longtime manager at the store, had tried for months to raise $100,000 to buy the business from Andrea Kubachko, who closed the five other VisArts in North Carolina last year.

Efforts failed, and on Dec. 31, 2010, the store started liquidating inventory.

"We were almost in tears," Cerniglia says. Then, hours into the sale, Aberman "came in to rent some movies and asked what was going on. We told him ... and he was like, 'This can't happen. Can I call her and ask her (Kubachko) to stop?' "I said, 'Sure, here's her phone number.' He walked into the kids' room and called her, and five minutes later she called me and said, 'Quit the sale. This guy is gonna put up all the money. Go ahead and lock the door.'" Aberman and Cerniglia became partners.

He was the perfect person at the perfect time, someone with deep enough pockets, someone with business experience, someone who loves movies yet can't stand impersonal services like Netflix and Redbox.

'Saving a piece of Charlotte' Aberman says his goal isn't to make money. In fact, he'd eventually like Cerniglia -- whom he applauds every chance he can get for her hard work these past two months -- to be the majority owner.

So then why did Mickey Aberman save VisArt? Why did a man who helps businesses make sound decisions make such an apparently unsound decision himself? "What I was feeling when I realized it (might close) was just sad," he says. "I felt like, 'Here goes another piece of Charlotte that's special.' And I wanted to stop it, if I could. On some level, it's selfish. I'm saving the pieces of Charlotte that are special to me." Aberman says the numbers for February showed the store is "actually doing OK," and so far, he has no regrets.

"I've had moments of thinking I'm going to have moments of regret, but no moments of regret yet. My biggest fear is we won't be able to make it work, and then I'll be the villain closing the store." Theoden Janes: [email protected].

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