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Thoughts on Rental Hygiene–the life (and death?) of Video Stores

Thoughts on Rental Hygiene--the life (and death?) of Video Stores

Just about a year ago, fellow IndieWire blogger Anthony Kaufman wrote 2 pieces about Netflix and the video business, the first asked: “Did Netflix Kill My Local Video Store?” He shortly followed up with the answer, followed by a warning: “Netflix didn’t kill my video store, but yours might be next!

I got to thinking about this again recently because of an article written by friend Lee Gardener in the Baltmore City Paper called Rental Hygiene: Will the Internet Kill the Local Video Store?, about the “Red Envelope” and how it may spoil the 20th Anniversary of Video American.

Let me first say that I have many strong on opinions on this particular subject. I worked at Video American for a number of years in the early 90s when it served–even more than the art theatre, the film festival, and the universities–as THE hub of film culture in Baltimore. The inventory of VHS tapes was vast. The knowledge of the staff encylopedic. There was always something interesting screening on the monitors–from Mr. Arkadin to Zero for Conduct to Marnie to Strictly Ballroom to The Smiths Video Collection (guilty as charged!). One could literally gain an education coming into the stores, learning the history of cinema by browsing the inventory, getting into a lively conversation with a clerk (yes, there were debates over Star Wars) or by chatting with a fellow customer. John Waters was a regular. As was Senator Barbara Mikulski.

Video American is also where George Figgs came looking for a wing-man when he received a last-minute call in early January from Baltimorean Henry Turner looking for an emergency 35mm projectionist for a Festival des Refusés in Park City.

Video American is where I first met, and worked beside friends, filmmakers and musicians like Skizz Cyzyk, Jon Jolles and San Serac (nee Nat Rabb).

It is also where I met my wife, Trin.

I remain good friends with co-ownerS Michael Bradley (left) and Barry Solan (right) featured in the article.

I offer all this as preamble so that I don’t sound like a fanatic when I admit, withtout apology, that I am a Netflix subscriber.

I subscribe to Netlix for many of the reasons company lackey Steve Swasey offers in the article:
Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey denies that the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company wants to see stores like Video Americain suffer, though he is unapologetic that “Netflix is in the business to increase its business.” He sounds confident that it will: Netflix ended 2006 with 6.3 million subscribers, up from 1.1. million in ’03, and Swasey projects that it will have 20 million subscribers by the turn of the next decade. “The average video store has 2,000 or 3,000 titles while Netflix has 75,000 titles,” Swasey says. “And they’re equally available to you in West Plains, Missouri, or Manhattan or anyplace else in the United States.” Factor in the inexpensive rental plans and no late fees, he adds, and his company “beats any bricks-and-mortar options.’

Despite my Netflix subscription, I feel passionately that video stores hold an important place in our culture.

Michael and Barry do a great job of explaing why going to the video store, especially one like Video Americain, is a worthwhile experience:

“Video Americain does have a number of things going for it in this increasingly precarious business climate. It has its peerless, ever-growing collection of discs and tapes, which includes a number of titles unlikely ever to see a domestic DVD release. Its two Baltimore stores are situated in stable residential areas that, transient college students notwithstanding, have provided a steady stream of regular customers, whether they’re renting Pasolini movies or Must Love Dogs. VA also attracts and hires staffers who love and know movies and don’t mind making recommendations, which often means that people who stop in for one title leave juggling an armful.

“You can’t train that stuff,” Jed Dietz says. “You either have a store that’s populated by people who care deeply about the wide range of movies or you don’t.”

To an extent, Solan and Bradley are hoping that the human aspect of Video Americain will help sustain it. And, as with so many things surrounding Video Americain, it all goes back to a movie theater.

“The film experience as a group experience–seeing films in a room with other people–to some extent was replaced by the video-store experience, which was picking films in a human context,” Solan says.”

We ought to begin to consider seroiously the consequences of the (I believe, inevitable) disappearance of mom and pop stores with vast libraries of classic, international, underground, and obscure avant garde titles, or stocked with out of print VHS or not yet released on DVD titles.

When the business climate can no longer sustain them, these stores will go the way of the single screen movie theatre or the independent art house.

A store like this serves as a library, an archive and a cultural mecca. It is a living resource that we should not neglect. Anyone who has ever taught a class and needed to pull clips from DVD knows that resources like On-Demand or services like Netflix do not suffice. Few libraries house the inventory found in stores like Video Americain.

Where will the movie lover be able to browse when stores like this can no longer compete? Can one ever rebuild once the inventory is sold off piecemeal scattered to all corners of the globe, like so many Rambaldi artifacts?

Silly as it seems, shouldn’t there be some sort of consideration for recognizing the archival and cummunal value of stores like Video Americain? Should they be eligible for non-profit status, or designation as landmarks?

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