Netflix is giving a very hard time to San Francisco video stores. But the ones remaining have unveiled special powers to resist the competition of online services by being truly involved in their neighborhood.
“Citrus Club… next is Decades of Fashion, then you walk by that little yellow house with the psychic reading sign on the door, and then you hit Ploy 2. Keep going, and you’ll get to Booksmith. Oh wait, no. First there’s that burlesque sock store…”
You can’t go back to a neighborhood you used to live in without playing that mental game of guessing what store comes next on the block. You can’t help it; it’s a natural reaction for anyone who’s truly been in love with a neighborhood. You’re not exactly sure whether it is some kind of romantic nostalgia from reminiscent memories, or the true excitement of coming back and remembering the good old times. Somehow, you just need to make sure – just because you moved doesn’t mean you don’t belong there anymore, right? At least that’s what was going on in my mind, as I was wandering down Haight Street, barely a block away from my very first place in San Francisco. I was walking by all the famous neighborhood landmarks, giving myself little geographical challenges to make sure I could still legitimately call myself a proud Haight girl. “So what’s after Buffalo Exchange? Mmmh let me think. Oh yes, of course! Club Deluxe, Haight Ashbury Vintage, then you cross Ashbury Street, you walk by Pork Store Café – oh my God their brunch! – Puff Puff Pass, Into Video and then… “ Wait a minute!
INTO VIDEO – closed
- Neighborhood: Haight Ashbury
- Superpower: hilarious T-shirts
- Kick-ass section: Indie&Foreign movies
Something about Into Video’s window catches my eye immediately. I awkwardly stop in the middle of the sidewalk for a second, and turn back… only to find out the collection of witty T-shirts hanging in the dusty window was all gone. I look closer. Actually, the whole store is empty: not a single bookshelf, DVD or flyer left. Into Video, Upper Haight’s very own video store, seems to be no more. What a shock! A good video store nearby might not be everyone’s priority when looking for a new place. But seeing yours going out of business after 20 years of loyal service and knowledgeable recommendations is different. Into Video bowing out of Upper Haight’s community scene definitely leaves a void – and don’t get me started on the Red Vic.
Its narrow door was always open for neighbors to stop by, especially on cold foggy summer winter nights. Before actually getting to the counter, you would first have to step over a whole bunch of outdated concert flyers and old community gazettes lying on the grey-carpeted entrance floor, pass the cluttered VHS bookshelves on your left, the dog-eared Neville Brothers poster on your right and only then would you finally see it – the giant Twizzler jar. It would sit on the counter, always full, but I’ve never seen anyone actually eating any of the Twizzlers. There is Blade Runner playing on a tiny TV set and a few film nerds watching the screen with Mike, the owner, before heading back home. The place wasn’t exactly what you would call charming. The alleys were cramped and sort of from another time – but isn’t that exactly what you’re looking for when you go to a video store? Into Video was the messy, generous, congenial archetype of a video store, and this is what I loved about it. The best section was in the most confined part of the store. I could spend hours in that back corner, head bent to the left, looking for the perfect movie to watch. If you tried to squat and look for an Orson Welles on the bottom shelve, you were very likely to bump your butt into a few Cohen Brothers’, or hit the Roman Polanski row with your elbow. And there is only one thing I’ll say about Mike; he is serious about getting you the right Halloween movie. The Hills Have Eyes, Shining, Ju-On, 28 Days Later… The last movie I rented from them was Quills, a weird fiction about famous sadistic French writer Le Marquis de Sade, starring Kate Winslet. As I stand there, thinking about masochistic Kate Winslet in front of the sad and silent Into Video, I suddenly wonder: “Is this the end of San Francisco video stores?”
- Neighborhood: Cole Valley
- Superpower: phone repairs
- Kick-ass section: new releases
I rush over to Video Nook, which is just about 10 minutes away from where I am. I walk in and find the owner standing behind a counter buried under piles of Reeses, m&m’s and jellybeans. When I ask him about former Into Video, he almost seems bored already. “Oh, yes… video stores are closing all over town.” Not surprisingly, Netflix is simply killing neighborhood video stores. When I look around, I see mostly new releases, romantic comedies and TV series. The store is pretty modern, with pink and blue neon lights in the windows
I notice a sign on the wall saying “We fix phones”, and mumble something about it not totally fitting in with the huge movie posters. “Well that’s how I make money” the owner answers. Obviously, he doesn’t really want to keep talking about it so I leave. I’m starting to understand that in order for San Francisco video stores to face online competition, they need to be creative and offer some sort added value. Video Nook fixes cell phones; who knows what eccentric ideas other video store owners might have come up with to convince San Francisco film lovers to support them? I decided to go on a mission the next day, and go see for myself.
Fayes Video and Espresso Bar
- Neighborhood: Dolores
- Superpower: serves coffee
- Kick-ass section: Classical Movies
- Molly’s pick: Anne Of Green Gables
Even those who haven’t actually been inside Fayes Video at least know about the friendly little red wooden bench flanking its front window on 18th street. The locals praise it for being the best people watching spot in the whole neighborhood. Fayes is a breezy, cozy little place, with retro radios randomly displayed all along the aisles and a homey coffee scent. I’m right in front of the Classical movies section and I vaguely see Charlie Chaplin smiling at me from the top shelf.
The owners were out of town that day, but I met freshly hired Molly, who blithely shared all the stories she knew about the store – and started off by confessing she got hired while picking up a movie on a Sunday morning, still in her PJs. Somewhere on the left, I catch sight of an impish, sassy little Shirley Temple winking at me. The Little Princess.
Fayes is named after the owner of what was originally a dry cleaning store. It was then converted into a grocery store, but Bi-Rite’s insane popularity became hard to keep up with, so the two current owners – an artist and horse rider – took over the lease 10 years ago and turned it into a video store. Molly stops and points out at paintings hanging over the counter, right next to a framed picture of a horse race. I see The Little Rascals withAlfalfa’s mischievous funny face from the Family aisle.
As I swallow the last sip of my coffee, Molly tells me Fayes has yet another facet I should know about. To my surprise, she tells me the store is some sort of neighborhood passive matchmaker. The little dollhouse-looking chest of drawers where loyal customers leave their fidelity card, actually also serves as a community mail box in which some people leave little notes for others to read. Sometimes Molly even said a young man once left an “I have a crush on you” note to a girl he kept bumping into at Fayes.
Lost WEEKEND Videos
- Neighborhood: Mission
- Superpower: Movie nights and workshops
- Kick-ass section: Music documentaries
- Jeremy’s pick: Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle-Dazzle! The Special Years
My next stop was Lost WeekEnd videos. The place wasn’t exactly crowded, but the staff was pretty busy giving some acute recommendations to after hour’s movie enthusiasts and jolly Valencia midnighters, which gave me the time to take a closer look their the amazing vintage coin operated games machines. Once the store finally got a bit quieter, Jeremy took me on a little tour of his kingdom. We head toward the back of the store, through the Directors wall. Tim Burton, Hitchcock, Coppola. Jeremy tells me I’m not the first one inquiring about the healthiness of video stores. Fritz Lang, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick... Almost every week, middle school students pay a kind visit to the Lost Week-End staff – “teachers love the Internet vs. Video Store story”, Jeremy goes as we walk along the Foreign collection. Takeshi Kitano, Almodovar, Cocteau. Great, now I feel like a middle school kid. We’re now reaching the documentary section and Jeremy suddenly sits on his knees. I do the same, and realize we’re in the music documentary section. The founders and owners of Lost Week-End were musicians back in the day, which explains the incredibly rich music section. I’m lost somewhere between Elvis: The Lost Performances, The Beatles Anthology and The Rolling Stones Rock n Roll Circus when Jeremy draws my attention to a documentary on Andy Warhol and my heart literally melts – the birth of Pop Art in America! Jeremy suddenly stands up and leads me to the front of the store, “where the action is.” The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the store first opened, the owners started featuring their personal selection of “New Classics”(post 1965), which was, is and will most certainly remain the most popular section of Lost WeekEnd.
From defunct Into Video to well-named Lost Weekend, these are only a handful of options in the Bay to reminisce on how movies used to be passed around. The good thing with video stores is you don’t really need t have a reason to walk in, but it is always a good surprise – whether you get a good movie, a warm cup of coffee or get your phone fixed.