No one really knows how many titles San Francisco's Le Video has in stock. The store thinks it's around 90,000, but that's an estimate. The breadth of the collection, containing many rare and out-of-print films from around the world, has long elated browsing cinephiles, though much less frequently in recent years as consumers gravitated in throngs to online services like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.
Now the story of the long slow decline of Le Video, an Inner Sunset fixture for 35 years, has reached what appears to be a climax: The store is currently in discussion with a prospective buyer, owner Catherine Tchen said, and if the deal doesn't go through, Le Video will sell off its massive collection and close down by Dec. 31.
Tchen hopes to know the final outcome by Friday, she said.
So who might buy the store? Tchen wouldn't say, but she thought the potential new owner would be a good fit in keeping the film's huge inventory available.
"If [the deal] does go through it will really be amazing, because the people I’m talking to have the perfect form and have the perfect name and probably have the perfect energy in thinking out of the box for a collection like Le Video's," she said.
Tchen said if an agreement is reached, the store would move from its present location and might take a new name. "That doesn't matter to me," she said. "It’s being kept in one place and open to the public is my goal. If [the collection] belongs to a university, it's OK for me, because I’ll recover a little bit of what I have put in of my personal money ... but people wouldn't have access to it.
"The people I’m talking to will keep it open to the public. It will have room to grow and be much more. I assume it will be a store; it might also be cross-promoted with what they do.”
But if a deal can't be reached, she said, she will sell the collection to the public, in what is bound to be a frenzy of film lovers looking for cinematic gold. "All the movies would be up for sale," Tchen said. "Every week the price would go down."
Le Video's dwindling customer base has seen this movie before, so to speak. In March 2014, Tchen wrote on Facebook that barring a “miracle,” she would shut down at the end of April. The store had been losing money for years, and she could no longer afford to house the copious but unprofitable collection in the large ground floor of the building she owns, rather than renting the space out.
But the store used a successful Indiegogo campaign to finance a transition to an upstairs space one-fourth the size, renting out the bottom floor to Green Apple Books, another iconic San Francisco retailer. But John Taylor, the store's manager and buyer, said business has dropped by about another one-third since the move.
"Mainly just people didn't know we were here," he said. "They'd walk by and see the bookstore, and no matter how many signs we have out front, no one sees them. People would say, 'You need a sign.' We have three signs. There's not much more we can do in the sign department.' People just assumed we were closed and there's no way to really change that perception."
Tchen, for her part, said the problem lies in the store's enthusiastic but infrequent customer base. "People call and say, 'Do you have this?' and say, 'Oh my God, I can’t believe you have it, you were my last resort.' People think about us when they’ve exhausted every other resource. And of course we have what they want 99 percent of the time. The problem is we can’t keep the door open." She said more than 3,000 new customers came in from January to May, "but most of those people came once because they just couldn’t find it anywhere else."
Tchen, 61, lives in Portland and is a native of Paris. She came to San Francisco in 1976. She started Le Video as a window display in her camera store, and it eventually took over. She said the building is her only means of income, and she simply cannot afford anymore to subsidize the business, in part because she has to support her mother, who has dementia.
“I don’t have a penny left to put toward it," she said. "My greatest satisfaction has always been to be able to buy everything, to hunt for movies. I can’t hunt anymore because I can’t even afford to buy what comes out in this country."
If the deal that is now under consideration falls through, she would be open to another buyer if one emerged, she said. However, the sale of the collection would commence sooner rather than later.