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North Bay’s last video stores hanging by a thread during pandemic

What to watch

David Bradbrook, owner of Gualala Video since 2003

Collection: Around 27,000 titles, both DVD and VHS

Favorite movies: “Hot Shots,” “True Romance” and “Freeway”

First streaming title he watched: “The Ranch” on Netflix

Contact: 707-884-1050 or gualalavideo@gmail.com

Joe Kaminsky, owner of Joe Video since 2005

Collection: Around 15,000 DVD titles

Favorite movies: “Moonstruck,” “Blazing Saddles” and “The Money Pit”

First streaming title he watched: “The Expanse” on Amazon Prime Video

Website: joevideoonline.com

Contact: 707-544-2158 or hello@joevideoonline.com

“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.

Survivors

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.

What to watch

David Bradbrook, owner of Gualala Video since 2003

Collection: Around 27,000 titles, both DVD and VHS

Favorite movies: “Hot Shots,” “True Romance” and “Freeway”

First streaming title he watched: “The Ranch” on Netflix

Contact: 707-884-1050 or gualalavideo@gmail.com

Joe Kaminsky, owner of Joe Video since 2005

Collection: Around 15,000 DVD titles

Favorite movies: “Moonstruck,” “Blazing Saddles” and “The Money Pit”

First streaming title he watched: “The Expanse” on Amazon Prime Video

Website: joevideoonline.com

Contact: 707-544-2158 or hello@joevideoonline.com

Then along came Blockbuster Video. Founded in Texas in 1985, the chain grew to 2,800 stores by 1992, before Viacom bought it for $8.4 billion in 1994. Hollywood Video started in Portland, Oregon, in 1988, expanding to more than 2,000 stores before being purchased by Movie Gallery for $1.2 billion in 2005. When Netflix started mailing DVDs in the late 1990s, founder Reed Hastings claimed it was because he was sick of video store late fees. Redbox vending machines started popping up in convenience and grocery stores in 2002. Now movie streaming, which Netflix began offering in 2007 and which is now flooded with titles through Disney+, Apple TV, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Criterion, surely has to be the final nail in the coffin for video stores.

Oceanside niche

Bradbrook at Gualala Video was never affected by Blockbuster, Hollywood Video or even Redbox because they never bothered to open shop in the town of just over 2,000 people. When he took over the store in 2003, “It was really good money,” he says.

In the summer, families would escape to nearby Sea Ranch for long vacations, and nearly every rental had a TV and VCR or DVD player. “Times when families were out here, it was big business because they weren’t used to having to talk to each other and they had nothing to watch,” Bradbrook says.

It was around the time when “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” came out on video. “It’s a little embarrassing, but I made a fortune on that movie,” Bradbrook remembers.

His store, in a former Chevron filling station, housed 17,000 titles then. Now it’s grown to more than 27,000, including both VHS tapes and DVDs.

As he’s talking, Bradbrook wanders around the two-room store, pulling titles off the shelves to check release dates or jog a memory. Someone returns “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” with a loud thud in the drop box. Later, a 20-something couple peer into the windows, obviously amazed as they take photos of the rare sighting they stumbled upon — a video store in the year 2020.

“Most of the people who walk in (before the pandemic), they’re just coming to see the museum,” Bradbrook says. “They’re not even trying to rent anything. That’s become a thing the past couple of years. I kept joking about charging admission.”

As a kid, Bradbrook started hanging out at the Gualala video store around age 12 and never left. He grew up next door at the Surf Motel, a seaside escape his grandmother bought in 1979, the year he was born (cue “Kramer v. Kramer,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Moonraker”).

The first movies his mom rented, along with a newfangled VCR, were “The Accused” and “Moonstruck.”

“Not exactly what a 10-year-old wants to watch,” he remembers. “But it was still exciting that a VCR came into the house.” Hanging from the store ceiling now is a “Casper” standee he put together while working at the store back in high school in 1995. He’s wearing a “Con Air” shirt that came with the DVD in the late ’90s.

When the pandemic hit, Bradbrook initially tried curbside rentals, but he couldn’t draw enough business to make it worthwhile. His landlord has been somewhat lenient, he says. Never bothering to apply for PPP loans or other supplemental assistance, Bradbrook has survived largely on unemployment for most of the pandemic. Former employee Dana Beer and a longtime customer mounted a GoFundMe campaign for Bradbrook. Hoping for $5,000, they’ve so far raised $2,810.

“The store has been so important to the community over the years, not just for the videos but also the atmosphere,” says Beer, who worked off and on at Gualala Video starting in 2003. “If you wanted something to do on a Friday night, that’s where you went, and you could spend hours there just socializing with friends and family, like ‘Cheers.’ ”

But what impacted business more than any pandemic or video chain store or movie vending machine was the spread of Internet connectivity in rural Mendocino and Sonoma counties in recent years. When Sea Ranch Connect Internet service, which now employs two former Gualala Video staffers, came online a few years back, “that took a big chunk out of the business,” Bradbrook says. Now, many Sea Ranch vacation houses no longer have DVD players, but nearly all have WiFi and streaming capability.

“I give (my former employees) a hard time. But I’m actually proud of them,” he says. “It’s just something to razz them about. Like, can’t you just knock it off for a day and throw me a bone?”

Joe Video

Kaminsky, in Santa Rosa, initially laid off his three part-time employees when the pandemic hit in mid-March. In April, he could only pay a fraction of his rent. But since May, Joe Video has been up and running, bringing back employees, installing plexiglass at the counters and paying full rent. He qualified for a $12,000 PPP loan that he spent on rent and payroll and took out a $30,000 loan on top of that.

Walking around the store giving a tour of the “Staff Picks” and “Requests” sections, Kaminsky wears a T-shirt that reads, “Energy Flows Where Attention Goes.” It could be his mantra, something he translates into, “If you don’t invest yourself in something, you can’t expect a return.”

As Kaminsky talks, a regular customer sets his weekly stack of video rentals on the counter beneath the plexiglass. “Video stores weren’t surviving before the pandemic, but I’m really happy Joe is surviving,” says Mike Magne, a veterinarian who lives with his wife “in the boondocks outside of Forestville” where he doesn’t have Internet for streaming movies.

He often asks Kaminsky for recommendations. “It’s an experiential, conversational process,” Magne says. “I love it when I come up with a movie that he’s never heard of.”

Not long ago, he discovered “The Handmaid’s Tale” (the 1990 film adapted by Harold Pinter, not the Hulu series), a title he’d never heard of before seeing it on a shelf at Joe Video.

“I’m not against the Internet, but it’s not a human experience,” he says. “This is a human experience.”

Kaminsky estimates his average customer is over 50, often retired. They like the UK Film Festival and British International TV sections and the deal offering three to five older movies for $10.

Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kaminsky started working in grocery stores, not long before his boss put him in charge of the liquor department before he was 18. After working at K-Mart in Santa Rosa, he migrated to locally owned Eastman Video (which later sold out to Hollywood Video) in the late ’80s, back when the studios would “roll out the red carpet” at national video store conventions he regularly attended in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Later, when he was a buyer for Bradley Video, Disney studio reps would drop in to talk shop and take him out to lunch and dinner at fancy French and Italian restaurants.

In 2005, he bought and rebranded All Star Video. He added a second location in Bennett Valley before consolidating to one Joe Video store in 2014. Over the past 15 years, around 15,000 customers have signed up for rentals, he estimates, but less than 5% are regulars. And many elderly regulars haven’t returned since COVID-19 struck in mid-March.

The store does pay for itself — the rent, the bills, groceries and Kaminsky’s monthly car payment. But, he admits, “It hasn’t been as successful as I hoped. This business doesn’t really provide me with a legitimate, gainful living.” Fortunately, his husband, a nurse, is the breadwinner in the family. What keeps Kaminsky going is a low month-to-month rent (typically around 13% of monthly revenue) and a strong independent spirit. “There are lots of things I could do that would be more lucrative, but do I want to work for someone else? I’m not sure I can work for somebody else anymore.”

But he will have to find a new location soon. A cannabis store recently signed a lease to move into his current space in the next 12 to 18 months. The new owners have already dropped by to take measurements. He doesn’t know where he’ll move to but knows he’s unlikely to find a similar rent deal.

When newcomers walk in the door and say things like, “Wow, how are you still in business?” he is wary of “the psychological sinkhole you can fall into, if you let it. It can really start to affect your decision making, asking yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

But for now, even though he’s skating on “razor-thin profitability,” he’s not ready to hang it up.

Then there was one

Up in Gualala, after seven months of back and forth, Bradbrook has finally decided he won’t reopen. He’ll be talking to his landlord soon. It weighs on him. The store has been such a large part of his identity over the years that it’s hard to imagine not owning it anymore. Even now, walking through the grocery store, he still hears kids tell their parents, ‘Hey look, it’s the video guy!’”

His only goal is to save the collection he’s spent his entire life building. But how? He loathes the subscription-based model that Video Wave of Noe Valley (and every streaming service) employs. He has no idea where to start exploring the nonprofit options that saved Scarecrow Video in Seattle or Movie Madness in Portland. His dream has always been to turn Gualala Video into a privately funded library. “But I have no idea how to make that happen. It’s really just a pie-in-the-sky thing.

“Basically, at this point, I’ve decided to hang on to the collection and be the crazy person who puts it all in my house,” he says. “I’m already a hoarder. There’s a fine line between hoarder and curator, and I think I’m going to cross over to the hoarder side big time here.”

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