Can San Francisco’s Video Stores Be Saved?

Lost Weekend video marquee; Photo by Steve Rhodes

Lost Weekend video marquee; Photo by Steve Rhodes, twitter.com/tigerbeat

You have to keep in mind just how few options there were back then. I’m talking pre-‘80s, before the VCR became the first in a long line of accessories to turn your TV into the culture’s central nervous system of escapism. You could go to retro houses or watch truncated old movies on television (interrupted by mood-shattering commercials). But those were essentially passive choices; you might find Citizen Kane, or it might be Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. You watched for a variety of reasons, one of them being “because it’s there.”

That is why I remember my first visit to a video store as a sort of cornucopian dream, a lavish spectacle that satisfied a deeply rooted desire. Dorothy’s first glimpse of Oz, exploding with color after a life of rural black and white. Or that famous Twilight Zone, when the suicidal bookworm and lone survivor of a nuclear war otherwise known as Burgess Meredith happens upon the intact contents of the New York Public Library.

What’ll it be today? The Seventh Seal, Bicycle Thieves, 8 1/2? Or maybe something in a Renoir? And here’s Force of Evil, that overlooked noir you’ve been dying to see.

Kid, meet candy store.

Fast forward (or drag your mental scroll bar) to the present, when the video store remains pleasingly but inefficiently concrete, a physical holdout in an age when websites and servers have made instant gratification of your visual narrative needs de rigueur. Once the stuff that dreams are made of, the video store is now the most endangered species in the present media ecosystem, a relic mostly fit for frequenting by grandparents and technophobes.

Or so the numbers say. Reading a recent analysis of the industry by business forecasting firm IBIS World is like looking over the last section of one of those obituaries news organizations prepare when someone is about to kick. The industry is in “the declining stage of its life cycle,” the report says. In 2005, nearly 23,000 video stores did business in the U.S. Today it’s 9,000, on the way to a predicted 4,000 in 2019. “Revenue contraction shows no signs of abating over 2014,” it continues, with sales anticipated to fall (another) 17 percent. Nine years ago, the industry employed close to 158,000 people. Today it’s 47,000, with about two-thirds of those jobs predicted to be gone with the wind five years from now.

Local Stores Hanging On

But it ain’t over till it’s over, and it ain’t over quite yet. A handful of video stores remain in San Francisco, though to talk to their owners is to very much wonder for how long.  Their predicament has started to gain attention, especially with the near-closure of Le Video, long a haven for cinephiles. Even AP visited the city this summer to check in on the survivors.

Here’s a status report on four of San Francisco’s most enduring video stores: Faye’s, Lost Weekend, Video Wave and Le Video.

Faye's famous sandwich board
Faye’s famous sandwich board

Faye’s Video, 3614 18TH Street between Guerrero and Dolores

Officially called Faye’s Video & Espresso Bar, it’s the latter part of that combo keeping the store afloat. That wasn’t always the case, says co-owner Matthew Troy. Six or seven years ago, movie rentals made up two-thirds of the business; now they account for just a quarter.

Troy says the store has seen a steady decline in rentals since a peak in 2008, estimating the business is down 60 percent since then. In the past year, a sharp decrease has sent video revenue to new lows.

Traditionally, the store saw about 100 new accounts created per month. But in a short period of time last summer, that number dropped. “It went to 100 to 90 to 60 and 50. Now we have literally half the amount of people coming in.”

Why such a precipitous drop? Troy thinks the change in people’s retail habits finally hit critical mass. “Netflix has been around for years, so something else is going on,” he says. “People live in areas without video stores, so when they move to San Francisco, their habit is already in place. We get people here all the time that say this is so ‘old school.’ I tell people we’re not selling Rubik’s Cubes, we don’t have Go-Gos posters up. It’s interesting how people turn on a place they would love to go to, and they’re just like ‘nope moving on to streaming on my phone or computer.’”

That technology has come of age, he realizes. “Four to five years ago streaming wasn’t as good; now you’ve got moms and dads streaming.”

Troy says the store could still make it on coffee sales if his video rental business collapsed completely. He and his partner have been talking about rearranging the interior so movies take up less space. “I’ve done the math to see if it was worth still having movies for the hours (put in),” he says.

It’s no surprise that Faye’s rent went up 50 percent recently. The store is located on one of the blocks that make the Valencia Corridor area so appealing to affluent newcomers, with Dolores Park on one end of the street, Tartine Bakery on the other, and Deflina restaurant and Bi-Rite Market in between. The store currently helps defray costs by subletting to popup stores.

Troy says he doesn’t like the thought of ending the movie business, though he and his partner have had those discussions. On some days “it’s like there are tumbleweeds coming in,” he says. “But there are still 500-600 people who rent from the store. I’m not ready to tell them to go online. You get those times they’re so excited to come to a video store. Like a six-year-old, with Little Mermaid or something. They can actually hold the box and there’s a book. It’s a tangible place where people can discuss and look at it.

“But we can’t be in business to just have these stories once a month. We have to be smart about it.”

Video Wave's building in Noe Valley gets a facelift; Photo by Colin Hutton
Video Wave’s building in Noe Valley gets a facelift; Photo by Colin Hutton

Video Wave of Noe Valley, 1431 Castro Street, between 25th & Jersey

“We’re barely scraping by,” says Gwen Sanderson, a co-owner of Video Wave for 10 years. A moment later she amends that: “We aren’t really.”

Ominously, the store’s 10-year lease is up soon, and Video Wave doesn’t have the space to sublet to another retailer.

“We’ve been able to stay here because our landlord kept the rent affordable,” she says. “But we’re likely going to see a huge increase. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re putting out a letter to customers now letting them know what the situation is in case they want to get involved.”

Sanderson rattles off the names of local video stores that have closed over the years: Dr. Video, Naked Eye, Top World Video. In 2005, she says, two competitors coexisted within five blocks of her alone.

She thinks the industry has long needed a new business model. “The model was this is the only place you can get movies outside the theater. As soon as that changed, it needed to be tweaked.”

She would like the city to get involved in helping video stores survive, perhaps housing the entirety of the stores’ collections in one central location, then rotating titles through different neighborhoods in moviemobiles.

For now, that’s a pipe dream. But Sanderson thinks there’s a compelling cultural interest in preserving the 30 years worth of titles that the remaining video stores have collected. She says stores have many titles that simply aren’t available online, which would have to be purchased at high prices in order to be viewed, should they become un-rentable. She even wrote a press release in an attempt to start a conversation about the issue.

“The residents of San Francisco have access to every movie available for home viewing…. mainly held at locally owned video stores,” it reads. “If the last stores close in San Francisco, we will all lose access to a large percentage of what we currently have.”

Lost Weekend video in the heart of SF's Mission district
Lost Weekend video in the heart of SF’s Mission district

Lost Weekend Video, 1034 Valencia Street, between 21st and Hill

The store’s steady decline in business started around 2008 amid the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, says co-owner David Hawkins. Business has fallen roughly 60 percent since then.

Lost Weekend sits among the upscale eateries and boutiques that have so transformed the Valencia Corridor. But high rent is not the problem, Hawkins says. The problem is people just aren’t renting anymore and they’re not renting in increasing numbers.

“It’s been down 10-15 percent each year, and we were calculating that into our math of figuring out what to do,” he says. “And then it just plummeted even further. We figured there’s got to be a bottom at some point. But there hasn’t been.”

Like Faye’s Matthew Troy, Hawkins sees the habits of the new demographic pouring into the neighborhood as the main problem.

“I used to know 90 percent of the people who walk by. Now it’s down to 5-10 percent. Everyone comes home on their buses from Google, gets on their email and computer, then goes to bed. There are fewer people leaving their houses.”

Hawkins says that five or six years ago, he tried to organize retailers around the catastrophe he was sure was on its way. “I went around with a little notebook to every record store, video store, and bookstore in the city, trying to get a p.r. campaign. Everyone was intrigued by it, but it was like herding cats.”

The store has tweaked its business over the years in response. Its 25,000 titles can now be rented for five days instead of two. And a space featuring live comedy has helped keep it solvent.

A month ago the store posted an SOS on its Facebook page, saying it was facing an “immediate crisis.” Nothing’s changed since then.

“It’s to the point where we don’t have any cushion,” Hawkins says. “If anything goes wrong, we don’t have the resources. If something breaks and it’s a 40-buck replacement because it’s out of print, we have to really wrestle with if we can afford it.”

He makes an appeal for customers to patronize their friendly neighborhood retailers, whatever they may be. The issue is something much larger than the imminent disappearance of an obsolete media model, he says.

“When people hear us complaining about our business going under, they’re like, ‘so what? It’s just a video store.’ But when you start piecing it together with record stores that have been around 70 years, and bookstores for hundreds of years, then you’re starting to get through what the problem really is. Everyone buys their shoes from Zappos, for instance. You used to be able to open this little shoe store in whatever town and make a living.”

Hawkins does not like Netflix. Video stores used to employ 150,000 people in the country, he notes; Netflix employs 2,000. He sees the choice of where you get your TV and movies as a political one.

“If Walmart plunked a store down in the middle of San Francisco, most people would go out of their way not to shop there. But for some reason, people don’t have that mindset about Amazon, Netflix and Apple. They’re bigger than Walmart now, humongous corporations.”

In the middle of Le Video's remodel. Same location, just one floor up.
In the middle of Le Video’s remodel. Same location, just one floor up.

Le Video, 1231 9th Avenue, between Irving and Lincoln

If there’s a shred of hope for brick and mortar movie rental stores, you can find it in the public response to the news that Le Video was about to turn out the lights — and not just to watch a movie. Practically a cultural institution because of its insanely copious collection, Le Video was long a must-visit for any cinephile looking for rarer titles.

But in March, the store’s owner, Catherine Tchen, wrote on Facebook that barring a “miracle,” she would shut down at the end of April 2014. At the time, I talked to the store’s buyer, longtime employee John Taylor, who said Le Video had been losing money for years, and Tchen could no longer afford to house its money-losing 80-90,000 titles on the large ground floor in lieu of renting it out.

So the plan was to move the collection to a smaller upstairs area. The store launched an Indiegogo campaign to finance the transition, setting a goal of $35,000. It hit that mark in just 13 days, blasting past to a final total of $60,000, including $10,000 from Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler. Green Apple Books, a store with a similarly passionate customer base, is moving into Le Video’s former ground floor space. Green Apple Books opened on Aug. 1, while Le Video was set to open on Friday, Aug. 8, barring any additional delays.

Le Video is now feeling a bit flush, posting a Facebook message during the remodeling about “new Internet and new phones… that will actually work when you call us…”

Taylor says the money also went to hiring staff, building shelves, ordering materials for construction, and runs to the dump. Not to mention “little plastic sleeves that cost a shocking amount of money.”

But don’t expect the same browsing experience, once so pleasing to those who made special trips just to walk among the grotto-like arrangement of overflowing shelves. The upstairs space is about a third the size, Taylor says. All the plastic cases that housed the DVDs and Blu-rays have been discarded; you will have to conduct your treasure hunts in the kind of bins you see in record stores.

The move will also not solve the underlying problem of a business that is half or less of what it used to be, with the bottom nowhere in sight. “We did notice that at the beginning of this year, despite (business) already being pretty low, it took another dip again,” Taylor says. To address that, the store is building a web browsing tool for its huge inventory, to be followed by an online rental function. Finally, Le Video hopes to offer rent-by-mail, a model that Netflix built its empire on but is now abandoning in favor of streaming.

Owner Catherine Tchen is quick to add the caveat that, though Le Video is seeking non-profit status, the store must be able to cover its own operating expenses. Le Video’s future success relies on loyal customers coming in more than once or twice a year.

Which provokes the question: Up against such technological, cash-flush gargantuans, are even the most forward-thinking, finely curated, and passionately complete neighborhood repositories of our cinematic heritage doomed to fight the last war in the rapidly changing media delivery game?

Last year I saw the author Rebecca Solnit at a fundraiser for Adobe Books, now a refugee from the same swath of hyper-gentrified neighborhood in which Lost Weekend and Faye’s reside. She counseled: “Start stocking up on memories of what used to be.”

Next month, we’ll look into how the new business model of Netflix, slayer of so many video stores, could possibly make them relevant again.

  • Pixie Solanas

    Just depressing the tech hordes invading this city, flush with easy cash and very little incentive to embrace the existing community of the city they’re now in.

    So why in the hell are they living here? They can easily log on to their various social network outlets from the relative comfort of a studio in Mountain View.

  • Bob

    Please get your story right, Green Apple Books opened on August 1st and is open for business.

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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