Tampa – Talking to Carrie West about the impending closure of the MC Film Festival, the venerable shop he started with Mark Bias, his partner of 38 years, is like taking a 26-year walk though the history of the Tampa Bay LGBT community.
The shop in Ybor City at the corner of 8th Avenue and 15th Street is set to close soon.
The building which houses it has been sold and the store is liquidating its stock.
“We are still good friends with the current owners,” Carrie said. “We hope to continue to be friends far into the future. We wish them nothing but the best.”
Surprisingly the MC Film Festival didn’t begin as a shop at all.
“Mark and I had a large collection of gay and lesbian films that friends were always borrowing, so we thought, ‘Hey maybe we could make a business out of this,’” said West.
In the pre-internet days of 1989. the best way to get your product out to a large audience was through direct marketing and a mail order business. So West and Bias produced a color catalog listing only 100 titles.
“We advertised nationally in places like The Advocate,” said West. “I think we were probably one of the first of our kind businesses and we did really well.”
In 1990, the couple opened a storefront across from the University of Tampa. Today the space is occupied by Cafe European.
“The shop was only open Friday night, Saturday and Sunday,” said West. ‘That made us extremely popular with those who wanted to rent films because they could rent them one weekend and they didn’t have to be back until the next weekend when we were open again.”
West is proud to say that one of their first customers was current mayor Bob Buckhorn.
“He had heard about the shop and since he’s always had a strong commitment to diversity, he stopped by to check it out,” said West. “We’ve had a great relationship ever since.”
The shop soon became synonymous with LGBT culture in Tampa. MC Film Fest would rent limousines to carry people to the shop from the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival held at the Tampa Theatre.
In 1992, the shop relocated to Kennedy and Hines avenues. West said the location had a movie theater right in it. The space was used for showing films, of course, and as meeting space for the Hillsborough Human Rights Campaign (which became Equality Florida) and The Sisters, a transgender support group.
In 1998, MC Film expanded across the bay into the complex that would become the new Suncoast Resort.
“Actually, our store opened even before the resort itself and we loved being there,” West recalled.
Three years later in 2003, West and Bias purchased a complex of buildings on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg and opened another storefront.
When the resort was sold in 2007, MC Film had to close that popular shop.
“They gave us less than 30 days to vacate because Home Depot had said they wouldn’t seal the deal until all the businesses were out of the resort,” said West. “But of course none of us knew that the economy would go south so fast in 2008 and the deal with Home Deport would never materialize. Here we are in 2015 and its still just a vacant lot.”
The closure of the resort also inspired the closure of the Central Avenue location. Soon, despite a trial run in Gulfport in conjunction with the now-closed Dive Bar, MC Film Fest was back to just one storefront when it opened in Ybor City in 2007.
And now, with the iconic store closing shop, does that mean MC Film Festival is regulated to the history books?
“Heavens no,” said West. ‘We’re looking at different locations in Ybor right now and another shop in St. Petersburg is not out of the question. The Tampa Bay gay community has given both of us so much that we feel it’s our responsibility to pay it forward. There will definitely be another shop as soon as we can find the right location. We’re not done yet!”