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The video store’s last stand

Amid the dominance of Netflix, the convenience of on demand, and the dreariness of this economy, a local independent shop hangs tough. Why does it matter? A Globe film critic -- himself a former video-store clerk -- explains.

By Wesley Morris
August 16, 2009

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The Video Underground, on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, has a name that sounds as if the store has been prepared for a moment of apocalypse since it opened. Although the shop sits at pavement level between a takeout Chinese joint and a bike shop, the moniker evokes an image more like a fallout shelter in a retail disaster zone. It’s a name of resistance and revolution -- here’s a capitalist venture, impossibly enough, kept thriving by proles -- and suggests a last stand, a place where the very notion of the video store has to go to evade complete obsolescence: a bunker whose contents are samizdat.

The store’s owner, Evonne Hyla Wetzner, says she chose the name because it seemed radical. Now it just seems prescient.

Brick-and-mortar video stores continue to vanish -- in Greater Boston and all over the country. In the last few years, Videosmith has closed all but its Lexington location. Fred’s Video on Charles Street in Beacon Hill is no more. Neither are the shabby West Coast Video in Davis Square and the original Mike’s Movies in the South End. Blockbuster, for so long the rental juggernaut (its name was its mission), has nearly a thousand fewer stores in the United States than it did five years ago, as it refocuses its mission to compete with The Biggest Revolution in Home Video, also known as Netflix.

As millions of renters and countless mail carriers know, Netflix mails titles directly to you. Ostensibly, this obviates the need for a physical place to procure a movie. You sit at your laptop and type in a title. A day or two later, it’s in your DVD or Blu-ray player -- or sitting unwrapped on the floor. Unwatched. For months. (Netflix doesn’t charge a late fee; just a monthly subscription.) In any case, the correlation between the birth of Netflix in 1997 and the decline of the video store is inarguable. Amazon and a number of smaller outfits have climbed aboard the video-by-post bandwagon. But Netflix has cornered the mindshare for home video rental. My mother, a suburban Philadelphian, now liberally uses the company’s appropriated term “queue.”

The video store’s other obvious enemy is video on demand, which allows cable subscribers to watch whatever they want whenever they want it. Netflix has also gotten in on the online streaming act, making scores of titles available to watch courtesy of your computer. As a home-entertainment philosophy, video on demand (either through the mail or the Internet) is ingenious. The stress of having no time to stop by a video store or the reality that you live nowhere near one is instantly solved. But video on demand is something of a conceptual oxymoron, since most people who demand video often don’t know what they want. For the indecisive renter, the video store has been an ideal waiting room.

The Video Underground is that room -- if you can find it. It’s a place you discover almost by accident. For years I walked by without knowing it was there. Compared with the average Blockbuster or either of the Cambridge-area Hollywood Express locations -- both of which are, at least in part, actually underground -- Wetzner’s store is modest. She opened it seven years ago in an even smaller spot two doors down. What space it has is maximized for both DVDs and VHS cassettes (she says her peers thought she was crazy for stocking both formats alongside each other). The store’s size is meant to invite rather than intimidate. There are hundreds of titles, but you don’t notice the number. What you notice is that the films feel more curated than categorized. Someone there loves not only movies but the universe that contains them. One set of shelves collects the work of unheralded local directors. Another is devoted to junkies and drunks. And her directors section includes more women than any I can remember.

But there’s something more to this store, and others like it, than just the catalog. And as market forces surround The Video Underground, it’s the reason to cheer on the resistance. What a city loses when video stores disappear (yes, even an antiseptic old Blockbuster) is not just a place to find a new release. When a video store dies, it takes a piece of the community with it. (Without them, how on earth would characters in movies like Yes Man run into each other?) That’s one fewer place to wander from case to case near a stranger or your neighbor, to spend an evening grazing for something to watch instead of watching the movie itself. That’s one fewer link to ourselves.

* * *

Wetzner seems to get that. What’s immediately apparent when you browse the shelves of her store, watching folks from the neighborhood trickle in, taking their time to choose a couple of titles, is how the store thrives on a sense of community.

Wetzner is in her mid-30s, and the first thing you notice is her enthusiasm. You expect a disaffected hipster. You get a woman who’s far more approachable. She’s been on a maternity leave but agreed to meet me at the store. Wetzner says she started her business because no one else had. She graduated from Barnard College in 1995 with no intention of going into the video business. She worked in case management at a homeless shelter in Waltham, then learned graphic design at a small firm in the Fort Port Channel area. She kept noticing that video stores in Jamaica Plain, where she has lived since 1996, left something to be desired when it came to independent, foreign-language, and generally obscure movies. She didn’t want to build a store around the rental of new releases.

For stores, pre-Netflix, in the late-fee era, new releases were where a lot of the business was. Wetzner rents them, but unlike many video houses, where a new-release section is the most appealingly displayed wall in the store, her section doesn’t seem meant to resemble a fortress. I worked at a Hollywood Express in the late 1990s, and the clerks were encouraged to keep the new-release shelves as seductively organized as possible.

Wetzner tells me her more established peers didn’t take her little outfit seriously. They were skeptical she could run a video store that wasn’t focused on new releases, she says. “ ‘What a cute, naive idea to open where independent film is a selling point.’ But my thinking was there were so many Blockbusters around Boston at that point. . . . I wanted to fill a niche that was absent in Boston.” Wetzner actually imagined her store as a kind of cousin of the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archive, both in Cambridge, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, movie houses that fill a yawning repertory and independent void.

The Video Underground is still standing, in spite of the skepticism of the men who have mocked Wetzner (and they were mostly men). The recession hasn’t killed her. Neither has cable or Netflix. She says her business remains healthy, despite the economy, and points out that many people have accounts at both her store and Netflix. (I’m one of those people, because you never know what your video needs are until you really need a video.) One reason The Video Underground continues to thrive is that Wetzner has made her store a part of the community. She donates the lot behind the building to groups to have modest free or pay-what-you-can events (for the assorted not-for-profit outfit or comedy night). The lot is also where The Video Underground has outdoor screenings, sometimes with beer and sometimes with barbecue. There’s an adjacent indoor screening room where the store’s employees show movies to the public.

Wetzner attends national conferences for video-store owners (yes, these people get together and strategize about how to save themselves). And she’s noticed that in the last few years the owners of stores that tried to replicate that Blockbuster feeling were suddenly, desperately looking to Wetzner and people who ran stores similar to hers in Asheville, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, for advice. “They started listening to us,” she says, “because we’re standing strong and we’re independent” -- and, she adds with a laugh, “we have a MySpace page.”

The store also has a personality, which is increasingly important in a world where the customization of tastes seems to be growing. It’s a little like a living-preferences section on a social networking site. Her store isn’t a giant chain. The men and women who work there fit the store’s scheme. That model truly works in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood that’s largely managed to resist the homogenizing effects of corporatization. Renting from Wetzner is kind of like joining a localist consumer movement.

She and her local peers, including George Lewis, who owns Hollywood Express, and Bill Duggan, who started Videoport in Portland, Maine, share ideas about what works and what doesn’t (late fees definitely don’t; Wetzner has relaxed hers). The Future also comes up at these national conferences. But in many ways the video store is like the library. How much can or should it change? The answer may not be clear, but even in the store’s supposed flaws, there are benefits.

* * *

I grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood where the nearest video store that would rent to a minor was Blockbuster. It was decent if thoroughly uninviting. It wasn’t until I went downtown that I discovered what a video store could really be. I found a place called TLA Video. There were three locations (one near my school), and they were more than a storage space for boxes. It was a film class. Blockbuster organized its titles according to the usual genres. At TLA, John Waters was a category. At 14, this was a big deal. TLA wouldn’t let me rent (they wanted a credit card or giant cash deposit), but I went anyway at least once a week to pester the clerks, admire the arrangements, and write down titles. I rented at Blockbuster, but I dreamt of TLA.

After college, I worked at the Hollywood Express location in Porter Square. Later, after I moved to New York, I took interview phone calls for my current job at the Globe during lunch breaks at Kim’s Video on the Upper West Side. (It closed last year.) Oddly, the fact that I clerked at a video store because I couldn’t find suitable work as a film critic never came up. I loved my years as a clerk. It was an education, both in film and in people. There are moments, particularly when I’m in Wetzner’s store or Lewis’s Central Square location, where I pine the littlest bit to be behind the counter one more time. And yet I imagine that for many a renter, the advent of Netflix and its ilk is a huge relief.

To some extent, what you lose in foraging space, you regain in self-confidence. For most of its existence, the design of the video store has helped foster an adversarial relationship between clerk and customer, whether you’re in a Blockbuster or at Wetzner’s amiably staffed shop. Take the checkout counter. In 99 percent of all stores I’ve been in, there’s a partition -- a heavy, absurd one -- between you and the person handling the transaction. At most of these stores the counter is elevated, so the clerks, no matter their height, stand above you. By rights, they should be your genial gateway to an evening of home entertainment. But this counter creates a dynamic that has empowered clerks and encouraged, at times, their surliness, snobbery, and insolence.

The typical supermarket clerk scans your groceries at eye level. Most post office attendants don’t take your mail from a platform. The only establishment that can leave you feeling worse about yourself than a video store, based solely on the tenor of the transaction, is the RMV. It’s not the job that snotty video-store clerks hate; it’s your taste.

Needless to say, this is the appeal of Netflix. Its user interface will never judge, challenge, or mock. Netflix exists to flatter and cajole you. There is no counter. You are Netflix. And not only is Netflix you, Netflix is yours: your account, your queue, your rental history. It’s an illusion of ownership that’s decidedly impossible at a physical store, where more often than not, the employees rule the roost and often want you to know it. If this sounds far-fetched, ask yourself how often you’ve stood at the “Employee Picks” shelf and thought, “Will they like me if I rent this?” In some neighborhoods, that dynamic upended class and caste power structures. Doctors, lawyers, police officers, executives, politicians, journalists, teachers: For one anxious transaction, they all had to look up to the geek-hipster-bully waiting to check them out.

But there’s a beauty in this relationship. In both my video-store incarnations, I became a kind of personal critic for certain regular renters who really did want to know what they should be watching, who were truly curious about every kind of movie. That education is mutual. My fondness for the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos is the direct result of a customer’s demand that I rewatch Ulysses’ Gaze. For all the humiliating experiences that went on at those counters, there were far more that ended in smiles, handshakes, hugs (awkward to pull off from that height, but I’ve done it), and, on at least two occasions, dates. That’s something else that dies with the video store: the exchange of tastes and ideas. Wetzner says she feels a cultural, almost moral imperative to continue it. Her store is ours.

Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail him at wmorris@globe.com.

Making the scene For Caitlin Roy, left, James O'Brien, and other customers, The Video Underground isn't just a place to rent; it's a vibrant, essential part of the neighborhood. (Webb Chappell) Making the scene
For Caitlin Roy, left, James O'Brien, and other customers, The Video Underground isn't just a place to rent; it's a vibrant, essential part of the neighborhood.
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