In a time when the latest music and high-definition films can be streamed or downloaded in seconds, there may appear to be little demand for the traditional rental business.
But in Abu Dhabi there remains a handful of shops scattered across the city that cater to those that still prefer the analogue sound of cassettes or the ability to browse rows of DVDs.
Behind Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre, in a block of butcher shops, typing centres and restaurants, sits Blue Diamond Video. Stacks of old DVDs sit on the floors, while on the shelves you can find 1990s American TV shows, Malayalam dramas and Hindi blockbusters. Plastered on the walls are yellowing movie posters for Shrek and Beauty and the Beast.
At Blue Diamond, you can rent a DVD for just Dh10 a night, once you pay the refundable Dh50 deposit, while a Blu-ray costs Dh20. TV shows are particularly popular. The most popular? "Friends, of course," says Musthafa Kamal, the shop owner.
"That's the best-seller, along with 24 and Prison Break. The most popular movies are Indiana Jones and The Godfather. I don't buy the new serials as there are no customers. Everyone watches them online these days."
The rental business was started by his brother in the 1980s and at one point there were six branches of the shop across the city. Now there is only one.
Kamal arrived from Kerala, India in 1992 and he says that during the heyday of VHS and DVD rental, there was a video shop on every street in the city.
“In the 1990s and 2000s, we had many customers. Too many. But some days now, there are no customers,” he says, adding that he kept the shop open so long mainly because of the location and the regular customers.
Another issue for Blue Diamond is the difficulty in securing new stock. Kamal buys the videos from a distributor in Dubai but says they are going to close soon. “They can’t survive with only two or three rental shops operating. People have other options now - online, streaming and YouTube.”
The Copyright Company on the Corniche also still rents out DVDs but has branched out into offering graphic novel merchandise.
But at Moon Video, another rental store in a block off Electra Street, it’s a similar story to Blue Diamond.
Owner Vasdev Bhatia says most of his customers are Indian and they rent mainly Malayalam films for Dh10.
Bhatia came to the UAE from Rajasthan, India about 30 years ago and has been working in video shops ever since. But while Bhatia says he still gets customers every day, he wants to leave the business.
“Someone might offer to buy the shop,” he says. “If I can sell up the shop, I will this year.”
The business for cassettes, however, does not seem to be so bleak. At Andalib Recording, an old-school music shop at Muroor and Dihan street, at least five people walk in and buy cassettes during a visit there midweek.
Two tape decks sit in a corner where people can listen to the music and the sounds of Umm Kulthum fill the air. Khalid Ahmed, the Emirati owner, says he can easily sell 150 cassettes a month.
Cassette players are popular with off-road driving enthusiasts, given tapes do not skip when the vehicle hits a bump or sand dune. Others just enjoy the traditional album covers.
“They like the physical product and the artwork,” he says of the people who come in. Weekends are the busiest. “Some of the younger customers have tape decks installed in their cars. Others transfer the cassette music onto a flash drive because they like how it sounds.”
It seems the appeal of the cassette endures and speaks to the resurgence in older analogue formats such as vinyl.
Al Balad Audio Cassettes in Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre is another shop in the city still in the business. Owner Abdul Hamid says he still sells tapes every day but also that older, prized cassettes are being sold on Instagram and Snapchat for as much as Dh250. “Emiratis, Saudis, mainly people from the Gulf. They are older cassettes – some about 40 years old. It’s like a buy and sell.”
Back at Blue Diamond, Musthafa Kamal is honest about the future. His comments reflect the perilous future facing DVD rental shops. The shop still has a stock of 25,000 DVDs but he plans to get out of the business by the end of next year.
“The new generation are not coming. Sometimes kids come for cartoons but I have mainly older customers that return. In the last two to three years, there are no new customers,” he says.
“There is no future, I’m just surviving.”