Seattle's Scarecrow Video has been called the greatest video store in the country, praised by the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci (who discovered it while shooting "Little Buddha") and Quentin Tarantino (who walked from downtown Seattle to the store's University District location as a kind of pilgrimage to the video Mecca), explored by Bertrand Tavernier in 1997 (he took in the entire laserdisc section and gushed over the selection of Cy Enfield and William Whitney tapes), and voted the Best of Seattle consistently in the annual Seattle Weekly readers polls. (Full disclosure: I was a manager at Scarecrow for three years back in the nineties and I am still a regular customer.)
Scarecrow opened in 1988 with a couple of hundred videotapes, many of them oddball cult titles, from the personal collection of founder George Latsios. Twenty five years later, after a near-bankruptcy and a rescue by a couple of Microsoft engineers (Carl Tostevin is now the store's sole owner), it has an inventory of almost 120,000 titles, including the biggest selection of Blu-rays in the city and an envious collection of out-of-print DVDs (as well VHS tapes and laserdiscs that have never been released to DVD) that would command small fortunes on the collector's market. (Those rentals require a deposit.)
And like most surviving video store in the age of instant streaming and video-on-demand, Scarecrow is struggling to keep customers coming through the doors. General manager Kevin Shannon reports that rentals have dropped over 50% in the last six years.
It's obviously not the only store facing such problems. Blockbuster has tossed in the towel. Once the King Kong of video rentals with 9,000 locations around the world at its peak, it is closing the last 300 corporate stores and its rent-by-mail business this year. There's no surer sign that the home video rental culture that thrived from the 1980s through the mid-2000s is over.
But does that also mean the end of all those independent stores that once thrived in cities and neighborhoods by offering classics and foreign films and cult movies that couldn't be found on the shelves of corporate chains?
That is the loss that cinephiles face in the age of streaming movies: a curated library of movies, organized and archived and championed by clerks who love their work. It's how Quentin Tarantino and many, many others got a film education. Can you get the same kind of access and immersion online? Just as importantly, can you find the community and the feedback that was an integral part of the video store experience?
Scarecrow is just one of hundreds of independent stores in cities across the country trying to hold on against streaming video, VOD, cable on demand, and the ubiquitous Red Box, not to mention a sluggish economy that makes entertainment dollars tight.
Vulcan Video in Austin, Texas, the home of Drafthouse and SXSW, saw their numbers drop with the Netflix Instant explosion, just like everyone else. And then they found that many customers returned as they faced the limitations of the streaming catalog. "We had customers coming in when Netflix was no longer carrying the Bond films," said Vulcan Video general manager Kristen Ellisor. She credits the culture of Austin, a city that takes its cinema and music seriously, for keeping Vulcan alive even as the last Blockbuster closed earlier this year. Vulcan picks up on the tastes of its patrons, from the smorgasbord of documentaries about food to the charge of Bollywood musicals. But the main reason they are flourishing? "We have smart people showing smart movies to their smart kids."
Other longtime community stores have similar stories. The Video Station in Boulder, for example, moved out of its long-time mall space to a new, smaller neighborhood location this year without downsizing its catalogue of over 40,000 titles, but otherwise remains primarily a rental business with enough customers to keep it alive. It's now the last store standing in Boulder.
Other stores have had to experiment, innovate, and rethink the old model.