Update: Oct. 27, 2015
San Francisco's Le Video will be liquidating its 90,000+ video inventory in the oncoming weeks and closing down for good after 35 years in business, according to store owner Catherine Tchen.
A potential deal with the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse that was in the works has apparently fallen through, Tchen said.
The owners will begin the process with selling the high value items online and will follow up with a general liquidation, with prices on all the remaining inventory being lowered each week until they sell.
You know your journalism career is really going gangbusters when you find yourself on the local video store beat, an industry described in a 2014 report as “in the declining life stage cycle.”
Wait, video stores still exist?
Yes, 3,810 of them across the United States, according to the report from IBISWorld. Last year, I did a survey of the handful extant in San Francisco.
Why? Their demise encompasses much of what you hear old-guard San Franciscans complaining about as the tech juggernaut transforms neighborhoods: high rents, the ascendancy of technocratic youth culture and the changing values and habits that culture has brought.
All of the owners I talked to felt basically under siege, as the businesses they'd cultivated over decades had all but collapsed. So we thought it would be only right to revisit these intrepid few and see how things are going.
Frontlyne's last day
As I prepared this article, I was horrified to discover I had left out a store I’d never heard of: Frontlyne Video, in Nob Hill. I immediately gave them a ring, breathlessly asking, “Do you guys still rent videos?”
The woman on the other end paused. “Until next Thursday,” she said.
And then there were four.
Frontlyne, in business 26 years, will peddle its last $1.00-a-day rental on Oct. 15. After that...
“We’re just going to blow everything out,” said owner Henry Silverberg.
“Technology put us all out of business,” he said. “If Blockbuster and the big boys can’t make it and they’ve all been out of business for years, how do you think it is for the small guys?”
Not too good.
Survival by shrinking
“You can’t lose 75 percent of your business and have your rent increase,” says David Hawkins, co-owner of Lost Weekend, on Valencia Street.
Yet he hangs on, one of the four dead-enders who have somehow managed to avoid being Netflixed onto the scrap heap of media-consumption history. All have survived in part by folding themselves into smaller spaces: Lost Weekend halved itself and now shares rent with a record store; Video Wave recently relocated to the back of a candy store on 24th Street; Fayes, near Dolores Park, tucked its DVDs into a corner of the store.
In the Inner Sunset, Le Video gave up on its large downstairs space last year, once notable for a grotto-like display of its 90,000-title inventory. The store consigned itself to a room a quarter of the size upstairs, renting out its previous home to Green Apple Books on the Park, the Richmond District bookstore's second location.
That move, financed by a successful Indiegogo campaign, generated cautious optimism. But it didn’t work out, and the store is currently in prolonged negotiations to sell its copious inventory in one lot, so that it remains available to the public. If that doesn't happen, it will sell everything piecemeal.
Store buyer John Taylor told me business dropped by about a third after the move last year, on top of an already long slow decline. “Mainly it's just people didn’t know we were here,” he said. “People would say, ‘You need a sign.’ We have three signs. There’s not much more we can do in the sign department.’
Catherine Tchen, the store’s owner, indicated the problem went deeper than that.
“People discover us when they’ve exhausted every other resource. The rest of the time they don’t understand the correlation of supporting us so we can keep providing them things they just can’t find anywhere else.”
The decline continues
Hawkins of Lost Weekend agrees that the spirit is willing but the wallet is weak when it comes to potential customers. “I’ve heard platitudes for years,” he says, describing a set of consumers who like the idea of video stores but don’t patronize any. “It’s not that I don’t believe those people, I think they honestly believe it.”
But that hasn’t stopped business from declining ever more rapidly. “As business falters you keep thinking... there would be a floor and level out, and that hasn’t happened,” he said, echoing, scarily, the very same complaint he made last year. “There just doesn’t seem to be one.”
Hawkins, who is in his 40s, estimates he can keep going for anywhere from 6 to 18 months if the trend continues. “We’re working on Plan R,” he said, noting he now makes less money, personally, than he did when he was in his 20s.
Hawkins says he’s not afraid of competition. His store flourished when it had to go up against another 400-pound gorilla: chains like Blockbuster. He weathered that storm, he says, by providing a better atmosphere and selection. But competing against virtual stores is, well, virtually impossible.
“To go from a physical space where people come in and browse and talk to you to suddenly being an online streaming site... the money to do that is insane. The technological knowledge [required] is insane. It’s not something that a business like ours can compete with in a real sense.”
A sense of mission
The other thing that motivates him, and also keeps other owners from packing it in, is what some may call a quaint sense of mission, what they would describe as decades’ worth of commitment to a set of attributes: connoisseurship, community and comprehensiveness. They consider those as important as the missing component of convenience that has killed so many of their ilk.
Gwen Sanderson, co-owner of Video Wave, can rattle off the names of the fallen. Despite San Francisco having transformed into a city where a good chunk of the population is more likely to stream a film on a cell phone than pick one up at an actual store, some of her customers, old-school refugees from neighborhoods whose video businesses went belly up, now traipse over to Noe Valley to rent and lament, she says.
“Four Star is the one that we get the most grief over, still, people having lost it in Bernal. Before that, Dr. Video in Glen Park was one of most grieved.” She says her customers evince “sheer relief” when they find her store is still open. And, she says, business has actually stabilized.
What motivates her?
“This is worth something”
“I wanted to put my foot down and say this is worth something,” she says. “Quality of life has a value that is not monetary. We have people run into each other they haven’t seen in years. People discover things. It’s not just a retail outlet, it’s an activity... It’s something to do together, around other people. We’ve lost a lot of that [in San Francisco].”
That sort of human interaction is worth preserving, says Mike McConell, co-owner of Fayes Video. "There’s customers who’ve come in here since 1999.”
Even though Fayes' DVD business is “astronomically” down, McConnell says the store does okay because of its coffee shop. After pruning the DVD collection down because of declining sales, he still has about 10,000 titles. “There’s enough people who don’t want to get rid of the movies, so we will carry on,” he says.
A changing San Francisco
The fact that the city has become wealthier has not helped video stores -- the IBISWorld report says a wealthier population does not consume hard media; demand for video stores falls when households earn more money.
“There’s an influx of people who are more tech-based and so they use all those gadgets; they’re not used to going in and looking for something or browsing,” says Mike McConell. “Our neighborhood has become so tech-based, or restaurant-based. People are spending their time either eating or on their phones.”
As he did last year, Hawkins made an argument that there’s a much larger issue at play here than just the demise of what is now a remote backwater in the media landscape.
“What’s evil to me about the internet, they can wipe out not only the entire world of basically anything that’s shippable or streamable; photography, books, music, then down to shoes, clothing. We’re potentially eliminating everything except food, drink and bodywork."
Video Wave, at least, thinks it can survive, especially at its new, more-visible location on 24th Street.
“This community has supported us for 30 years,” said Colin Hutton, the store's other owner.
During my visit to Video Wave, two young couples wandered in, and one pair signed up for memberships. Could maybe there be hope in this counterintuitive development? Bookstores are making a comeback; sales of e-books have stalled.
IBISWorld, though, does not foresee a similar rewind for video stores. Over the next five years, it says, the country is going to see roughly 15 percent of them fade to black each year.
Here in San Francisco, who doesn’t want to see a Spielberg climax for these stores, as opposed to the Lars Von Trier ending we appear to be headed towards?