Around the beginning of college, for a couple years I worked in a Hollywood Video and a Blockbuster Video. Then, already, if you listened to the DVDs clattering into the drop box, you could hear a sort of death rattle. Redbox popped up. Netflix thrived. In the decade that followed, streaming services flourished, and video stores all but vanished. When I wrote about Scarecrow Video a little over a year ago, I mentioned that only three video stores remained in the city. Less than two months later, Fremont’s Video Isle closed. Then, in April, The Seattle Times wrote that Reckless Video in Maple Leaf is “on the verge of closing.”
This is, in part, the story that James Westby tells in his new documentary, At the Video Store, which shows at Northwest Film Forum on Wednesday. Westby, who grew up in Bremerton and lives in Portland, will be there for a Q&A, along with current and former employees of Scarecrow, one of the stores he profiles.
The movie is a shaggy little labor of love that Westby pieced together over six years, driven by his own time working in video stores, from Portland’s Videorama (closed) to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. He made Hollywood’s final training video, parts of which pop up in the documentary as some of the “weird little sketches and dumb songs” that Westby garnished the movie with.
The rest is a talking-heads recap of video stores’ reasonably brief history. People like Bill Hader, John Waters, Todd Haynes, Charles Mudede, and employees of stores all over the country—Movie Madness in Portland, Great American Video and Espresso in Milwaukie, Oregon, Allen’s Alley Video Inc. in New York—wax nostalgic about physical stores.
The story’s beats aren’t a shock (though, just like hanging out at Scarecrow, you’ll get a lot of good obscure film recommendations). Video was a new technology (some think it killed drive-in theaters). Then Blockbuster and Hollywood, brazenly demonized here, swept in and squashed the independent stores. Then: Netflix, Redbox, streaming, the scads of closures (many of the places Westby covers closed while he was making the movie).
Interviewees lament the loss of choices (tons of things aren’t streamable) and materiality and sociability. Most interesting to me were the parts that look at how a few places have kept their heads above water. Scarecrow, which has the most extensive collection, converted to a nonprofit. So did Movie Madness. Great American Video and Espresso serves coffee from a drive-through window and has Italian ice. Half of Videorama, while it existed, was a gym.
I asked Westby if video rental might see a resurgence, like record stores, people seeking a sense of touch and commitment in their art. He hopes they bounce back, he said. But he's aware it isn't the same thing as a record or book store: “Video stores are a unique retail environment…. You’re paying to borrow something for a while and then you’re bringing it back.” Two trips, not one.
Indeed, streaming’s ease is tough hurdle: I watched the screener of At the Video Store on Vimeo.
At the Video Store
Jan 15 & 16, Northwest Film Forum, $13