Video Store Champions: Scarecrow Video

Seattle’s Scarecrow Video is, as far as we know, the largest video rental library on the planet. For years, they have served as the gold standard in the realm of indie video operations by offering everything under the sun in one location. We spoke to manager Kevin Shannon about the difficulties of maintaining a world-renowned physical media library in the digital era.

The Scarecrow storefront, on Roosevelt Way in Seattle.

The Scarecrow storefront, on Roosevelt Way in Seattle.

How long has Scarecrow Video been in operation?
Scarecrow Video first opened its doors, in its original Latona Avenue location, on Friday, Dec. 9th, 1988, very nearly 25 years ago. With just over 600 titles, most from owner George Latsios’ personal collection, they had 7 paying customers (only 2 after 6pm) renting 18 titles. Total sales on the day came in just under $40.00. “Not bad for the first day,” wrote George, who with his wife Rebecca were Scarecrow’s only employees for more than a year.

Manager Kevin Shannon, smiling brightly in front of the entryway.

Manager Kevin Shannon, smiling brightly in front of the entryway.

Scarecrow is also involved with screenings at The Grand Illusion Cinema. Please tell us about those screenings and how they came about.
For many years, when the folks at The Northwest Film Forum/Wiggly World ran the Grand Illusion Cinema, Scarecrow would sponsor screenings there. Though there were a small handful of employees and former employees who worked there, Scarecrow’s involvement was at an arm’s length. When the NWFF decide to focus on their other performance spaces and leave the GI, Seattle’s longest continually operating cinema of any kind (let alone doing so as an independent), dangling at the end of their rope, one of our employees, Guerren Marter, worked out a deal to save the theater and re-shape it as the all-volunteer non-profit organization it is today.

The Grand Illusion Cinema, a non-profit theater with year-round programming.

The Grand Illusion Cinema, a non-profit theater with year-round programming.

We share a lot of blood. Aside from Guerren, who is no longer here, or there, there have been 10 or so others who have put time, some very major time, in at both Scarecrow and the Grand Illusion. So what started with sponsorships has now become a kind of cross-pollinating programming piece as well. Some of our staffers have combined with GI programmers not just to collaborate on putting a series together here or there but to put actual programs together, culled almost entirely from Scarecrow’s rental inventory, like the third and latest installment of “VHSXMAS” coming this month.

Flyer for VHSXMAS 3!!!

Flyer for VHSXMAS 3!!!

How do you decide what stock to hold onto and what to remove from your library?
This question speaks to one of the things that made Scarecrow what it is, and also to one piece that has changed about Scarecrow. We do not sell off titles at Scarecrow. Once we buy it, we keep it. (We do make exceptions for what we call “jerk-off porn”, plotless porn that is only in vogue for so long. We often do sell those off, but just replace them with similarly dispensable titles.) There have been a handful of titles over the years that we have deleted from the rental inventory: taking up a very small shelf up in our inventory office there are some titles that were either lost, stolen, or damaged, that we have been unable to replace. Sadly, this is almost always the result of a title’s rarity. We pulled them out of our system so that we can keep customers from looking for these titles to be returned. We keep looking for them though, and will replace them if we can. However, lately, our policy for bringing titles into the store has changed a bit. We have been more and more strict about the titles that we add to our rental inventory. Much more qualitative guidelines are being used. In other words, if we are getting in a title that we know will not rent, we have to like it enough to
bring it into the collection, whether we think it will make its money back, or not. We find ourselves deciding not to add a title that we do not have in our rental inventory because we figure that we can make more money by selling it. Also, our policy used to be to bring in any title a customer requested. But now, some customer requests are often going unfulfilled because we simply can no longer afford to bring in titles that may only rent to that one person. All that said, though, the first rule remains true: we do not sell off titles that we have decided to add to the rental collection.

A view of the impressive rental collection.

A view of the impressive rental collection.

What are the current struggles you face in managing a video rental store? How do you combat the issues you’re facing?
One thing these days is morale. The staff has heard the owners talk about our situation; in January last year they all got the numbers. Then, in October, in the open letter from the owners, we all got an idea of just how short our runway might be. So there are some on the staff who are occasionally, and quite understandably, freaking out. At the same time there are others who are forging ahead, hoping to create a new identity as we hope to move into the future as a newly structured force in the community. Which is exactly the dilemma we are facing now: what is our identity in the community? Is our voice and what we offer unique enough to keep? If we cannot survive in the current rental and sales model, then what can we survive as?

The Scarecrow screening room hosts wild and rare movies like FURIOUS.

The Scarecrow screening room hosts wild and rare movies like FURIOUS.

Whatever we do, whether on our own or as part of an existing organization, I believe it will be as a non-profit. Hopefully we can find a way to retain our identity, and continue to offer our sales and rentals, albeit in some other form (the footprint of keeping the 120,000 rental inventory browseable is expensive), and then branch out into screenings, events, classes, seminars, series, and anything else we can come up with under the cinema sun. The collection itself holds value as an archive, if nothing else, as evidenced by the number of established organizations that have already contacted us about it. We have also been contacted by many other existing or potential non-profits. At this point, most of this contact has been in a supportive vein. So far, most of what we are hearing has been of this type. If this gets too drawn out though, or if the owners decide against re-creating ourselves as our own non-profit, then the vultures may start to come out. One very good thing, in my opinion, is that the owners have kept Scarecrow going this long, essentially paying money out of their own pockets to keep the doors open, in large part because they recognize and value all the great and true and crazy voices that our staff brings to the community.

The VHS Art New Wave show, curated by Scarecrow employee Marc J. Palm.

The VHS Art New Wave show, curated by Scarecrow employee Marc J. Palm.

Stretching the scarecrow metaphor a bit, I always felt that we watch all the bad movies so our public doesn’t have to. We can scare the bad movies away. More accurately, I have always believed that because our staff watches as many movies as they do, we have a very good idea, far better than any algorithm can, about which movies to recommend to the folks in our community. We can tell you which are the great films you never heard of, good or bad, the films that will change you, and shape you, and all tailored to you specifically. So, along with keeping the collection together, my hope is that the owners will find some way to maintain our voice in the community, a very important voice. Another good thing, announced often, the first priority of the owners is to keep the collection together and available. I do hope that can be made to happen. But if that is all the owners can do I will be sad, because if it is only about the collection, the Scarecrow voice will be lost, scattered as far as our staff end up. If there is no Scarecrow voice there is no Scarecrow, and that is what I fear most.

Aisles as far as the eye can see.

Aisles as far as the eye can see.

Taking all of the above into account, then, this is where we are now. We are trying to stretch ourselves further out into the community. To yell a little louder, make a little more noise, to attract more people to our call. To that end, we have added a coffee cart, which also serves snacks and beer, and a screening area, where we curate screenings from our collection. Films that people simply will not likely find anywhere else. We have also added in-store sales and rental specials in the hope it will bring people back to what is still our best asset: an unparalleled selection, with a great staff to help you navigate it. Obviously, in a world where the home video public has been so quickly and demonstrably willing to sacrifice selection and quality (“HD” streaming in most homes is comparable to a PAL system VHS), this is a very, very hard thing to do.

The VHSpresso coffee counter.

The VHSpresso coffee counter.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
Whether you are looking at Netflix, or Amazon, or a Redbox (or Blockbuster, even, R.I.P.), it doesn’t take long to see just why they are into movies. In those storefronts, what you learn is that they are more into their profits than they are into their collections. They do not sell “movies”, in my my opinion, they sell “product”. There is no question that customers are drawn to these storefronts because of their low price points and convenience. And even though their selection is generally inferior (and don’t get me started about Redbox) this doesn’t matter to a large part of today’s movie watching world, obviously. (And, just to be clear, I am aware I’m leaving aside discussion of “free economy” pirate sites, or You Tube, a whole other can of worms.) So, as more and more people are willing to steer a blind eye regarding how these companies have created themselves, through insider deals, venture capital balloons, tax-subsidized USPS shipping breaks, discounted bandwidth, wholesale purchasing discounts far greater than allowed to any other companies, no sales tax in many cases, and then because these companies can use those advantages to create artificially attractive price points, as well as convenience that doesn’t require you to leave your home, it is no wonder we find ourselves where we are.

This is Scarecrow on a busy day. More of these are what they need.

This is Scarecrow on a busy day. More of these are what they need.

However, in every case where an online business has partially or wholly facilitated a transition from their brick and mortar versions what is lost is not just the ability to browse, physically, but a tangible community, a meeting place where people can come together to share their common interest, which of course, in our case, is movies. People say “brick and mortar”. Are they afraid to say “people”? Because that is the element that is most important in brick and mortar stores. If you look at brick and mortars you can see just how much the owners care about what they do or how they are selling what they do as soon as you walk in the door, often because they are there to greet you. When you go to a store to browse, you go to find things that store has found for you that you have been unable to find otherwise, and you go to talk to the people running the store for help in getting you the right thing just for you.
The personal touch. People coming together and talking to people, in a physical place, about something they both love. Community.
And not just community in the human, one-to-one touch kind of way, but knowing that your support of that brick and mortar helps make your community stronger. Knowing that when you buy locally you know that your money is being poured back into your community at a far better rate than if not, that you are helping make where you live a better place.

A "Best of the 1980's" section. An example of the personal touches you can always find at the store.

A “Best of the 1980′s” section. An example of the personal touches you can always find at the store.

And yet, this points to an interesting thing in the Seattle area. We are the home of Amazon, of Redbox, of Microsoft and the Xbox, and Nintendo America. There are no more video rental stores in Philadelphia, or Sacramento, or Oklahoma City. But there are 8 in North Seattle. Go figure. We are all hanging on by the hairs of our chinny chin chins, but we are here. Our online savvy customers are still coming in. And I don’t really even know if I know exactly why. In 25 years we have built a lot of loyalty. The hard core film fan still knows that if they want to watch many films we are their best source, inconvenient or not. But, I also I have to think it is something like what Austin’s Vulcan Video general manager Kristen Ellisor said in a recent article on Indiewire (by former Scarecrow employee Sean Axmaker):  “We have smart people showing smart movies to their smart kids.”

A selection of films made in the Pacific Northwest. A fine example of a local business supporting local artists!

A selection of films made in the Pacific Northwest. A fine example of a local business supporting local artists!

But I would also like to think it is other things, too. Selection, certainly; a way to navigate it intelligently, sure; but I like to think it is something else, something that makes us all better people, more open, and more adventurous, even if just a little bit so. I used to work in the Used Book business and a colleague of mine used to say something that has stuck with me to this day. I will re-shape it a bit, but it is basically this: “Sometimes you are looking for a movie, and sometimes the movie is looking for you.” The discovery of a film you found by browsing the stacks. A film that has become part of your cell structure because you found it, or it found you, and now it is significant piece of who you are. One of the questions we want to ask people during our anniversary celebration is, “What is the film you were looking for that brought you into Scarecrow?” (Mine was “A Funny Dirty Little War”.) It is that thing that happens when you know what you want, but just not exactly. And this is where opening yourself up to an expert comes in. There is no algorithm better than talking to other people about what you are passionate about. And that is not just a one-way street. For us at Scarecrow, our life has been a two-way street, for 25 years. The reciprocity of our customers is a huge part of who we are. That the original owner said, “When a customer requests a title, it is our policy to bring it in; and if a customer brings in a title we do not have, we will buy it” is a huge piece of who we have been at Scarecrow. It tells a lot about many of our customers as well, customers have have taken pride and have a sense of ownership themselves in the store and it’s collection. We are organic. We run the store, but it is almost as a favor (nobody has ever gotten rich at Scarecrow): we really are about movies and our customers first and keeping this place where we can all come together. To be able to have worked in a place where the whole point is “people bringing people and movies together”, the very mission of Scarecrow Video, and to be able talk about that all in a community setting has been great. And it still is. And now, in our eleventh hour, I hope that it still can be.

The biggest video library in the world!

The biggest video library in the world!

So, after all that, to answer your question a little more directly: The video store business is important because it allows a customer a voice, in a safe and private environment (what you just watched isn’t getting posted to Facebook because somebody decided to do an end-around on your user agreement) and to browse a collection that has been shaped by fellow members of your community. That is what will be lost. Something else will come along after all the video stores are gone. But will our generation be the last to care, the last to be able to compare what going to a record store, or book store, or video store is to whatever comes next online or otherwise? Will people stop caring about talking to other people? I know I’m starting to sound like some old fuddy-duddy, but I am no Luddite. I spend a fair share of my time online in various forms and forums, but — I still want to talk to someone, face to face. Chat rooms, blogs, Facebook group comments, tweets, or Skype just isn’t the same thing. I’ll let you feel your pulse, and you feel mine, if you get the metaphor, but that may be too adventurous a place to go for the audience that would rather be cultured and coddled by corporations instead of by their own community. That loss of choice and control and privacy, succumbing to the whims of soulless, profit-driven companies, is the worst part of communities that have lost their video stores. You can hear the sadness in people’s voices when they are lamenting the disappearances of their favorite video haunts. The void left behind in the wake of disappearing video stores may be filled some way, some day, but it hasn’t yet, and I fear it may never be.

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2 Comments

  1. Jesse Skeen
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    We do still have at least one video rental store in Sacramento- it’s called Awesome Video. I really don’t rent anymore though- I’ve been BUYING tons of movies ever since DVDs have been affordable.

  2. Paul Jordan
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    “You can hear the sadness in people’s voices when they are lamenting the disappearances of their favorite video haunts.” The true fans, customers, may stay true, but the majority of the rest simply don’t care. Bring on more crap from the redbox. Cheap crap is still…. just crap.

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