Video Americain. Even the name sounds like a relic from a previous generation, like having a store called Polaroids R Us or the Atari Superstore. Of course, Video Americain rents DVDs now, too-have done so for almost 10 years. But while the whole world has gone digital, they still stock plenty of titles on good old-fashioned VHS (no, not Betamax).
"A lot of really good films aren't available yet on DVD," explains Scott Wallace Brown, 44, who manages the small chain's Cold Spring Lane location.
Yes, small chain. Here are a few things you probably didn't know about Video Americain. For starters, there are four locations-two in Baltimore, one in Takoma Park, and one in Newark, Delaware. Also-and this will surely be a blow to our collective civic identity-the store didn't originate in Baltimore. The first one was in Delaware.
It was founded in 1988 by Barry Solan, now 56, a slightly disheveled, hippie/intellectual type who wouldn't look out of place standing in front of a keyboard at a Grateful Dead concert. He had just closed a repertory art house theater in Delaware and was looking for his next movie-related venture. (Video Americain's co-owner, Michael Bradley, worked for the theater as a kid, sweeping up after late night showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)
The Cold Spring Lane location opened in 1989. "I thought it would be good for the community," explains Solan, then stops himself. "Wait. That sounds pious-like I'm running a soup kitchen. Just say I wanted it to be one of the five coolest things in Baltimore."
Has he succeeded?
Solan grins. "Well, maybe one of the 10."
The Charles Village shop, which caters mostly to Hopkins students and professors, opened in 1994. It has a porn room (that wouldn't fly in the more family-oriented Roland Park location), a larger gay/lesbian film section, and a slight den of iniquity feel (maybe it's because you have to step down into a basement to shop there). It does quite well. But even Solan calls the signature Cold Spring location his "baby."
That store, with its brick front, slanted roof, and slightly death-defying parking lot, has even been featured in two movies: The Accidental Tourist (it doubled as a pet store) and Serial Mom (it basically played itself). Solan is still slightly peeved that the store was never featured in an episode of Homicide or The Wire. "They could've had a dead guy clutching a receipt from Video Americain-and that would be his only identification."
Still, after almost 20 years in Baltimore, the store has definitely become a neighborhood fixture.
"But one should never confuse longevity for prosperity," sighs Solan.
It's a Wednesday night at the Cold Spring location and the customer flow is steady, if not overwhelming. After several lean years, business is slightly on the upswing. Partly this is attributable to the good films that have recently been released on DVD-No Country for Old Men, Atonement, There Will Be Blood ("Video Americain type movies," says Solan)-and partly it's due to Baltimore's latest obsession: watching The Wire on DVD.
While Solan-a movie purist-sees renting out those TV shows as a necessary evil that comes with today's market, his partner Bradley has no problem with the compromise.
"To me, shows like The Wire and Deadwood are more dense and more deeply satisfying than most films out there," says Bradley, 45.
Inside, the store is amiably cluttered, with old, peeling movie posters-for Smoke, The Player, and the store's name source (after Rick's Café Americain), Casablanca among others-and movie reference books with curled edges from repeated readings. (Another sign of the store's vintage: movie reference books in the age of imdb.com).
The customers reflect a pretty good cross section of Roland Park-an elderly couple happy to find Angelina Jolie's A Mighty Heart, a youngish dad renting a copy of Japanese animated art film Spirited Away, a couple of hipster twentysomethings renting Liquid Sky, a smartly dressed middle-aged woman returning season one of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The new TV in the corner-a trade deal with neighboring Soundscape Audio/Video-is playing that cinematic classic Thank God It's Friday. (Manager Brown says there's a "50 percent chance" that a customer will ask to rent the title playing on the store's screen-not surprisingly, no one bites tonight.) There are two employees working the store-Brown and young red-haired Daniel Martin-Minnich, who grew up in the neighborhood and is taking a year off before going to college. "It's kind of embarrassing when I run into my old Gilman professors shopping here," he says. "They're like, 'Why aren't you in college?'" (For the record, Martin-Minnich will be attending Point Park University in the Fall.)
Video Americain has always had a young, loyal staff with a high movie IQ. They're filmmakers, film lovers, artists, and students. Several have gone on to make film, write about film, or work for the Maryland Film Festival. They're encouraged to make recommendations, give frank opinions, and even debate film with the customers.
"It's best when one staffer loves a movie and another hates it," says Brown. "It's a Siskel and Ebert thing going on. Customers can weigh in with their own opinion. Let's see Netflix do that!"
Tonight's topic of debate is Noah Baumbach's downbeat Margot at the Wedding. Brown has been recommending it to customers for over a week. He eagerly awaits their feedback.
"I didn't like it," says one college-aged female customer, returning the DVD. "I hated all the characters."
"I didn't get through it," says an older woman. Then, seeing Brown's fallen face, she quickly adds, "But maybe I would've liked it more if I'd finished it?"
Margot at the Wedding will, undoubtedly, end up in the section called House Favorites, which also includes such titles as Mysterious Skin, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Babe. Regular customers know to check that section frequently. They also know how to negotiate the sometimes intimidating "Director's Room." There, you can find titles filed under everyone from Bertolucci to Antonioni to Howard Hawks. (At one point, there was an actor's section, too, but it all got too confusing. Would The Maltese Falcon be filed under director John Huston or actor Humphrey Bogart? The mind reels.)
"I'm very honored to have my own shelf," says John Waters, a longtime customer of both local Video Americain locations. (Pressed to pick a favorite, he says, "One of them has porn; the other one doesn't-I'm for the porn one.")
Waters wants to state for the record that he has nothing against Netflix. "They backed my last movie," he notes. "But Video Americain is sexier."
Netflix. The online rental service is the biggest threat to the survival of Video Americain and the few remaining independent video stores in the country.
Quite simply, Netflix is almost impossible to compete with: Its catalog of DVDs (no videos; they wouldn't fit into those nifty red envelopes) is gigantic; you don't need to leave your house (or office) to order (ideal, since the internet has turned us into a nation of cheerful sloths); you can keep the DVD as long as you like; and-this is the part that kills the Video Americain guys-there are no late fees.
But don't count Video Americain out. Because you see, before there was Netflix, there was the other big threat that was going to leave a trail of closed indie video stores and crushed hearts in its wake: Blockbuster.
It's true, the ubiquitous Blockbuster-with its gleaming shelves teeming with new releases-did close down many small chains and independent stores. But Video Americain survived. Why? For one thing, they didn't panic and open a tanning salon. (One of the strange anomalies of the post-Blockbuster age: Many small video stores opened up tanning salons in their back rooms.) They focused on what they did well. Mainstream stuff, sure, but with a real emphasis on art house films, foreign films, cult films, and classics.
Fast forward 10 years and that same theory applies to competing with Netflix: The key is, don't try to be Netflix. Try to be what Netflix isn't.
If anything, argues Jed Deitz, the director of the Maryland Film Festival and a longtime fan of Video Americain, it's Netflix-with its "browsing" option and computer-generated recommendations based on ordering history-that is trying to replicate what Video Americain does.
"I don't think anyone can match what Video Americain offers," says Deitz. "A very passionate staff, with a very broad knowledge of movies. You can build any kind of web algorithm you want. But no matter how clever it gets, it's not the same as the real deal."
Again and again, devotees of the store point to the same things-the friendliness, the real recommendations based on true human interaction, the browsing capability, the unparalleled staff knowledge.
"Imagine going into Blockbuster and asking them a question about Dogma 95!" laughs Waters.
But the reality is-it's an uphill battle.
"I don't have the numbers, but IVRs"-independent video retailers-"find themselves in a tough place," says Sean Bersell, spokesperson for the Entertainment Merchants Association. "Anecdotally, I hear that this one closed down and this one closed down. The way that these IVRs survive is they know their market and they meet their needs."
That has been the Video Americain mantra. But, even with the recent uptick, business is down roughly 12 percent in the last five years. Solan says if it weren't for several factors-"an extremely reasonable landlord," a staff that is willing to work for "much less than they are truly worth," and an "irrational exertion of love and energy" by both the staff and the loyal clientele-the Cold Spring store might have already closed.
"I'm a bad capitalist," says Solan. "Fortunately, I never had a desire to be wealthy."
Solan evokes a movie image when discussing the current state of the store: "We're like one of those spies in a movie where the walls and ceiling are closing in . . . Realistically, I'd say we have three to five years," he sighs.
Says Brown: "I think the idea is, we're just going to ride it out 'til it's done. Ride this old horse until it dies."
Would they ever consider some sort of fundraiser? Those Roland Park types love a good grassroots cause. Solan says that it would be inappropriate. Although he does feel that he runs a cultural arts institution of sorts, he quips: "We aren't officially a not for profit."
John Waters has his own ideas on the subject: "People ought to slip in checks. Donations through the [overnight] return slot."
Scott Wallace Brown likes to tell a story about one of his favorite movies, Two for the Road, a cracked love story with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as an unhappily married couple. This is a film he often recommends to customers, partly because not many people are familiar with it, and partly because he digs the wildly divergent emotions the film stirs up. "If you're invested in the film, you go from laughing, to tears, to anger," he says.
So this one day, the movie is playing on the store's in-house TV and a woman starts watching it. The store is pretty empty and she kind of stops browsing for movies and becomes drawn into the story. Now, both Brown and the woman are quiet, taken in by the power of the film.
"I looked at her and we both began crying at the exact same time," says Brown. "I didn't even know her. But we bonded over that."
Let's see Netflix do that.