Video Store Champions: Le Video

San Francisco has been a major force in countercultural activity since long before the home video revolution. Unsurprisingly, the video boom created a few unconventional rental spaces once it reached the Bay Area. Le Video is one of the oldest video operations in the United States, and continues to expand their library every week. We talked to the store buyer John Taylor about the past, present, and future of the shop.

The store front, in classic black & white.

The store front, in classic black & white.

How long has Le Video been in operation?
33 years. We opened in 1980. The owner couldn’t find the foreign and classic titles that interested her so she started tracking down everything that was available on video and renting them from her camera store. The store became a repository for film on video, not just a place to get the biggest summer hits. Her inspiration was the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.  Today, Le Video’s collection is a reflection of the owner and staffs love for rare movies and popular favorites as well.

We're proud to have our film as part of the permanent collection.

We’re proud to have our film as part of the permanent collection.

Is your ability to survive built around the culture of San Francisco or would you be able to operate this same store elsewhere with the same results?
Oddly enough, the culture of San Francisco actually seems detrimental to our business. People in SF have always been early adopters of technology and were thus quick to ditch physical media. I know people here who work in tech who don’t even own a DVD player anymore. Its like throwing the baby out with the bathwater when people who consider physical media dead ignore films and TV shows that aren’t available streaming. This new culture that ignores brick and mortar retail and physical media are missing out on a world of amazing films. Despite SF continuing to have a number of successful film festivals, San Franciscans just don’t seem to care enough about film and television to watch video that is further away than a few clicks, or in the form of a special event that one can be seen at. For example, some of us at the store recently attended Noir City, a wildly popular film noir festival.  For 10 days a 1400 seat theater was nearly sold out.  A minute fraction of those people have ever been to our store to actually rent a film noir movie. That being said, there is still a community of people that do support local businesses. Those people keep stores like Le Video in business, but unless more people start doing the same we aren’t going to survive.
Two full floors of cinematic bliss!

Two full floors of cinematic bliss!

What sort of experience are you trying to create for a customer who enters your store?
A similar experience to being in a library?  A fun library experience? A fun-brary experience? This may sound strange but we love it when someone comes in the store and their eyes and mouth open wide because they are so shocked how many movies we have in here. We want people to feel like they can take as much time as they want to browse and explore. We think that the experience is half about nostalgia and half about the obscure and unknown. We want our customers to know this is a judgement free zone. Want to rent Fritz Lang’s Metropolis? Awesome! Vanilla Ice’s Cool as Ice? Awesome! Felicity Season 2? Awesome! Battle Royale? Awesome! Looking for Miklós Jancsó films and nunsploitation? We’re your store.
Whatever you want... they got it.

Whatever you want… they got it.

How has the movement towards online delivery of filmed content effected your business?
People want to be instantly gratified.  They can sit at home and with a click of the button be watching a movie.  Most people don’t really care that they are being severely limited in this situation. I believe that Netflix and other streaming services are training generations of people that convenience is more important than selection. We are not bound by prohibitive licensing agreements so unlike streaming services, we can keep our titles indefinitely. As an example, I love the late 60′s cartoon Speed Racer. Last I checked, there were 2 or 3 episodes available to stream on Netflix. We have all 52 episodes at Le Video. You just can’t compare what Netflix streams with our large selection of French DVD, VHS & Blu-ray. We just blow them away. Streaming services aren’t about exploring film and TV like video stores are. When kids grow up now they don’t realize how limited, and ultimately poor, the streaming selection is.  Increasingly, even self described film buffs don’t seem to realize they are being told what to watch by these services. We think it’s great that these streaming services exist because of their convenience, but they are not the be all end and end all for film and TV. They provide convenience, but we provide selection and expertise.
A better view of the top floor.

A better view of the multi-floor layout.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
Just like record stores and book stores it’s an irreplaceable experience. If our store goes out of business that means there are thousands upon thousands of titles that will be unavailable to the general public. These include  films and TV shows that will likely never stream on Netflix or whatever replaces Netflix in a few years. They certainly aren’t at a kiosk. Many of these titles aren’t even available to download illegally. It’s not just 1980′s Hungarian dramas and obscure shot-on-video horror films that will go unwatched and forgotten, it’s anything that these streaming services lose streaming rights to. All of our employees became experts in the age of the video store. The scope of general film knowledge and specific specialty knowledge of our employees is probably impossible to reach in the age of streaming.
It's even fun for kids!

It’s even fun for kids!

I believe that people just don’t understand that if they don’t support video stores like us today, There won’t be any video stores tomorrow.   The only comparison would be if all the libraries in San Francisco closed. The only way to get a certain book would be to purchase it.  But what if that book is out of print and costs $200.  You are just out of luck. That is the case with video stores. Say you want to see Cabeza De Vaca.   If there’s no video store are you really going to pay $85 on amazon to watch that DVD? 
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Japanese Premiere!!!

We traveled to a lot of amazing locations during our production, but without a doubt our favorite trip was to Japan. This makes it especially exciting to announce that we have booked our Japanese premiere! The doc will be screened twice during the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival at the end of February. Yubari is a small city in Hokkaido, initially established as a mining community. The entire city is transformed once a year for this film festival, with guests from around the world descending upon the snowy locale to absorb the wildest movies on the planet. We’re showing Friday, February 28th at 7:00 PM and Sunday, March 1st at 4:00 PM.  We can’t be there, but we hope some of you can make it out!

Yubari

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Video Store Champions: Video Free Brooklyn

When film critic Aaron Hillis made the decision to purchase a video store in 2012, it seemed like a shocking decision to many people. A year later, Video Free Brooklyn is still open 7 days a week and bringing in new members off the street. We spoke to Aaron about the store, and the general world of modern film distribution.

The entryway to video bliss, on Smith St.

The entryway to video bliss, on Smith St.

How long has Video Free Brooklyn been in operation and when did you take over?
Video Free Brooklyn launched in 2002. It was actually my local video store because I was living in Cobble Hill for a great many years. It wasn’t until 2012 that I took it over. It happened in such a bizarro way too. I came in one day in the Spring of last year and there were signs saying “We’re closing down at the end of the month. All rentals have to be back  and the fire sale is forthcoming.”  At first I was like, “Oh goody. Cheap DVD’s.”  The sign went down a few days later and I asked one of the employees what happened. They said, “We’re not really sure, but we think the owner is going to sell off the store.” I wondered why someone would want to buy a failing video store . Unless it’s not. It was my wife Jennifer who said I should get in touch with him and see what happened. So I contacted him, I’ve known Dan for years, and he said sure enough someone wanted to buy it. I threw my hat in the ring. It made sense to me on paper. It made sense to my accountant, it made sense to my lawyer. So… I bought the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought in my life. It’s been a lucrative investment, and a fun one.
Aaron in the store, discussing the power of movies.

Aaron in the store, discussing the power of movies.

Due to space limitations, how do you decide what is important to keep on the shelves? 
I’ll say this. The store had what I like to call good bones. They had a really good foreign film section. They had a lot of great titles. It needed work, it needed curating, and I think that’s what I’ve been really doing over the last year is trying to figure out what we’re missing in the catalog that really belongs there. Especially films from the canon. Space is limited. We’re 375 square feet of cinematic bliss, but I’ve been using the basement and eventually I’ll probably have to use offsite storage to be able to grow the library since I can’t grow the room. I’m not gonna get rid of FORT APACHE, THE BRONX even though people aren’t going to be asking about that one every day. Cuz I’ll be damned if I’m gonna get rid of a Paul Newman movie. I think that’s really it. Just trying to figure out what belongs on the shelf now, and when space starts to run low I’ll figure out what’s not renting well but still needs to be here. Those films may not stay on the shelf, but we can still get them for you within a few hours if not tomorrow.
A sampling of the ever-growing library.

A sampling of the ever-growing library.

You took over the store after online distribution had already exploded in popularity. Were you worried about operating a brick and mortar rental operation in a digital world?
I’m not worried about that. I think people watch movies in a lot of different ways these days. I think part of the appeal of Video Free Brooklyn is that we’re a boutique. I use Netflix streaming. I use some of the different ways that technology has afforded us instant gratification. But you really can’t take away the nostalgia for the old school video store experience of being able to browse and discover. To be able to talk with a knowledgeable staff. Everybody who works here knows film and loves film. Most everybody who works here works in the film industry. And that’s part of the experience. No computer algorithm is going to tell me what I want to watch. You need that human interaction to feel out what you’re into, what do you like, what do you not like. It’s detective work, a little bit.  I think there’s something inhuman, maybe even kind of dehumanizing, about how reliant we’ve become on digital technology. There’s something kind of counter-intuitively refreshing about the analog experience. People collect things. People want to touch things. The tactile experience of finding something, judging a book by its cover, flipping over a DVD case, reading the synopsis and saying, “Wow. This sounds crazy. I have to watch this right now. I never would have found this otherwise”. I’ll go toe to toe with Netflix streaming. I think we’ve got a better curated selection and we’ve got tons of titles that aren’t available on both their disc service and streaming.
Each month brings a new movie-themed window display.

Each month brings a new movie-themed window display.

Do you think the success of the store is dependent on the culture of New York City or would the store find the same audience in another city?
Not necessarily. We’re right on the heart of Smith Street, which is the “restaurant row” of this neighborhood or even downtown Brooklyn, frankly. We have the excellent walking traffic and also here in Brooklyn its a more progressive, open-minded, educated crowd. They’re more media savvy.  They read The New Yorker. They read Manohla Dargis in the Times. A store in Nebraska has seven copies of MAN OF STEEL, but we don’t necessarily need seven copies of MAN OF STEEL. But…. we’d better have three copies of AMOUR or NO or HOLY MOTORS. That’s our idea of a blockbuster, and those are the ones we can’t keep in stock. I got three copies of THE INTERNSHIP and I got three copies of FRANCES HA. THE INTERNSHIP doesn’t rent and FRANCES HA doesn’t stay on the shelf. Our clientele here really loves cinema. Some people may have more mainstream studio tastes and that’s great. We have that too. But, rather than offering a bazillion copies of whatever latest superhero nonsense came out this week, I’d rather have diversity and make sure there is something for everybody and then some.
One of our favorite films, currently on the new release wall.

One of our favorite films, currently on the new release wall.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
The video store industry as a whole is just not a sustainable model. People are busier these days and they need the flexibility of being able to click something on video-on-demand or stream something from Netflix. But, what’s really missing is the appreciation for cinema. I think it’s a matter of keeping hope for film culture itself alive. Again, I use Netflix streaming and I look through my queue and I don’t really value the things that I watch. I channel surf, really. I dip in, I dip out, I watch twenty minutes of this, forty minutes of that. Not only does the quality look like junk, but there isn’t a sense of “I’m going to find something new here that I never found before”. For us, we’re a boutique. I would even compare this to the vinyl store resurgence. There is so much great stuff out there, but you’re not going to be able to turn somebody onto it if you’re doing it through some of these newfangled technological means. It just doesn’t work that way. We’re signing up new customers every single day. I hear from people all the time that they’ve just stopped their Netflix account. That’s terrific. It means that I’m not the only weirdo around. There are plenty of other people who feel the same way. There is just something more direct in the interaction between the knowledgeable video store clerk and the customer, as well as being able to look through a curated library and know there’s going to be more hits than misses.
Another view of the lending library.

Another view of the lending library.

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Video Store Champions: Videonomicon

The Videonomicon project  is a unique experiment in video rental. An offshoot of a screening series by  Tyler Baptist and Jon Vaughn, this Saskatoon, Saskatchewan operation is creating a new approach to the rental business by only stocking videotapes. We checked in with the masterminds behind the video store from the future’s past!

The front door to Beaumont Film & Record, which houses the Videonomicon library.

The front door to Beaumont Film & Record, which houses the Videonomicon library.

You decided to open a new rental store that only carries VHS tapes. What inspired this idea?

Tyler Baptist: Pure madness. But it’s really the fact that Jon and I have both been collecting VHS for many years and the majority of our collections are titles that still only exist on the analog home video format, and we wanted other people besides just our circle of friends to be able to experience these movies.

Jon Vaughn: As super fun as our VHS marathon parties have been in the past, I think we both were at a point where we were familiar enough with our collections and felt it was time to make them more accessible for the general public to be able to explore and enjoy. It also came up over and over from my own friends that there was still never enough time during our all-night watch-a-thons to even scratch the surface of getting to know all of the mysterious and forgotten gems in my collection. I always knew there would be a day that our libraries would go public, it was just a matter of how and where. The rental store totally solved this.

A wall of tapes, for the adventurous film viewer.

A wall of tapes, for the adventurous film viewer.

Are you worried it is a business that will only reach a small, niche audience?

TB: We always knew it was likely only going to reach a limited audience, as far as the video rentals are concerned, because the majority of people are arguably content with their Netflix accounts. We’ve only been open for a handful of months now, but we do have a membership and so it can only grow – even if the membership is small to start and grows at a moderate pace to begin with. I don’t think we ever worried, we just figured we had to do it. Even if it is a small, niche audience, that’s the audience we know would truly respect these films and would dare take the risk to watch something they aren’t familiar with.

JV: I’ve always been an advocate of quality over quantity and going one step at a time with things. The Videonomicon project also has such a good foundation with the notorious collections Tyler and I have built over the years and many ideas for more of what we can do with the project that I think there’s a fair bit of ground that we can cover.

Get your stickers here!

Get your stickers here!

Was the rental store an important part of your life before you entered into the business yourself?

TB: I grew up in the video store; it was my home away from home and I was there pretty much every single weekend of my childhood into my adulthood. I can honestly say I would not be in the career path I am today (my full time work is in the film and television industry) without the experience of the video store.

JV: Yeah, absolutely! I was obsessed with video stores as a kid and would annoy anyone who came along with me unless they were as hardcore as me about going through every tape in the store and analysing everything about it. I was particularly interested in the cover art as well and its relation to the actual films and I took a lot of inspiration from the many graphic styles on VHS covers for my own illustrations and designs. As a young adult, I worked in a video store and later as a film projectionist in which I acquired a lot of relevant experience that informed the Videonomicon project.

An example of the fine art you can procure at the store.

DEMON WIND: An example of the fine art you can procure at the store.

Do you think you could open a store like this elsewhere, or is the culture of Saskatoon a vital part of its existence?

TB: We’re a micro-video store with only 50 rentals at one time (the rental selection completely changes every two months) so we’re a bit dependent on our friends in a way. We’re lucky enough to have our friend Scott who runs Beaumont Records who gave us the opportunity to have a shelf in his store and to co-exist in his space. Without that kind of support this kind of store can’t exist by itself. Our online presence is a bit different and could exist without the store as we wanted to be able to also offer Videonomicon as more than just a local rental shop, but a place to celebrate the wild and often unseen world of home video that can be accessed worldwide. The web site is just in its infancy, with much more to continually come, so visit videonomicon.com if you dare!

JV: Saskatoon has been a unique breeding ground for our collections and a good place to start them, but I believe it could have happened in any city or town, and there are definitely others like us. We also use the website to expand beyond our locus as a space for appreciation of home video on a greater scale.

A customer browsing the current rental options.

A customer browsing the current rental options.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?

TB: Being able to browse through a physical selection, to actually leave your home to find the right movie, which may actually be rented out to someone else, is something that truly is a loss in this day of digital consumption. The generation who are growing up with smart phones in hand are missing out on that physical world, to actually hold a movie in your hands. Choices should be made with some actual effort, not just the push of a button. The video store is, at this time, probably more akin to a museum than just a business because of that connection. And museums are important because they preserve history and a way of life that we can learn from, and that’s why Videonomicon is the video store from the future’s past! So many movies that only exist on VHS, which will never make the jump to digital or Netflix, will be forever lost if independent video stores cease to exist. If there’s still a video store near you go check it out, become a member, and experience the thrill of renting!

JV: I agree that the process of discovery is an essential part of the experience of any art. The thrill of the search and the glory of the find is reduced through many of today’s information and media portals. When a robot analyzes one’s viewing and searching patterns and bases the presentation of information that one sees based on that finite information, it gives a person little room for chance interactions, curious coincidences, alluring cross-references, brilliant deductions and amazing surprises. We want to create a space for cinema where anything could happen.

Long live the videotape!

Long live the videotape!

 

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Video Store Champions: Wild and Woolly Video

Wild and Woolly Video is a part of the independent landscape in Louisville, Kentucky. For a community with roots in both indie film and music, a store like this one functions as a space to bridge different cultural worlds. We checked in with owner Todd Brashear to get his thoughts on what it means to operate a video store in 2014.

The entrance to the store.

The entrance to the store.

How long has Wild and Woolly been in operation?
We’ve been in business for 16 years. I was in a band called Slint, and I had saved up some of the money I got from that, and decided to use it to open the store. We’ve grown from 300 videotapes and 1 employee (me) to over 30,000 titles and 13 employees.

Is your ability to survive built around the culture of Louisville or would you be able to operate this same store elsewhere with the same results?
I think it might work somewhere else, but it definitely wouldn’t be the same store, as we have tried to cater to what people want here in Louisville.

A portion of the Wild and Woolly library.

A portion of the Wild and Woolly library.

What sort of experience are you trying to create for a customer who enters your store?
We’ve always tried to make the store a fun place to visit. And while we have a lot of crazy stuff, it’s still a family friendly store. Unless the parents are easily offended!

Can you play STAR WARS pinball at a Redbox?

Can you play STAR WARS pinball at a Redbox?

How has the movement towards online delivery of filmed content effected your business?
It’s definitely hurt us. We have a lot of customers who still use us even though they also use Netflix, Redbox, and all the other things, but our numbers show that a lot of people aren’t coming in as much or as often.

Another view of the store.

Another view of the store.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
Not every video store did this, but what W&W brings to Louisville is a diverse selection of movies, many of which would be hard to see otherwise. Netflix streaming and Red Box offer a certain amount of convenience, but the selection is really limited. Losing the ability to see classics and obscurities, as well as a having a place to meet & browse would be a loss for our immediate neighborhood and probably Louisville in general.

A few of the knowledgeable employees who help create the identity of the store.

A few of the knowledgeable employees who help maintain the identity of the store.

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Video Store Champions: Black Dog Video

Black Dog Video in Vancouver is a video rental outlet with a magnificent sense of interior design. They’ve been a longtime institution in the city, providing offbeat movies to the community that can’t be found elsewhere. We spoke to owner Darren Gay to find out about the current state of the business.

A lovely black dog greets you outside the store.

A lovely black dog greets you outside the store.

How long has Black Dog Video been in operation?
We have 2 locations in Vancouver – the 1st store is approaching it’s 18th year and the 2nd just turned 8.
What sort of experience are you trying to create for a customer who enters your store?
I wanted to create a nice, relaxed atmosphere – we play music, no movies or trailers, no fluorescent lighting – so people feel comfortable browsing the racks and enjoying themselves. We have a fine, friendly, knowledgeable staff – most have been here for years and years – to help folks find what they’re looking for or what they didn’t know they were looking for or even just chat about films. We’ve fostered many great relationships and friendships with customers over the years.
A warm, inviting place to browse.

A warm, inviting place to browse.

How has the movement towards online distribution impacted your business?

Indeed the online thing has hurt us. Sales are down quite substantially over the last year. There’s just too many other distractions – be they Netflix, redbox, VOD, illegal as well legal downloading. All of this will eventually kill us. Just don’t know when.
International Independent Video Store Day is one of many ways to try and drive business to the store.

International Independent Video Store Day is one of many ways to try and drive business to the store.

Are most of your customers long-time renters or is the rental community growing?
Our customer base is a combination – we have many folks you’ve been with us since the beginning and we still get a healthy does of new people signing up every week.
Personalized notes on the store shelves.

Personalized notes on the store shelves.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
I think it’s a very important business to all of those who love movies. Stuff you get on Netflix and Redbox and whatnot are just the bigger, flashier films. We bring in all sorts of stuff – cool, obscure gems that most people haven’t heard of or can’t find online. Where are these filmmakers going to get a chance for others to see their work, or even get a chance to create their visions, without a place for the public to find them? Where would Donnie Darko, Spinal Tap, The Wicker Man, Bad Boy Bubby and countless others be if were not for video stores? I think a lot of folks are really going to be sad and miss us when we’re gone.
A view of the full rental library.

A view of the full rental library.

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Rewind This! comes to home video!!!

This is the moment we’ve been waiting for! Our documentary about the significance of home video is finally going to be available on home video. The  DVD is packed with bonus features including original animations, a music video, and loads of additional interview material. It also includes an audio commentary by the filmmaking team, recorded specifically for this release.

For those who want to experience the film in analog glory, Amazon is also offering a bundle that includes the DVD and a limited edition letterboxed VHS. There are only 250 of the tapes being sold, so place your orders now!

GIFT IDEA: Sadly, the release is not until after the holiday season. You can pre-order the format(s) of choice and print out the retailer description to include in a card for a gift that extends the festivities.

Rewind
A note to our Kickstarter champions: Your discs have been ordered from the distributor and will be mailed as soon as we have them in our hands.

Happy Holidays,

Team VHS

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Holiday Discount!!!

For your holiday pleasure, we’re currently offering 50% off the  DRM-free download of the movie (plus extras and OST) from our site. Just use coupon code VHXMAS and enjoy a present for yourself or a loved one!

By the way, don’t you miss seeing X-mas ads like the one below?

anightmareonelmstreet5thedreamchild_ad8

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Video Store Champions: CineFile Video

Los Angeles remains the movie capital of the world. With all of the movies being made within the city limits, it only makes sense that there would be a few indie shops stocking their shelves with the wide range of what the industry has to offer. We spoke to Sebastian Mathews, the owner of CineFile Video, about the significance of the modern day video store.

The CineFile storefront.
The CineFile storefront.
How long has CineFile Video been in operation?
Since 1999.
There are several independent rental stores in Los Angeles. What separates your store from the others?
 CineFile brags a collection of over 45,000 DVD’s, VHS and Blu-rays. We rent and sell out of our library and we have great relationships with production companies, studios, and creatives. This means we often have the title that you can’t find anywhere else in the city, or the nation!
A full view of the store.

A full view of the store.

What sort of experience are you trying to create for a customer who enters your store?
With the availability of film and TV on the internet, either through legal streaming options or illegal downloads, the competition to provide the customer what they want, when they want and at the right price has become pretty cut throat… But what we will always provide is a friendly, inviting and informative experience. No algorithm will ever compare to the recommendation from a knowledgeable salesperson that you’ve come to know and like. We are not co-opted by corporate verticals, and we don’t have to rent major releases exclusively because that’s what makes us the most money. This means we can be honest about what we like and don’t like. Because of these factors, shops like ours are arbiters of taste and culture preservationists! In the future, we hope that CineFile becomes an even better resource to independent filmmakers, who we believe deserve a larger voice in the landscape of the LA entertainment industry.
VHS tapes for sale!!!

VHS tapes for sale!!!

Are most of your customers long-time renters or is the rental community growing?
We have tons of loyal, long-time customers. We love them to death for keeping us alive. We are now also taking steps to attract new customers to the shop. We have a brand new socially integrated loyalty program and a new, easily updated website built on tumblr. We are stocking more hard to find titles on region free blu-ray and creating a lot more sell-through product. We believe that all of these efforts will result in the growth of memberships in the 20-35 year old demographic.

Some of the sub-sections in the CineFile library.

Some of the sub-sections in the CineFile library.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
People deserve as many options as possible when it comes to how they select and digest their media. Being able to explore the world of film and TV in a physical locale– to pull things off the shelf and show it to a friend– that’s an experience that has been around for a long time and shouldn’t be lost. If we are forced to search for our media solely through screens and touch screens, there is a very real dimension of exploration that will disappear. Get rid of the book stores, the record shops, the movie rentals and libraries, and well… where the hell are you supposed to meet cute??

Best Video Store in LA 2013!

Best Video Store in LA 2013!

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Video Store Champions: Video Fan

Citizens of Richmond, VA have the opportunity to shop at a true gem of a video store, staffed by passionate employees who believe in the significance of the store they call home. The Video Fan lives up to its name by bringing unbridled enthusiasm for all things cinema to the public. We spoke to Andrew Blossom to get some answers on what keeps this independent business going.

A shot of the beautiful exterior, courtesy of loyal customer Elizabeth Reid.

A shot of the beautiful exterior, courtesy of loyal customer Elizabeth Reid.

How long has Video Fan been in operation?
The Video Fan opened in 1986. A co-worker and I were recently playing a VHS of One Crazy Summer in the store when it dawned upon us the movie and our store are basically the same age.

Is your ability to survive built around the culture of Richmond or would you be able to operate this same store elsewhere with the same results?
Richmond is essential to the Video Fan and to its continued survival. We’re located in a part of Richmond known as The Fan. From the start, where we are has been a part of who we are. Hopefully, it goes without saying that we’re also big fans of video and video store culture, and so are our customers. But first and foremost, we’re named for our neighborhood.

The Fan is largely residential, which means we’re surrounded by the houses of many of our customers. Of course, customers come from all over Richmond and the surrounding counties. But for a lot of folks, the distance from their living rooms to our front door is pretty short, which I think is part of our appeal.

A sampling of the Video Fan library.

A sampling of the Video Fan library.

Plus, Richmonders tend to be great supporters of local business. If you think of the many trends that have threatened to destroy independent video stores over the decades—mom-and-pop-killin’ chains, on-demand cable, DVDs by mail, automated dispensaries, the rise of online content—Video Fan has managed to weather all these forces, even if we’ve ended up a little bruised for it. And that’s largely because our core customers put a value on the experience of coming to see us. Hopefully they do so because we’re doing something right, or because our continued presence means something to them. But the simple fact so many people choose to make the effort says a lot about Richmond’s character, and about its centrality to our survival.

That said, everyone at Video Fan is a firm believer in video stores. We’d all like to think a store with a collection like ours and a loyal clientele could still make a go of it most anywhere. It’s one reason I’m personally heartened by the success of Viva Video in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. But if you were to pick up this particular store and put it anywhere else but Richmond, it wouldn’t be quite the same.

Rental inventory transformed into a giant skull by artist Noah Scalin. You can see more of his work here: http://skulladay.blogspot.com/

Rental inventory transformed into a giant skull by artist Noah Scalin. You can see more of his work here: http://skulladay.blogspot.com/

What sort of experience are you trying to create for a customer who enters your store?
Our basic mandate remains the same as in 1986. We want to make the newest releases available to our customers, and beyond that we want to maintain and offer an extensive, diverse catalog of movies, particularly movies the average customer might not be able to find elsewhere—foreign films, documentaries, cult favorites, weirdo titles. Titles that have never been released in any format but VHS. Titles that are no longer available in any format, period. We want people to be able to rent Rubin and Ed or Voyage of the Rock Aliens. Believe me, we want that!

And we want to be a space where customers feel comfortable seeking out movies, talking about them and celebrating them. Where people can spend a couple of hours browsing obscure titles or stop in for a few minutes and watch Deadly Prey or Spooky Buddies or whatever happens to be playing in the store. Lately, that’s meant a lot of the Everything Is Terrible! Holiday Special.

The Dollar Board, currently themed around the impending Christmas holiday.

The Dollar Board, currently themed around the impending Christmas holiday.

So that’s the day-to-day goal. I think there’s a secondary goal as well. It’s not like we sit around philosophizing about this, but if I can try to express it crudely: everyone who works at Video Fan was a customer before they became an employee. Everyone who works there at this moment also works at one or two other jobs—which makes us not unlike a lot of other people, but still, my point is we all make space in our lives to work at the store and keep it moving forward. And this is because the Video Fan was important to us long before we ever started working there, and because independent video stores have been important, formative spaces for us, period. If you’re a film lover of a certain age, and you think back on the crucial role video stores have played in your lives and in the formation of that love, why wouldn’t you want to share that opportunity with as many people as possible for as long as possible? The most likely answer is because you don’t work at a video store. But we do! We still get to! And so we’re trying.

Trivia for kids, one of many touches that add to the fun of the store.

Trivia for kids, one of many touches that add to the fun of the store.

How has the movement towards online delivery of filmed content effected your business?
It’s had the effect you might expect. As I mentioned above, we have consistently loyal customers, and Richmond has shown a great willingness to support us. That said, it’s just not the same as the 1980s or 1990s or even the early 2000s—you know, when everyone went to video stores, and everyone who cared about film and video and watching as much of it as possible sought out their local independent store. And it will never be that way again. As the options for home viewing have multiplied, and as corporations have become increasingly aggressive about marketing those options to customers—well, it’s certainly impacted our business, and made for some dead nights at the store.

On the other hand, we sign up new accounts every day. In part, this is just a benefit of being located in a city with three universities—new people are coming to town all the time, many of whom are movie lovers.

More movies! More skulls!

More movies! More skulls!

We’ve also stuck it out long enough to realize that people’s relationship to online media moves in waves. In about 2010, everyone seemed just gaga over the relatively new phenomenon of Netflix’s streaming service, and our business started to get really thin. Then Blockbuster declared bankruptcy, Netflix infamously split their services and raised their prices, and Starz canceled Netflix’s access to their back catalog. And boom, people were back at the Video Fan in numbers that have stayed pretty consistent ever since. I think that was a real moment in which the technology of the future demonstrated the future was not always going to be as cool or as consistent as it promised.

These days, we continue to see new or returning customers who are fed up with Netflix. And it’s not like there have been any crises for Netflix lately. In fact, that company is innovating, in terms of original content. Yet on a weekly basis, we get customers who are frustrated by the limits of the service and who want to have access to a catalog like the Video Fan’s again. For me, this really underscores a problem with the idea of video stores going away for good—when there’s no more physical media being made, and no more venues to access what physical media still exists, where will people go when they’re dissatisfied with online providers? The corporations will be able to do whatever they want in terms of pricing, content and access. And the viewer will be stuck with those decisions.

Nightmarish decorations.

Nightmarish decorations.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
At the risk of sounding highfalutin’, I really believe video stores act as cultural repositories. And I particularly mean independent stores like the Video Fan and other great locations you’ve interviewed for this column, places that have been open and collecting material for decades. Excepting university libraries and film archives, there’s really not another space in our culture  where people can access so much of film and video history so easily. And when that sort of space is gone, it will be gone for good. It’s not like some new form of it is going to come along and fill the void, particularly not after corporations decide to stop manufacturing physical media altogether. (Which they will someday, although I for one don’t think that day is coming as soon as people predict. Hopefully, this means plenty of good years left for video stores who are able to hang in there.)

There will always be options online, but as I said above, I really believe those options are going to prove more limited and ephemeral than people foresee when there aren’t physical spaces to supplement them. Nor do online services allow viewers the basic social benefits of video stores—although it’s funny to put it that way—you know, getting out of the house, seeing other people, discovering new titles while browsing, talking to staff, getting recommendations, recommending movies to others. Online algorithms just can’t provide a substitute for that, as almost anyone who’s tried relying on them can attest.

The neon sign beckons new customers to enter.

The neon sign beckons new customers to enter.

At the Video Fan, the social aspect of things has always been important to us. There’s always been a feeling to the place that once you stepped through the door, you were among friends. Maybe you’d run into someone you hadn’t seen in ages, someone who was off of your own beaten path. In busier days, the store used to be so crowded that people would literally bump into one another and start talking. We’ve seen friendships begin at the Video Fan, romances and even marriages. I’m sure a few divorces as well. These days, things have thinned out, and everyone seems to be looking at their phones half of the time. But I still think the Video Fan maintains that identity as a social space. Those of us who work there try to make sure it does. It’s a place to find movies, but also a place to see other people. And I wonder how many more of those spaces we really need to lose.

Before I go, I want to say one more thing, slightly off topic. You know what phenomenon I’ve really enjoyed seeing in the last couple of years? A lot of our college-aged customers were born in 1990 or later, which means they’re just young enough they never had VHS while growing up—or if they did, it was only in their very early childhoods. At the same time, these kids have almost always had access to the internet, and therefore to internet piracy. And do you know what they want to rent? VHS tapes! If we have a movie on DVD and VHS, they’ll opt for the VHS. They maintain collections at home and go to thrift stores in search of them. When I’m out trying to find VHS goodies for the store, I’ll often run into Video Fan customers of this age. Maybe I’m grasping at straws here, but for some reason, this gives me hope.

The Staff, out of focus but enjoying their work. From left: Andrew Blossom, Doug McDonald and Marc Hutcherson.

The Staff, out of focus but enjoying their work. From left: Andrew Blossom, Doug McDonald and Marc Hutcherson.

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