Sadness at the Video Store

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A colleague asked me the other day if I knew of any good indie video stores in West Seattle. "Other than Scarecrow," she added, since she didn't want to drive that far. Still, that's the first place that comes to mind in Seattle, though it's a holdout in a declining industry. (I was surprised the other day, while rewinding a VHS tape from Scarecrow, of how long it's been since I'd watched a movie on actual video tape instead of DVD.)

My neighborhood video store, the Blockbuster in Lower Queen Anne, is struggling along with its parent chain. And there are other industry trends coursing through Seattle that may kill off the indies and chains alike...

Video rental stores are generally perceived to be a dying species. Several national chains have gone into bankruptcy. Blockbuster, the nation's largest chain (with 7,800 U.S. stores), has been close to Chapter 11 and is presently in bailout mode. It's trying to compete with Netflix (which has 10 million subscribers and increasing sales). And both companies are trying to cope with streaming and downloading and video on demand (VOD) from Amazon, Comcast, and a host of other digital players. (Even Wal-Mart, God help us, has gotten into that biz.)

So to be a mom-and-pop proprietor of a video store is something like that Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind (with Jack Black and Mos Def, remember?); it's not just that DVD has effectively killed VHS, but that the Internet and home computer games are grabbing an ever-larger share of leisure time. (Blockbuster also rents games, natch.) A video rental shop is only as good as its inventory and customer service. This is where Scarecrow has traditionally excelled. (Every time we ask our readers in our Best of Seattle poll to name the best video store, well, you know the answer.) With some 70,000 titles, a knowledgeable staff, and a powerful (if clumsy) library search on its Web page, Scarecrow keeps its loyal customers loyal, no matter how much they grumble about the parking.

Meanwhile, Dallas-based Blockbuster continues to lose money, albeit at a slower rate. Sales were up 4 percent in the last quarter (according to industry annal Video Business), while bankruptcy rumors continue to swirl around the company. When I wander through my LQA Blockbuster, it's always a shambles. Old wares are being sold in bins; the store is being continually and confusingly reorganized; electronics, posters, and candy for sale all receive better placement than the actual movies; and you can't search the inventory online to see what's in or out. The staff seems fairly young and miserable (being paid minimum wage, no doubt). From a corporate level, the message being sent to walk-in customers is surely, Use our Web site to download a movie instead!

Still, I like video stores in part because of the tactile associations and browsing. Seeing an old 1980s Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner as I walk down the aisle will remind me I want to rent JCVD when it comes out (April 28). That, plus video rentals remain a great deal in our current recession. Older titles at Blockbuster go for $0.99 plus tax. Scarecrow just announced it's upping its top rate to $4.50, effective April 1. Still, whether new release or old, that's a lot cheaper than $10 at the multiplex, and you can microwave your own popcorn from the Safeway (which also rents movies, and has its own parking). I watch most DVDs at home on my iMac, which has a good-size screen. While if you want to go the full home-entertainment route with HD TV set and set-top box for downloading, that's a substantial investment (plus the monthly cable bill).

Renting is still a great bargain. But I just worry there will soon be fewer neighborhood places to rent--both indies and chains. It's more cost-efficient for Netflix or Amazon to run centralized virtual businesses, whether they deliver movies by mail or cable. And Amazon, let's remember owns the largest and best movie search site on the Web: IMDb, which always steers you to its own wares. Scarecrow, which is privately owned by two dudes who made their money at Microsoft, doesn't have to worry about angry shareholders. (They also own their building, a shrewd purchase back in 2001.)

And, ultimately, though movie ticket sales are actually quite strong at the moment (movies being cheaper than many other forms of entertainment), I wonder about a hybridized new movie/rental/retail convergence. Scarecrow probably benefits somewhat from the presence of the Seven Gables and other nearby U District cinemas. You see The Class, then wander over to rent other titles by Laurent Cantet. On a modest scale, the Seven Gables' parent company, Landmark Theatres, tries to sell a few DVDs in its lobbies. And until Scarecrow expanded upstairs, it held semi-regular screenings there.

At a time when many Seattle retailers are dying for lack of customer traffic, when many retail storefronts are vacant, would it make sense to combine a good video rental store with a cinema or small multiplex? (Put a cafe in the middle? Sell beer and wine? Provide lots of parking?) And would that entice you to drive in from West Seattle, or points beyond, instead of downloading a movie at home?

 
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