Video Droid closing Santa Rosa video store amid lower revenue after October wildfires

The October wildfires turned out to be the final blow for Video Droid, which fought off chain stores and Internet streaming services to entertain film buffs over 34 years.|

As the worst wildfire in California history prepared to unleash its fury across Sonoma County on Oct. 8, the Video Droid had its happiest night in years. In the parking lot of the Santa Rosa video store, about 100 people gathered with hot dogs and popcorn for its first short film festival, “My Life: In 90 Seconds or Less.”

“It was such a fun night and everyone loved it. It was the biggest irony,” said Mark Lowe, Video Droid owner and co-founder. “The next morning, coming to work, it was like a bomb had gone off.”

The fires turned out to be the final blow for the Mendocino Avenue business, which fought off chain stores and internet-streaming services to entertain film buffs over 34 years.

Revenues have dropped ?35 percent since the October wildfires, Lowe said. As a result, Video Droid will close its doors on Aug. 26, leaving Sonoma County with only two video stores - Joe Video in Santa Rosa and Silver Screen Video in Petaluma.

Video Droid managed to stay competitive over the years - against national video store chain Blockbuster and later, streaming services like Netflix - by appealing to movie lovers with its collection of 30,000 titles, including an extensive catalogue of foreign, cult classics and hard-to-find titles.

About 90 percent of Video Droid’s titles will be sold for $3.98 to $5.98 each until its final day. Lowe said there are about 2,000 titles in the store that, once sold, will be gone forever.

“I’m more sad about this collection being dispersed than not working here,” said Cassie Miggins, a sales clerk at Video Droid for the last four years.

Pictures of classic Hollywood stars like Vivien Leigh and Orson Welles adorn the walls. On the wall by the cash register, the staff pins handwritten notes from customers wedged in returned DVD cases, usually documenting feelings on whatever movie they watched. There’s also a tally of how many times one store manager gets told he looked like Adam Sandler. (Apparently, all the time.)

And similar to bookstores, there’s a few shelves of staff recommendations.

The character of the store is just one aspect that appeals to regulars. They also enjoy talking to staff, physically picking up a DVD in their hands, bonus content, interesting “sleeper” finds and supporting a local business.

Jesse Hilsenrad of Santa Rosa has been a Video Droid customer for 25 years. He first started watching Criterion Collection films - a brand that showcases important classic and contemporary films - when he came across them in the store.

“When you walk in there, you can’t help but feel nostalgic,” Hilsenrad said. “It’s sad to see a local business go.”

David Vicini visits the store at least once a month and bought a stack of movies on Thursday.

“They’ve got a great stock here, and there’s the people aspect to it. Here, if I want to ask a question, I can ask a question,” he said. “I see movies that I’ve never even heard of.”

Video Droid donated its VHS collection to a church six years ago, but transferred some out-of-print titles to DVDs it still has today, Lowe said. Those may be lost after the collection is sold off, along with many in the Troma category, which he describes as low-budget, horrible movies.

“But people love ’em,” he said.

Customers stumble upon very specific movie categories when they walk up and down the rows of DVDs. There’s a shelf of movies filmed in Sonoma County, which are also displayed on the side of the building in a mural. There’s a shelf of movies by former “Saturday Night Live” cast members. A shelf of Ronald Reagan movies. A shelf of Peanuts movies.

Within the documentary section alone, there are about 20 subgenres - the Vietnam War, the Alamo, biography, animals, sports, science, 9/11 and more. The foreign film section includes Bollywood movies, German, Italian, Spanish, Eastern Europe, Northern Europe and about 500 French titles. There’s also a foreign television section, with an enormous row of British TV series.

“We get almost every BBC production that comes out. People love the British section,” Lowe said.

Mark Lowe founded Video Droid in 1984 with his brother, Mitchell, who later became a Netflix co-founder and president of Redbox.

The brothers, only about a year apart, were latchkey kids and movie fanatics who grew up on a horse ranch in Nebraska. Their original idea in the early ’80s was to have a vending machine for VHS rentals, but they were ahead of their time. There was no credit card processing for machines yet and no proper way to restock.

When they opened the first Video Droid in Mill Valley, it was to learn about the video store business to better enhance their video vending machine idea. The store took off, and the machine concept became the groundwork for Redbox 20 years later.

At its peak, there were ?100 employees and 14 Video Droid locations from San Francisco to Santa Rosa.

Early on, they decided not to compete with new releases. Blockbuster would have maybe 50 copies of a new movie, while Video Droid may have eight. So they focused on building their collection of rare titles stores like Blockbuster weren’t interesting in stocking.

Ultimately, Video Droid outlived the former video store chain in the North Bay by about six years. This week, the operator of two Blockbuster outlets in Alaska announced they would close, leaving just one location in Bend, Oregon.

Mitchell Lowe is now the CEO of MoviePass, a service that charges a monthly subscription for its members to watch as many movies as they’d like at movie theaters.

Video Droid clerk Miggins said that as much as she enjoys video stores, she doesn’t think they’ll make a comeback the way vinyl records have.

“I feel like the internet has to crumble in order for video stores to survive,” said Miggins, whose parents owned a video store in Maui in the ’90s.

“The social aspect of watching a movie is being destroyed at this point. Now you just sit alone and scroll on your computer and pick a movie and watch it.”

While the decision to close Video Droid was mostly because of lower revenue after the fires, Lowe has also been fighting cancer, and the building’s rent was raised. He’s worked at Video Droid for more than half his life, and he hasn’t taken a vacation in 10 years.

But he said he’ll miss the video store. An early poster of “Danny Droid” hangs by his desk in the back of the store. Danny Droid was a touch screen where customers could watch a preview of movies, from a laser disc inside, built by the Lowe brothers in the ’80s. “Video Droid. Your 365 day a year film festival,” the poster reads.

Lowe said there’s a twist of sadness that the first short film festival Video Droid hosted - with a Creative Sonoma grant - on the fateful night of Oct. 8 won’t happen again.

He plans to have a goodbye party before the store closes.

“The rapport with my regular customers is like family. I’m really going to miss the Droid family,” Lowe said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or On Twitter @susanmini.

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