North Bay’s last video stores hanging by a thread during pandemic
“The studios don’t even send posters anymore,” David Bradbrook says. “We’re totally off their radar.”
He’s leaning back in an office chair in the Gualala Video store he’s owned since 2003. In the window behind him is a sun-bleached poster of the 2019 “Lion King” remake. The owners of the nearby Arena Theater gave it to him after the movie’s local run. A “Pirates of the Caribbean” skateboard, now a relic, sits on a shelf nearby, under a cutout advertising the 1995 movie “Braveheart.”
In Santa Rosa, 65 miles away, Joe Kaminsky says the last poster that arrived with a new DVD release at his store, Joe Video, was for the 2018 movie “Love, Simon.” Long before that, studios stopped sending “standees,” the life-sized cutouts and assorted 3-D promo material that turned video stores into eye-popping curiosity shops. The last standee to arrive at Joe Video was for Pixar’s “Inside Out” in 2015.
Bradbrook and Kaminsky remember a time, around the 2008 recession, when they added to their troves by regularly scouring the shelves at big chain stores for multiple copies of movies, which chains like Walmart were then selling for less than wholesale distributors were.
“That’s how I would meet a lot of the other video store owners,” Kaminsky says. “We would all be on the prowl at Walmart and Best Buy on Tuesday mornings. Walmart opened at 6 a.m., so that’s where everybody started.”
Now, during the pandemic and with the ubiquity of streaming services, they’re beginning to wonder if many of the new titles will ever come out on DVD.
Welcome to the last two brick-and-mortar video stores along the North Coast: Gualala Video, perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean just across the Mendocino/Sonoma county line, and Joe Video, sandwiched between a liquor store and a KFC in a Stony Point Road shopping center. Before the pandemic, they were barely scraping by. Now, nearly eight months into social distancing, they’re hanging by a thread.
If this were a story about the history of video stores, the tale of Joe Video and Gualala Video might be the epilogue, “The Last Survivors.” In recent years, other local video stores have shuttered in rapid succession. After 34 years, Video Droid closed in Santa Rosa in 2018, selling off its 30,000 titles. Last year, Silver Screen Video shut its doors in Petaluma after 31 years. The Silver Screen chain once owned eight stores, stretching from Oakland to El Cerrito to San Anselmo.
Berkeley lost its last video store when Five Star Video shut down in 2018. Now there are only a handful of video stores left in the Bay Area.
Even so, the collections live on in some cases. After Le Video called it quits in San Francisco in 2015, its massive 100,000-title collection went to an Alamo Drafthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Not long after, Lost Weekend Video’s 27,000-title collection was bought and rebranded as Video Vortex, now housed in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco. Video Factory in Alameda is still open, along with the hybrid Faye’s Video and Espresso Bar in San Francisco, which relies on coffee to subsidize its roughly 10,000-title collection.
Old-school video stores are still able to connect with audiences looking for films unavailable on streaming platforms, the nostalgia of a lost medium (like vinyl records) and recommendations from a familiar face behind a counter instead of an algorithm. Some have been rescued by nonprofit reincarnations.
Scarecrow Video in Seattle became a “nonprofit archive” boasting 130,000 titles. And after a nearly $30,000 crowdfunding campaign several years ago, Video Wave of Noe Valley created a subscription-based rental system that charges from $6 to $20 a month.
“We don’t view other video stores as competition anymore, we see them as fellow survivors,” says Video Wave owner Colin Hutton.
Friday night mecca
Flash back to the ’80s and ’90s, when the video store was a major cultural mecca. It was the place to go on a Friday night for new releases or to hear someone recite “Clerks” word for word as it played on a dusty screen behind the counter. It’s where you went to peruse the “Directed by David Lynch” or “Directed by Agnes Varda” sections (or better yet, the “Directed by Alan Smithee” section at Video Droid). At Gualala Video, Bradbrook has taken it a step further, curating niche sections titled “Movies That Wish They Were the Notebook” or “Tweakers and Junkies” (such as “Requiem for a Dream”) and “Scary Pronouns” (“It,” “Them,” “They,” “Us”).
In the 2019 documentary “At the Video Store,” cinephiles John Waters, Bill Hader, Gus Van Sant and store owners around the country wax nostalgic about this heyday, when the stores doubled as minimum-wage-funded film schools for budding directors. Quentin Tarantino became a legend at Video Archives long before he made “Reservoir Dogs.” Kevin Smith worked behind the counter at RST Video in Leonardo, New Jersey, before making the store famous in “Clerks.” Directors Alex Ross Perry (“Her Smell,” “Queen of Earth”) worked at Kim’s Video in Manhattan and Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies,” “LOL”) worked at a Hollywood Video in Naperville, Illinois.