Try renting “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” from online media superstore Netflix, and customers are in for an indefinite wait. But a Takoma Park Old Town video store has the 1964 French drama, and they take one an extra step to convcince customers to take it home, by labeling the obscure movie not as throwaway clearance but a “heart rending tale of a perfect young love in an imperfect world.”
In the Carroll Avenue store, where a shelf of thoughtful staff picks with detailed handwritten descriptions greets patrons at the door, there is a feeling the staff know their collection very well. That type of discovery, along with human interaction – “Which movie will I like more? Is this one too gory? Too boring?” – is a staple of Video Americain.
“And I think that’s something we’ll miss as time goes on and there’ll be this big hole in our collective existence. You can’t just live online,” said manager Lucé Tomlin-Brenner.
Tomlin-Brenner, who worked at two other video stores before Video Americain, said the store’s employees have a passion for film and, in the small town of Takoma Park, often learn about their customers through their rentals.
That kind of interaction, as well as an extensive collection of titles, puts the store, and the two other locations in Baltimore, in the upper echelons of video stores nationwide, owner Barry Solan said.
“Whenever I went in to Blockbuster and asked them about moves, you get a blank stare. And just down to their uniforms, there’s a feeling of not really caring about movies,” said employee John Davis.
However, the store, a fixture in Takoma Park Old Town since 1996, may not last much longer. Solan said that while business in the Takoma Park store is dropped but steady, it may not be too long before hard economic conditions and consumers’ preference for instant, cheap – or pirated – media cause his two Baltimore locations to shutter.
“And the funny thing about us is we replaced a beloved institution,” said Solan, who’s business stands in the same spot as former mom-and-pop operation Park Pharmacy, which closed in 1998 after 37 years in business.
“So even when that closed there was a lot of imaginations about the loss of the hometown feelings … and now we’re kind of in the same position,” he said, adding “forward- and backward thinking” landlord John Urciolo’s dedication to preserving Old Takoma’s homey main street has helped keep Video Americain afloat.
Meanwhile, stores without a hook of hometown charm are suffering too; bankrupt Borders bookstore will close all its stores in a matter of months, and Blockbuster now resorts to dead-cheap specials like $2 rentals and .49-cent Sundays to compete with Netflix, Redbox and free – albeit illegal – downloading.
“A lot people don’t like to pay for stuff anymore. Not only do they steal it, but they feel incredibly self righteous about it,” Davis said.
While Video Americain charges about $4.25 for a week-long movie rental, staff and customers said the store is a different animal, and still signs up about three new customers every day.
And sitting inside Video Americain – surrounded by retro blue carpet and slapdash category-markers made of empty videocassette boxes – the store’s diminishing shelf life seems a world away.
“We kind of treat every day like we have forever,” Tomlin-Brenner said.
Davis, who has worked at Video Americain on and off for about 10 years, said he thinks the films – restored classics, Criterion documentaries, Italian crime thrillers from the ‘70s and everything in between – contribute to the store’s timeless feel.
“That’s the great thing about movies. It’s the closest we get to a time machine,” said the library sciences graduate student and musician.
Video Americain has always set itself apart with history-minded organization: The main wall features movies by Great Directors, allowing customers to follow the progression of their favorite filmmakers’ work. And employees are still shaping the store, pruning out unpopular videocassettes, splitting the Cult section into micro genres even hyper-devoted followers would approve of, and updating their inventory with modern films.
“Even though you have people who only wanna come in to rent Barbie movies or the new Will Ferrell movie, they still know this is something we do, the cinephile stuff, and they like it,” Davis said.
Most movies are only rented once a year, if that, but Davis said arcane titles are starting to leave the shelves more often.
Caity Pittenger of Washington said she frequents Video Americain about three times a month and doesn’t use Netflix or Redbox.
“I like their selection, and when I want to watch a movie, it’s probably very specific so I know they’ll have it,” said Pittenger, 24, adding that the staff is always helpful.
“If I can only remember one thing about a movie, like one scene, they can help me out,” she said.
Although Netflix offers thousands of titles, many older movies were never released as DVDs. When “Tron: Legacy” came out in theaters last December, customers flocked to rent Video Americain’s copy of the original TRON on videocassette.
But if video stores do one day go out of business, online rental sites will likely become the authority on what titles are available to watch, Tomlin-Brenner said.
“It’s like a museum, where you can only see certain portraits that are in one place and you can’t see any of the rest. I think it’s a sad thing people have to realize they’re giving up,” she said.
Featured photo : LuceTomlin-Brenner, manager of Video Americain. Photo by Julie Wiatt