I hadn’t given any thought to Scarecrow Video in months, maybe years, when I heard the news a couple weeks ago.
As you’d expect, Seattle’s world-famous video store is in trouble. Rentals have dropped 40 percent in six years, despite efforts to draw people in with coffee, beer, screenings, all kinds of deals and even bar trivia, and owners are wondering if it’s time to fade to black.
The culprit, of course, is change. Video-store rentals hit their peak, $8.5 billion, in 2001. Last year, we spent as much on those rentals as we did in 1984, a measly $1.2 billion, according to analyst IHS.
Blockbuster Video, founded in 1985, operated 1,700 stores when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. This month, parent company Dish Network said it would close the 300 remaining company-owned Blockbuster stores next year.
Scarecrow owners Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough put out a call for help in October. Scarecrow is no Blockbuster; it has collected 118,000 titles and a lot of love. The store’s fans will step it up. Supporters of independent businesses will stop in on principle.
But what about the rest of us? I’ve done nothing but rent or stream from Netflix, Amazon.com, Hulu or iTunes for years. Same with most of my friends. I’d love for Scarecrow to stick around, but online convenience rules. Is there something I’m missing?
I went in last week to find out.
I walked in with one mission: to rent a good documentary. I’ve been on a nonfiction kick and, if I’m honest, browsing Netflix’s streaming catalog isn’t what it used to be. If I hear something is good and go stream it, great. But most of the time, I don’t know what to watch and I wing it. I click through whatever’s in the category, and for every movie I finish, I probably start three.
I used to love this — try it, see if you like it! — but the novelty is wearing off. I could work harder to make a good choice. My phone’s right there with all the information I could want. But I’m plopped on the couch, it’s the end of the day and can’t I escape that pesky little screen for just one second? So I do the online equivalent of channel surfing. Maybe I find something awesome. Or maybe, after an hour, I slump off to bed.
In a 2004 Seattle Times article, Mark Rahner called Scarecrow the “Alexandria Library of offbeat flicks.” Two steps in and you’re surrounded. Aisles crowd the main floor with shelves tabbed like overstuffed binders. Homemade signs mark scattered sections: “Drama,” “Comedy,” “Foreign,” “Bang!” Rooms tunnel out of sight on two floors. I could’ve spun around a good minute to get my bearings, but I didn’t want to look lost. I’d been here before, but years ago, and this is the kind of place where you’re convinced everyone else is a regular.
“It is overwhelming,” a staffer agreed several minutes later. I’d rushed into the room marked “Documentary” but had no idea what was what in there. So I did the one thing I can’t do on online services. I asked a human being.
Love is infectious
According to Matt Lynch, talking to a Scarecrow staffer is exactly what a customer in search of a good flick should do. Lynch, a 10-year veteran of the store, calls Scarecrow his church. He got put on media duty when the store’s S.O.S. went out, and the fact he’s on staff tells you something about the staff.
Lynch has watched 638 movies so far this year as of Thursday, an average of two per day. His email address and Twitter handle are tributes to Western movie actor Lee Van Cleef. He reviews movies constantly.
Back at Scarecrow, the woman I’d approached (whom I later learned was brand new), went to find a colleague. She’d recommended “Happy People,” by Werner Herzog, but they were out, and documentaries weren’t her specialty. The second staffer, a woman wearing a Dr. Who T-shirt, took the case.
“What kind of documentaries do you like?” she asked.
I mentioned science, nature, politics. “Anything, really, as long as it’s smart.”
As we began to narrow it down, I thought about the Nordstrom shoe department and the Zig Zag Cafe, where mixologists create custom cocktails to fit your mood. At Scarecrow, I was getting something I didn’t realize I was missing — personalized help from a real-life expert.
I left the store with two rentals: BBC Earth’s “Nature’s Most Amazing Events” and an Errol Morris doc called “Tabloid” the staffer got so excited about she sold me on it instantly.
Could an algorithm have gotten me there faster? Sure, but not with this same jolt. It’s word-of-mouth, after all, not machine. The staffer loved this movie. And love is infectious.
‘How can we help you?’
I got to my car and saw I’d spent 30 minutes in the store. Next time, I thought, it will be 5. And yeah — when I plan ahead, when it’s on my way and when I want to get excited about a movie I’ve never heard of before — there will be a next time.
As for Scarecrow, it’s right to sell itself on its expertise, but it feels like a place designed just for experts. Its huge collection is its biggest strength. But to coexist with online convenience, its staff should be front and center. Countless signs point out directors, genres, cool titles, events. What if a big one, near the front, said, “How can we help you?”
Five-hundred more rentals a week could pull Scarecrow out of danger, Lynch said.
Tell us what we’re sure to love, and we might just come back for more.
Update: This article has changed to correct how many more rentals it would take to put Scarecrow out of danger. Lynch emailed Saturday night to say he misspoke when he said it would take 500 more rentals a month; it will actually take 500 more rentals per week.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.