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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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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Video Store Champions: Under One Roof Video

Becky Brush Leonard is the woman behind Under One Roof Video in Plattsburgh, New York. She doesn’t keep the business running on her own though. Her husband Jim is the VP and Maintenance Man, her son Nick is the Manager, and her daughter Amanda is a Customer Service Clerk. This is a true family business, the kind that thrived during the height of the video boom. We talked to Becky to discuss the current state of the rental market.

The store front. It is clear that this is not your average video store.

The store front. It is clear that this is not your average video store.

How long has Under One Roof been in operation?
Since June 1, 1990.

How would you describe the mindset of the average renter? What are they looking for when they enter your store?
We are a very diverse store in a college and industrial area. We have no average renter. 3D is just beginning to emerge, however we run a 5 Movies 5 Days $5 special which allows our diverse customer base to enjoy our popular Cult, Oscar Winner, TV series and Family sections. Our new release section hosts anything from B-rated horror films to foreign films to A-rated Hollywood favorites. Blu-ray is very popular.

Becky, the woman in charge.

Becky, the woman in charge.

How do you decide what to stock in your store?
It’s a daily process and I put a LOT of thought into it. I also run some prebooks by my employees. I have a “request” list from customers which is especially helpful for video games and TV series. Hmmm….I’ve been doing this for so long that I have an inkling for what will go and what won’t. I know my customers. I run reports and see what’s renting and what’s dead on the shelves and make adjustments with my orders as I see fit.

The TV show section. One of the most popular sections of the store.

The TV show section. One of the most popular sections of the store.

Do you view online rental as competition or is it something different entirely?
Online rentals only encourage us to be a better option for movie buffs. We get our movies in the store before Netflix anyway and they can’t touch our diverse selection. Our store is about 60% rentals and 40% sales. We’ve adapted to the changing industry by buying and reselling entertainment-oriented products. DVDs, video games, electronics, accessories and the like. We offer our customers cash on the spot for their lot

The Slush Puppie machines, for cooling off while your browse.

The Slush Puppie machines, for cooling off while your browse.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
If they were to cease to exist, it would be similar to libraries ceasing to exist. Many, many customers, from 3 years old to 103 years old like to see what they’re getting. Plus we have arcade machines, pinball machines and free popcorn. Netflix, Redbox and on-demand can’t even begin to touch our one-on-one personalized service and selection.

The store's autograph collection, AKA "Meet Our Peeps".

The store’s autograph collection, AKA “Meet Our Peeps”.
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Another Screening in Spain!!!

Our film returns to the big screen in Spain at the end of the month, this time in Barcelona as an official selection of the Horrorvision Festival. Their special guest this year is TROLL II director Claudio Fragasso, and they have a special focus on home video content. We’ll be screening at 11:00 PM on Saturday, November 30th, followed by a rare, only-on-VHS movie selected by the audience.  This should be a great way to close out the month of November.

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Video Store Champions: Viva Video

Viva Video is one of the newest stores we’ll be profiling in this series. It is a difficult time to open an indie video store, but there are more people doing it all the time. We talked to owner Miguel Gomez to break down what matters most about this business.

Miguel standing outside the store front.

Miguel standing outside the store front.

How long has Viva Video been in operation?
Viva Video! The Last Picture Store opened on October 12th, 2012.  We just celebrated our one year anniversary a few weeks ago, making us, I imagine, one of the youngest featured champions!  We didn’t start completely from scratch, though.  I managed the last of the TLA Video chain in Philadelphia (really fantastic video store chain that began as a repertory theater in Philly), and had been the buyer for the chain when we still had five stores left.  When the store I worked at, their last, was going to close I decided to give a go of it myself.

The new release wall, freshly stacked.

The new release wall, freshly stacked.

You started your business after digital rental and online distribution had a hold on the industry. Why did you think a brick and mortar store would still work?
When it comes down to it I believe the video store is a wonderful place, and I don’t think I’m alone in that belief. Since I had worked at TLA for 13 years I knew exactly how the business had been affected in the past decade.  I knew what the store took in, what the expenses were and who our customers were.  We still had a lot of folks coming in, so I crunched some numbers and realized the business could still work on a smaller scale as long as I could find a suitable location for a reasonable rent.

Josh "Lunchmeat" Schafer and Matt "Horror Boobs" Desiderio selling merch before VIDEO VIOLENCE screening.

Josh “Lunchmeat” Schafer and Matt “Horror Boobs” Desiderio selling merch before VIDEO VIOLENCE screening.

Do you think a video renter in 2013 is fundamentally different from a rental customer in 1993?
I’ll answer for 1999, the year I began working at a video store, instead of 1993 if that’s OK.  I would say that the main difference is that in 1999 it wasn’t really a specific rental customer, the video renter was everyone.  It would have been next to impossible to find someone that did not frequent a video store in 1999.  So the difference would be that now, although video stores do get all kinds, I don’t get every person from every group.  I have a lot of families that rent, but I certainly don’t get every family.  I get a lot of hardcore film buffs that use Netflix as well, but I don’t get every film buff in the area.  I would say that the customer now is someone that actively wants to go to a video store rather than someone that just wants to see a movie, if that distinction makes sense.  It’s folks that take an active role in what they want to watch.  A lot of folks with lists of stuff they want to get to, or people that want recommendations and such. The folks that just want to pass the time and don’t care as much what they’re watching are happy to just pick something from a small streaming selection.  We get more folks that like to talk about movies, and we foster that.  It is definitely more of a community feel.  I guess the silver lining is that most everyone that comes in is really pleasant!  The folks that hated the video store model left long ago…back in 1999 people that hated video stores were still customers.

The VHS wall, overflowing with catalog gems.

The VHS wall, overflowing with catalog gems.

Was the rental store an important part of your life before you entered into the business yourself?
Man, I’ve been obsessed with video stores since I was a kid.  I remember going to the 7-Eleven and renting tapes of “Maximum Overdrive” and “Troll” when I was 7 years old or so.  I remember traveling to the big Blockbuster because they had more $1 horror rentals.  I remember my first trip to an independent store,  Power Video (RIP), when I wanted to watch “Living In Oblivion” which the three Blockbusters near me didn’t carry…and I remember being pointed to the erotica section when I asked to rent “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” at that same independent!  I have a picture of myself smiling ear to ear holding two bags with all seven “Police Academy” movies when I got it in my head that I needed to watch them all in a row in one day (I’m not even a huge fan of those movies, I just NEEDED to see them all in one go, y’know?).

Sadly, I don’t remember the movie that caused me to trek to my favorite video store, The Video Vault (RIP) in Alexandria, VA.  They were incredible!  When I started going they were in a house, and every room had a different genre!  You’d go up the stairs and it would just get freakier and freakier!  God I loved that place…it was the best.  I remember my dad hesitating on opening up an account for me because they had the movie “Corpse Fucking Art” displayed pretty prominently.  I told him I didn’t want to watch it, and true to my word I never rented it.  When “Kids” came out my best friend and I wanted to make our own version of what kids are really up to…it would just be a trek to all 5 video stores I went to regularly for an evening, with an exciting finale of sitting on the couch and loading up the first of a big ole stack of VHS.  None of this Korine/Clark business!  My first day of college I found out where the local video store was, walked down there and prepaid for 20 rentals.  I’ve been pretty obsessed with movies as long as I can remember, and wandering the aisles of video stores was a HUGE part of that. Those memories are great, and they make the movie experience that much better. This sort of thing is what makes me saddest about the predominance of streaming…what sort of memories can people develop in association with watching movies that way?” Man, remember that night I sat at my computer and my torrent of “The Legend of Billie Jean” finally finished at JUST the same time my Papa John’s arrived?  You know, it was on my sweet alienware desktop and it was night-time?”  That’s worthless, man! Who’s gonna remember that sorta thing?  You’ll still have watched an awesome movie, but that experience is just lacking!

Young Miguel, with the full POLICE ACADEMY series.

Young Miguel, with the full POLICE ACADEMY series.

Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
First off, I firmly believe there is not a better way to see what is available than looking at boxes at a store.  Thumbnails just don’t sell it, and, at least for me, patience does not last very long browsing in that manner.  I can look at a wall of DVDs or VHS for so much longer than I can look at the Netflix interface.  Different stuff pops out at you, you chance upon stuff you never realized you wanted to watch in a far more exciting way than online.  Someone sees you picking up “Le Havre” or “Rubin & Ed” and says “That movie’s great!” so you decide to take it home.  That unsolicited advice is one of the great things at a video store. That doesn’t happen as you scroll through thumbnails. So it’s a combination of selection and how you make your selections that is being lost or changed.  You don’t get exposed to the oddball stuff with search algorithms.  You’ll just see the same stuff you are supposed to like.

Without a store you lose the communal aspect to movie watching as well.  With a store you talk to the clerk when you rent and when you return.  You talk to someone about how rad a flick was, or how much you hated something.  I had a fellow return “Peeping Tom” and tell me his wife declared “Miguel’s done it again!” after they watched it.  And, man, what a nice compliment!  That really encapsulates how watching the movie is more than just a one and a half hour experience.  They asked me for a recommendation and I told them about a few flicks, then they watched it and loved it and talked it over, and were even thinking about the other times I’ve given them something they’ve enjoyed.  It puts everything on a timeline and makes the whole experience more meaningful.

A basement screening of VIDEO VIOLENCE, held during the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

A basement screening of VIDEO VIOLENCE, held during the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

Or there was a fellow that came in a couple days ago and was recounting to me how he’d never forget that I recommended “Taxidermia” to him a few years back at the previous store where I worked.  And he came back on the day we closed to buy that same movie…and now another year later he’s in the new shop and tells me that story!  That is an experience of that movie that is so much more meaningful than watching a stream of it!

And It works the other way too, I gave a dude “Drug War” a little while ago and he totally hated it (which is crazy, that movie rules).  But when he came back we talked about it for 20 minutes, I could tell him why I thought that movie was great and he could disagree.  And then he at least knows why it’s so well reviewed and the experience is more worthwhile. Now, since I wrote this last paragraph (it’s been a few days), this dude has e-mailed me the Film Comment review supporting what he disliked about the movie (he believes it to be too heavily anti-drug propaganda by the Chinese government).  A movie he couldn’t stand has now become a conversation and an engaging activity.  Had he streamed it he would have hated it, looked up some reviews and been in a bit of a void.  That’s not the case since he rented it at the store. Again, the experience of the film has now been worthwhile.

Miguel with VIDEO VIOLENCE writer Paul Kaye and writer/director Gary P. Cohen.

Miguel with VIDEO VIOLENCE writer Paul Kaye and writer/director Gary P. Cohen.

Lastly, stores are important because they preserve film history.  As things stream, things will be lost as contracts expire and such.  I hate the idea that something will only be available as long as a movie studio feels like having it streaming.  With a physical disc you know you can possibly find something even if it goes out of print. And I guess that’s not exactly why video stores are important, but why physical media is important.  The fact that I know that as long as “Shivers” was released on DVD and VHS I can pick up a copy somewhere.  It might be expensive, but it’s possible because it is out there, you know?

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