As my dear friend Lauren Brown would say: It’s been a hard year.
I know, I know — a woefully inadequate statement to explain the Sisyphean struggle of this most impossible pandemic year, amidst the most stressful election of our lives and after one of the worst days in American history this past January. With a year of pandemic life closing in, myself and most everyone I know has finally hit a wall when it comes to pretending like any semblance of normalcy still exists as we’ve made our homes into our offices, become teachers to our children, caretakers to those who need us most, with few avenues for support, release, or catharsis from all we have endured since last March.
But even within this daily grind against the oblivion that lies ahead if we don’t work together to build a better world, some small comforts emerged, many of them in the form of what we used to affectionately call “home entertainment.” Replacing weekly family trips to Blockbuster or vast libraries of carefully labeled, taped-from-TBS VHS tapes, streaming catalogues have filled the viewing void for many, if not most, at-home consumers. With seemingly infinite possibilities available with a few clicks, in the early days of lockdown it seemed as if anything was possible — maybe I would finally watch all the Breillat on the Criterion Channel! Tubi just added a bunch of delicious 80s schlock! Netflix has scientifically crafted another bingeable doc series that I will have forgotten by Monday!
But…on a long enough timeline, even the most ardent streaming supporters began to realize the limitations of digital catalogues “curated” (if one can even call it that!) by corporate overlords. Why wasn’t Kathryn Bigelow’s ever-timely STRANGE DAYS available on any streaming platform for audiences to consider how 90s genre filmmaking reacted to the Rodney King protests in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer? How come it was so hard to find staple comfort TV like HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET or NORTHERN EXPOSURE that was once ubiquitous in cable reruns? Why was couldn’t we watch beloved classic and contemporary films like SILKWOOD, THE HEARTBREAK KID, INLAND EMPIRE, TOPSY-TURVY, or SHORT CUTS from celebrated directors, even as rental titles? (And those are just a few examples — check out the wide array of what’s NOT available on streaming or digital rental from this thread of Twitter responses which garnered almost 300 different answers.) With nothing but time to scroll the infinite digital void of streaming catalogues, even the average consumer can begin to realize just how limiting the world of digital-only content can be.
As of writing this and according to the approximately 140 (!) top streaming platforms tracked by Just Watch, there are STILL only about 85,681 films streaming across that entire spread of channels and platforms — about half of the catalogue size of Scarecrow Video, the largest video store collection in the world, which houses 160,000 titles. Even among the top 3 streaming platforms — Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime — the actual catalogue numbers will probably shock you. Disney+ is currently streaming about 740 feature films; for Netflix, it’s just under 3,600. Without adding Amazon Prime’s 26,000 titles, Disney+ and Netflix combined would only have about 40% of the collection size of your average local Blockbuster, which contained around 10,000 titles. And even if you for some reason wanted to burn thousands of dollars each month by subscribing to every possible streaming service, you still wouldn’t have the kind of access to the history of film a great video store like Vidiots, Movie Madness, or Beyond Video provides thanks to brilliant, invested staff members who can guide a viewer from Fellini to Lynch to Seimetz in three movies or less before warning your Memaw that no, she doesn’t want THAT version of CRASH…
There is of course a solution to this problem, the same solution I proposed three summers ago: We have to go back to the video store.
Early on in lockdown, a number of folks reached out to me to ask if I would write something about the state of the video store during a pandemic…and for many months, I just couldn’t. With entire industries that make up the backbone of American infrastructure crumbling around us — the shuttering of grocery stores and hospitals to bump up bottom line profits, gig workers who lost entire income streams thanks to greedy corporate decisions, an entire state that couldn’t keep its most vulnerable populations from freezing to death — it was hard for me to see the forest for the trees when it came to video stores and how they would fit into the new America we’ll all find ourselves in post-pandemic (whenever that magical day happens!) Of course I wanted to continue celebrating video stores, but for a while, it felt as if that wasn’t even something remotely worth considering when so many were suffering and dying every day due to bigger, badder forces at play.
But then the closures began. In Austin, Texas, both Vulcan Video and I Luv Video were early casualties of pandemic realities for small-businesses. In Des Moines, Iowa, Video Warehouse, a pioneer in the rental game since 1986, shut down and sold its collection of nearly four decades. The entire American Midwest lost access to the largest remaining chain of about 250 video stores when Family Video (who seemed to be innovating the model for how a chain video store could thrive in the streaming age thanks to some clever business practices) announced their final curtain call last month. It’s a sad state of affairs for so many kinds of independent businesses around the country with little support from the government — and few signs of relief seem to be on the way, even nearly a year into this wretched thing.
Even here in the movie capital of the world, my local and most beloved Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee made the difficult decision to close their doors in order to preserve their one-of-a-kind VHS collection and more (which has thankfully now gone into storage.) I made a last rites pilgrimage to North Hollywood early one Sunday morning last May — I only discovered Eddie Brandt’s in 2018, but standing alone in their parking lot, gazing upon the old Movieland murals and thinking of all the lovely moments I’d had in the store in three short years made me quickly soak my mask with tears.
If we let video stores become another pandemic casualty, we will lose SO much more than just a fun Friday night throwback or access to rare or out-of-print titles — we will lose an access point to an entire way of watching and discovering new media, an expansive spectrum of human experiences not being captured by streaming content catalogues, and the intangible, pervasive joy that the shooting of the shit with a well-informed video store clerk or fellow patron can bring in a physical location.
A few weeks ago, Martin Scorsese, ever-eloquent preservationist that he is, perfectly summed up what we’re losing when we reduce all great cinematic art to content tiles on streaming services with no curation or careful focus on having an exhaustive, inclusive catalogue in Harper’s: “Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.”
Unsurprisingly, Marty’s words too made me cry — movies are one of the greatest American exports, along with rock n’ roll and cheeseburgers, and they are absolutely national treasures we should not treat as disposable distractions for the two hours it will take us to finally fold that pile of pandemic depression laundry. Just a decade ago, there was a Blockbuster or a mom n’ pop video shop in every town, but now, home viewers are subject to the whims of algorithmically-optimized catalogues and the corporate interests that shape them. As more and more studios bring streaming services in-house, therefore likely limiting what other streaming platforms can license their films, a looming content apocalypse quickly comes into focus for those who don’t want to or simply can’t spend hundreds of dollars a month to subscribe to the number of streaming services it would take to even come close to the catalogue of your average local video store.
Scorsese asks us to “to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible,” so when I began thinking about how to best support video stores that continue fighting the good fight against a very stacked streaming deck, I finally realized what I could do to help. It’s going to take our village of video store owners, employees, and enthusiasts to make sure we can protect and preserve the remaining video stores and all the magic they contain for our future selves and future generations of movie lovers. Banking on the nostalgia video stores inspire to keep their lights on isn’t going to be enough anymore — it’s going to take active, concentrated efforts from film fans around the world to protect one of the most rare, precious treasures we still have as autonomous film fans.
Writing In Search of the Last Great Video Store changed my life in ways I could’ve never anticipated. Three years later, what I value most from that experience is all the passionate, engaged video store lovers from around the world that I connected with and in many cases, now call friends.
So friends, I am calling upon you today to help me with the next chapter of this journey to find the Last Great Video Store…
When I published the piece in 2018, I included a Google Map of all remaining video store locations — a map that has very sadly become irrelevant due to all the closures of 2020. But, I realized what a valuable tool such a thing could be in not only identifying video stores around the world, but providing a connection point for their owners and patrons to talk about the realities of running a video store in the age of streaming. So as I think about what the future holds for video stores, I’ve realized that we need to get organized in order to best support each other and foster new growth once again.
Here you will find a link to the Last Great Video Stores spreadsheet, which will hopefully serve as a directory for ALL remaining video stores around the world. My goal with this directory is to provide an informational, up-to-date resource for those who cherish and celebrate video stores, and to allow for the creation of a network of video store owners and operators to best support each other during these ridiculously trying times. It should go without saying, but: please don’t be a jerk in interacting with this sheet! Errant entries will be deleted, and it’s just terrible karma, my dudes — let this spreadsheet exist for those who need it most and serve as a functional tool for them, not a conduit for your lazy Hollywood Video jokes (take those to your next Zoom happy hour, thanks!)
As an open-source directory, this spreadsheet will also be a way for video store lovers to find what stores are still operating near them, and ideally, make some pandemic-safe rentals! (Scarecrow and Pasadena’s wonderful Videotheque have had great success with rent-by-mail programs.) And…once we’re clear of this damn COVID thing, it’s going to be more important than ever to prioritize personal connections in physical spaces once again — I think we’ve all learned the limits of our digital lives in this past year, and I, for one, cannot wait to argue with some of you in a video store aisle about the many merits of WILD ORCHID 2: TWO SHADES OF BLUE once again.
So, please share the link far and wide, but be cool — again, this is meant to be a functional, educational tool that is easily accessible to anyone, so don’t ruin a good thing for folks who need it most! For any other inquiries, you can reach me here but again: please be kind!
Even as someone who tends towards the cynical, I refuse to become a pessimist about something that was so beloved and formative to me and so many others, and even as an adult, has brought me many beautiful moments of shared joy and connection around film. Video stores helped shape our love of not only movies, but of our sense of discovery in exploring a cinematic catalogue with infinite possibility for all the avenues one could take through life. On some level, simply conceding that video stores are “a lost cause” or “not worth the work” is tantamount to saying that film preservation or catalogue curation is a lost cause — or at least one that we’re ceding entirely to the streaming gods and the massive conglomerates they’re now owned by. I refuse to let my viewing choices be dictated by shareholder interests or buzz-worthy trends — and I hope you might consider doing the same as you really think about your own relationship to streaming. Trust me — it only takes one FRESH HORSES to realize just what you’re missing without video stores.
And…there is new, exciting hope on the horizon. Here in LA, Maggie Mackay, Patty Pollinger, Cathy Tauber, and the Vidiots Board of Directors continue tirelessly fighting to reopen Vidiots, an inclusive, female-run video store space. Vidiots will provide Los Angeles with an essential film community hub on the city’s east side in the historic Eagle Theater, which will ultimately house their stunning collection of more than 50,000 titles, social spaces, and a 250-seat movie theater with seven-day-a-week programming. In Baltimore, Beyond Video has built a NEW rental collection of nearly 20,000 titles from scratch in less than three years to serve the city’s film lovers, old and young. And in Atlanta, Videodrome is selling some incredible posters, shirts, and even masks to stay thriving amidst a pandemic.
“Our efforts to relaunch Vidiots and maintain a film culture that values access, equity, preservation, and human interaction, are bigger than our own four walls, this is about the future of film in Los Angeles and beyond. Without video stores and movie theaters, we can not expect to raise a new generation of film lovers who will fall in love with, invest in, and support this magical art form into the future,” says Maggie Mackay of Vidiots.
All of these folks are doing hard, heroic, often unglamorous work to make sure their communities have access to the vast, essential libraries of films their video stores provide — so when you feel depressed or despondent about the state of streaming or are missing a Saturday matinee courtesy of that weird strip mall video store you grew to love, think of them and support their missions in any way you can — even a social media post or a disc donation goes a long way!
Together, we can all do our part (if this was an 80s movie, this would be the point at which the inspirational theme song that ties it all together kicks in) to make sure that video stores aren’t just one more thing from the “before times” that didn’t survive the pandemic. Our future as independent, curious viewers depends on how we act today to protect and preserve the remaining national treasures that are the last great video stores. In a year filled with so much loss, this is a moment where we can actually grow something valuable together, and cultivate a community of video stores we’re all going to need when this pandemic ends.
I’ll be dreaming of my next rental until then — see you at the video store…
One more time: The Last Great Video Stores spreadsheet!