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Look Me in the Eye When You Rent That Movie

(Posted by guest blogger Steve Hendrix) Bye bye Marc! Have a good time! Don't worry about a thing. I'll have them in bed by 9.

Okay kids, I'm babysitting Raw Fisher for the next two weeks, during which time the blog will officially be Pro Dog, Fine With Cats and Ambivalent About Taxi Meters. (Oh hell, let's be Pro Taxi Meter too. You might as well use the power you have.) I promise not to tell Marc if you wreak havoc until all-hours if you don't tell him I've discovered his basement fridge full of Yuengling. He left us a little money for pizza and a movie, but first let's snoop a look at the Raw Fisher house collection...."All The President's Men," "The Natural." Hmmm, what's this one about Prague...a travelogue? Oh. Oh my. Oh Marc!

If we DO rent a movie, we are getting it at the local independent video store. I'm on a semi-boycott of Netflix. Meaning, my wife belongs, I don't. I'm not willing to succumb to mere convenience, that most soulless of virtues, at the expense of my local video store. I'm not talking Blockbuster or Hollywood Video here, which will live or die without me, but the local shops that are just hanging on. Mine is Video Americain in Takoma Park.

My wife instantly embraced Netflix, the ease of home delivery and, especially, the end of due-back dates and late fees. She hates the extra bucks we often pay, mostly because I'm much better at going to get movies than I am at returning them in time.

But I say rent locally and maybe we can keep the Internets from swamping one more corner of actual human interaction. Washington has stacked up as a pretty good video town historically (if that's the right word for an industry that's not even as old as Saturday Night Live), but dozens of local shops have closed, victims of Netflix, video streaming, DVDs that sell for under 10 bucks and movie rental kiosks in places like our staff cafeteria at the Post. There are still a few, like the culty Video Vault in Old Town Alexandria and a couple of Capitol Videos hanging on in NW and SE.

But the decline is well underway. Potomac Video, once a minor regional powerhouse with 20 shops, is down to six (including two in West Virginia). That chain, according to general manager Donald Stewart, has been hurt as much by high rents as by Netflix. "It seems like any business that Netflick is going to take from us is gone and we're doing okay," Stewart told me last week. "We have three stores waiting in a warehouse. If we could find places with decent rents, we could open in them within a few weeks."

At Video Americain, co-owner Michael Bradley says the Netflix era has indeed been rocky. "Television has gotten better, movies have gotten worse, it's been a tough time," Bradley said. Hollywood has has also piled on, he said, adopting a DVD-release model that dumps most of the big titles during the year-end shopping season. For video stores, which depend on new-releases and their attendant advertising to bring in customers, it was better when the studio spread the wealth across the calendar.

Happily, Bradley's Takoma Park store, along with the others he and his partners own in Baltimore and Delaware, enjoyed a small bump in business this year, which he credits to a crop of unusually good movies released late last year. "Michael Clayton," "Into the Wild" and "the Assassination of Jesse James" helped them eke out another few months. "We pretty much survive by not making money," he said.

That's a lousy business model, but a beautiful idea. These folks pay their bills, pay their workers and pay themselves something of a salary, but they have stayed open for 20 years mainly because they love what they sell.

I like having a brick-and-mortar experience as part of movie night. I love the serendipity that comes from browsing physical aisles lined with movies stocked by someone I can talk to. There's nothing better than going in without a clue and coming out with a delight like "Man of the Century" or something stunning from Bollywood ("Lagaan." Go rent "Lagaan" this weekend.)

Mostly, I love my neighborhood movie store for the endless reel of human interest now playing inside. Movie store staffers are their own adorable species, bred for the job by crossing art-students with 7-11 clerks. At my store, they are often very funny and always phenomenally knowledgeable, patiently handing out one disk after another of High School Musical but living to take on all comers over the relative of genius of David Lynch vs. Hayao Miyazaki.Washington is too expensive to support a huge population of these souls; we should support the one we have. "If you're an art student in Takoma Park, you're probably living with your parents," Bradley says.

With Netflix or streaming, you don't get the particular delight of eavesdropping on the movie-selection murmurs of couples, the fights and the compromises of families and slumber parties. And more than once have I seen the delightful moment when an upstanding citizen bumps into his neighbor just as he emerges from behind the Forbidden Curtain. (Actually, the adult section now lives in perfect, if shrouded, peace in our store. I remember a HUGE hullabaloo when a predecessor store introduced a line of naughty flicks back in the pre-Web days. But now that the average 10th-grader sees more skin in the course of researching the average term paper, nobody seems to worry much about the corrupting influence of rental movies.)

Me, I won't happily give up that remnant of social pageantry for just another frigid on-line transaction, devoid of human interaction and possibly channeling my credit card information straight to a hard drive in Lagos.

What do you think?

By Steve Hendrix |  August 3, 2008; 10:48 PM ET
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How are you on guns?

Posted by: Stick | August 4, 2008 10:22 AM

The Potomac Video in Burke is NOT part of the Potomac Video chain, I came to discover one time when I tried to use a PV coupon from the City Paper there. Apparently it's independent but kept the name. It's a great place, but I don't get there too often.

No, my "video store" is now Arlington's Central Library. It doesn't have many of the more obscure foreign titles that I love, but it has some of them. It also has enough of the mainstream releases to keep my wife and me content.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 4, 2008 10:45 AM

Netflix is great for someone who knows what they want, especially if what they want is esoteric. A local store cannot invest in a movie that might be rented out locally once or twice a year; whereas a national warehouse will have that movie rented out more frequently. So Netflix will always win on availability of an item. The downsides is that you have to plan your movie night days ahead and (like you said) you don't have that random find. I guess these can be overcome by finding some website that randomly generates dvd listings for you to view and by... planning ahead.

That leaves the only question (for me) here being about supporting a local independent store versus supporting a national chain. For the past couple years I've been phasing my life into supporting local stores. I buy my music at Melody Records in Dupont (yes, I buy CDs still! when iTunes carries the London Haydn Quartets Hyperion recording of Haydn's opus 9 set of six quartets at 256 or greater kbps then maybe I wouldn't have to but alas...) and buy my books at either Olsson's or Politics and Prose. I can usually find what I want at these stores, and if they don't have it I can ask them to order it. But I can't imagine finding what the kind of movie I would want to watch at a local rental store or even a brick and mortar national chain. And I don't think I can ask them to order it.

So unfortunately, for renting movie dvds, the local store isn't enough for me. I suppose if I wanted to buy something and they could order it I could try to check with them first?

Posted by: Terry | August 4, 2008 10:55 AM

Verizon FIOS and VOD. Who needs Netflix when you have Bollywood and a full spectrum of gay, straight and Jewish films.
Also various films in Spanish. The best part is read the descriptions of the adult films gay and straight. A new career for Marc. Where is Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to preven the corruption of our youth?

Havent been in a video store in 20 years or so.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 4, 2008 11:00 AM


Posted by: Anonymous | August 4, 2008 11:10 AM

Another nice thing about the brick-n-mortar stores: they won't cut you off if you use their service too much.

Try streaming a couple dozen hours of video to your PC using Comcast - you will find out what I mean. The basic home cable modem account has a limit to how much bandwidth you can use and they won't tell you what that limit is until they cut you off.

Posted by: SoMD | August 4, 2008 11:20 AM

Mr. Hendrix,
FYI, you are biting the hand that feeds you. Netflix is one of the major pop-up advertisers (I have to allow pop-ups on my office computer for several applications/programs) on In my opinion, that is enough reason to boycott them, but they make your blogging possible.

Posted by: movie fan | August 4, 2008 12:39 PM

I remember the good old days when the mom and pop rental stores had a room in the back behind saloon where they kept the adult videos. The only way these independent stores could stay in business was the adult titles. DVDs killed off the mom and pop shops because DVDs were cheap enough to buy so these shops lost their only niche.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 4, 2008 12:46 PM

This article was void of Splash and Sizzle.

Posted by: Critic | August 4, 2008 12:47 PM

Netfliz has:
1. much better selection than anywhere else.
2. Computerized selection where you can read a movie review and instantly add it to your queue
3. It's cheaper than renting movies, my family watches about 3 movies a week so I get 12 movies a month for $17.
4. It's better for the environment without all those independent cars driving and parking, it just comes with the mail you're already getting and leaves in a mailbox.
5. They have a download component that I've actually used to watch a licensed movie on my computer

Posted by: Anonymous | August 5, 2008 9:25 AM

Video Americain sure sums up think global, buy local, with a great selection of foreign films....but even those of us, um, walking distance to the place, have succumbed to the combination of Netflix with Americain supplements for those last minute video needs. It's kind of like filling up your prius with exxon gas, or wearing your sweat shop made clothes to a central american cultural event.

Posted by: waco on westmoreland | August 6, 2008 4:58 PM

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