Since 1980, having faced a number of relocations and industry trends (laserdiscs!), San Francisco’s beloved video rental store Le Video has remained an impressive treasure trove for movie fans of every caliber. For the uninitiated, the store carries over 90,000 movie titles, a lot of which are quite hard to find. Organized meticulously by countries, directors, screenwriters, and various and evolving sub-genres (Shaw Brothers, Giallo, Spaghetti Westerns), renting a movie at Le Video has always been a little journey of discovery.
I was barely out of my teens when I got a job as a clerk at the store. This was in the ’90s, and it’s there that I cut my teeth on all things film, art, and being young (and a tiny bit pretentious) in San Francisco. Besides expanding my cinematic vocabulary — from Pedro Almodóvar to Twin Peaks and Vincent Price — the store is where I came out of my shell and met a uniquely diverse bunch of people, customers and employees alike.
Which is why, when I recently learned of Le Video’s possibly imminent closure, I felt a mixture of sadness and guilt. Sadness, because Le Video still holds a special place in my heart, and I still have friends who work there. Guilt, because like many others, I’ve succumbed to the instant gratification offered to me by the various movie streaming and mail-order services that have emerged over the past few years. Le Video’s struggle to remain open is just one of many examples of this sea change (the biggest being Blockbuster’s 2013 exit from the retail market), and video rental profits for brick and mortar businesses have been taking a hit for many years now.
Discussing the store’s uncertain future with John Taylor, the Buyer for Le Video, I wondered about the difference in how we discover and access information these days. In pre-Wikipedia, YouTube and viral culture days, you had to turn to recommendations from friends, or employees at places like Le Video, and those thick tomes indexed annually by critics like Leonard Maltin. While finding stuff online is a lot easier, there is also a temptation to be more passive about it, relying on algorithms that make suggestions based on your history, or following trending content on various social networks. It’s not that we’re not making any effort at all, but when we want a quick selection, it’s easy to settle for readily accessible recommendations.
An intelligent system providing suggestions based on your personal preferences is impressive, but these recommendations are still no replacement for human interaction, and are sometimes a bit… odd. (“Did you enjoy Dexter? Try Dexter’s Laboratory!” Quit being cute, Netflix.) At the store, John said, “You can have a dialogue that lets the staff do a better job to pinpoint something the customer would like. I usually try and ask about something else the person likes, to give me an idea, but from there I use personal experience, not programming to make a determination.”
There is no argument that the way we ingest media is profoundly different from a couple of decades ago. There’s even quite a bit of debate about just how the internet is actually altering us on a neurological level. So what is an analog business to do in an increasingly digital world? Thinking of ways of adapting, John mentioned that they’d received the suggestion from some people to revert to a membership model. “You pay an amount and we just pick movies for you.” Until a system like that could be put in place, a more immediate solution would be to rent out the main floor of the building to another business which, ideally, would collaborate with Le Video.
When it comes to new business models replacing something old and familiar, I don’t think it’s too much to also want an improvement on the selection. The streaming model seems to be working for Netflix when it comes to TV shows, especially considering their popular original series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. But they’ve also been reducing the number of titles in their collection and cutting back on many DVDs as more customers switch to streaming-only. To even come close to matching the selection offered by a store like Le Video, you would need lots of different subscription memberships. Le Video currently count among their stock many PAL to NTSC transfers of foreign films that still haven’t be released domestically, as well as rare imports and a huge stock of films from Warner archives, which the studio pulled from Netflix and made available through their own in-house subscription service. As it stands, where majority of streaming and rent-by-mail services might be great for accessibility, they are definitely lagging in selection.
The Le Video family isn’t ready to give up yet and a lot of their hope rests on the continued support and word-of-mouth of the local community. There is even an Indiegogo or Kickstarter fundraiser in the works. While they are open, this is as good time as any to drop by for a visit. Here are some suggestions of what you might find at the store that’s harder to find elsewhere. (Or, you know, just ask your friendly neighborhood video rental clerk!)
If you need something for a disco-fueled dance movie night: Skatetown USA
The subversive world of… roller disco! Starring Scott Baio, Patrick Swayze, and a guy with a beard full of glitter.
If you’re looking to be creeped out, artfully: The Reflecting Skin
Not for the squeamish, this rumination on childhood abuse and the harsh realities of adulthood is woven with horror elements and is one of Viggo Mortensen’s early roles.
If you like claymation and Frank Zappa: The Amazing Mr. Bickford
You either like Frank Zappa, or you don’t. You either enjoy claymation, or find it weird. ‘Nuff said!
If you want a foreign, quirky romantic comedy: Castaway on the Moon
He tries to end his life, but ends up washed ashore on an urban island. She is agoraphobic and withdrawn from the world and watching it from her window. They might be meant for each other.
If… Penn & Teller. Just Penn & Teller: Penn & Teller Get Killed
I had this in my employee picks section at the store in the ’90s. (I was also 19 then.)