Economy Technology

Internet Killed the Video Store

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

One of the great joys of living in my Mission neighborhood in San Francisco is that I’ve gotten to know many of the local business owners over the years. A lot of them live right around the corner from me, and it’s not unusual to bump into them while getting a coffee or a burrito, or while waiting for the light to turn on the crosswalk. One of my favorite guys to run into is Dave, the owner of Lost Weekend Video, a cool little video store that really is more like a community gathering place. Dave’s a down to earth and funny as all get out 50-year old punk-rocker at heart, and he and his crew of quirky outcasts have been running that store since I moved to the neighborhood in 1997. To be precise, the store opened August 1st, the same day I moved into my apartment up on Valencia Street.

But lately he’s been a bit grumpy, and he’s not shy about sharing what’s eating him, whether it’s in a sidewalk chit chat or in his store window:

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Let me just say first-off that this is not an anti-internet or anti-netflix rant. I’m a big fan of the internet, as my very presence here attests to, and I have a warm spot in my heart for netflix, an idea and a company that has enabled millions of folks to have access to movies they otherwise would never even have heard of. And Dave doesn’t have a bone to pick with either of them, as he will freely tell you over a plate of Chinese food from the restaurant down the street being devoured on the store counter while you’re checking out To Kill a Mockingbird or the latest Werner Herzog freak show.

What I think is worth pondering, however, is whether our relentless pursuit to make everything available to us at the click of a mouse or the drop in the mail comes at a cost that often goes unnoticed: The loss of connection to our immediate environment and our community.

As most things in life, there are many shades of gray. If you live in the countryside or in the suburbs, driving for miles to get to the video store just so you can pick up a measly DVD is incredibly wasteful, and I would think, not much fun. If it’s a rainy day or snow on the ground and you want to watch a movie, it sure is nice to download one in the comfort of your home. And even if it’s a sunny day, when you’re done, you just drop it in your mail box, or on the truck parked in front of your house…

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But in my case, where I have a locally owned video store a mere ten minute walk from my house, another dimension gets added to the equation that often eludes us these days. Sure, I could say, “why waste 30 minutes of my life walking to Lost Weekend” if I don’t even have to get out of my chair to watch whatever movie I want to, right here and now. Time is money, right? But to me, the walk down there adds a value to my life that no amount of convenience, bargain deals, bandwidth or pretty screen graphics can recreate: The visual, tactile, mental and soulful stimulation of being in my immediate environment and part of my community.

Walking the four city blocks to Lost Weekend is not only a good way to move my body and see which trees and plants are in bloom, but it brings with it a range of interactions and experiences that in and of themselves could fill the pages of a magazine. On any given movie night I might run into my 13-year old neighbor Louis and chat about the Giants, be called in for a cup of chai by the Aslam family as they’re opening their restaurant serving delicious Pakistani cuisine for the evening, or be stopped in my tracks to watch some local kids having a live concert in their basement …

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By the time I get to Lost Weekend I’m already in a pretty good mood, but the ambiance in there and the staff’s dry humor often take it to another level. First of all, there’s always some really obscure flick playing on the old TVs hanging from the walls. Last week, it was a Rush documentary, and me and another guy got totally mesmerized by the Geddy Lee interview. Behind the counter they’re yakking it up about the new cafe down the street, and somewhere from across the shelf I overhear a debate about which Parker Posey movie was the most epic. By the time I pick a movie it’s almost as if I don’t need any more entertainment for the evening.

As my partner in neighborhood-crusin’ Deb, who usually accompanies me on these odysseys, wrote in her post Local sustainable movies a couple of weeks ago:

The store’s offerings are circulated without the aid of postage and disposable plastic mailers. It’s people powered – you go there to choose what you want. You swing by a day or few later and return it when you’re finished. You can chat with the owner and his staff about the latest releases, their favorite music, politics, and more. You can run into friends and neighbors. You can even bring your dog, or say hello to the dogs of strangers that are patiently waiting for a treat at the counter. Those treats are procured from another local independently-owned store just up the street.

There is certainly no one-size fits all solution to the myriad of environmental, economic and social problems we’re facing in this world, but to me, the fact that so many of the things we come in contact with every day we don’t even know who made them or where they come from, is a big part of the problem. When everything just kind of magically appears (of course, we know that’s not true on an intellectual level, but it feels that way, the advertisers make sure of that) and we don’t have any real connection or emotional investment in all the stuff that’s thrown our way, we tend to savor everything much less. Our attention span and with it the shelf-life of how long we can enjoy something seems to get shorter and shorter, and it’s easier to become blasé about how much physical and mental clutter we actually crank through every day.

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I think a big reason why “local” has become such a buzzword in recent years is not only because people want to reduce their carbon footprint and eat fresher food, but because we’re all craving the intimacy of the real human contact. Michael Pollan’s line, shake the hand that feeds you, really hits the pulse of that sentiment that we get much more than just a pile of vegetables when we exchange recipes and crack jokes with the people who grow and cut them for us. Being “environmental” or doing things “sustainably” too often is still associated with drab chores and sacrifices, partly because we’ve become so dissociated from the actual process of what sustains us. It’s easy to dread your “environment” when you don’t think you’re an integral part of it.

As the local food movement shows, we’re making progress in reconnecting with farmers and the fertile land all around us. And while Dave didn’t grow his own videos and DVDs, I think he has a point when he voices his concern that pretty soon the only places left in the neighborhood will be restaurants and hair salons, the last remaining things on earth not downloadable. It’s tempting to think that if our entire lives could just take place online, we could “convenience” ourselves to a greener and cleaner planet. But aside from the fact that the servers carrying the ever growing mountain of electronic information burn a lot of energy, our survival and well-being will ultimately not depend on algorithms and how much information we consume, but how well we can love and take care of each other and the things that already exist. Like that scratched up VHS version of Fitzcarraldo.

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I’ll leave the last words of wisdom on why we should keep the tradition of the neighborhood video store alive to The Gang at Lost Weekend:

Remember, Netflix doesn’t give your dog treats.

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here’s a cool multimedia piece called Lost Weekend in the Digital Age.

Also, an interview with Dave on youtube:

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

11 Comments

    • downloadable clean clothes… I know that would be a big seller ;-). I feel similarly sentimental about laundromats, they’ve provided many memorable stories over the years…

    • Absolutely, Jan. It seems that the true meaning of the word convenience as it is used in the modern vernacular is to conveniently forget 90% of how things are made and come to us.

  • My few visits of video stores over here gave me the impression that I was not their clientèle. I could have count on one hand the films I might have want to watch, amongst all other mainstream crap I did not want to watch and one obviously well frequented department , who inspired me a feeling of ironical tristesse.

    What worries me more, is that the good films I used to see at hours where the point counters expect to fill up their cultural responsibility without deteriorating their mercantile goals, for the few intellectuals still awake, are getting more and more rare, beside maybe at specialised culture TV programs.

    But inflationary long lasting trash series, talk shows with the eternal same people, plenty of short thought, don’t think too deep about it news, criminal story’s and…ah, sport is getting more too.
    Who cares about the quantity of programs is it ends being the same mind under challenging recipe !

    • so true, good movies are becoming harder to find and more difficult to make because of lack of funding. In Germany at least there is still some public funding for good films and independent film makers, isn’t it the same in France? Here in the U.S. independent film makers have to spend so much time looking for grants and money, you really have to believe in your project. But somehow they still make it happen, there’s been a little bit of a resurgence of independent films, I think also because some of the big Hollywood actors and producers have invested in and supported indie projects. Also, at least here in the Bay Area there’s pretty strong tradition of art house theaters that show more obscure films from all over the world. But it’s an uphill battle, as you said, our culture has gotten so hooked on reality shows and empty formula movies that it’s always a struggle for meaningful material to break through. That’s why in my opinion it’s so important to support those theaters/stores/film makers that are still guardians of art and deeper communication.

  • Yes, in France too!

    I still think, our own dreams each night beat each expensive film by far in quality.

    Exploding heads….are they not mostly heads who have forgotten they have a backside to relax a bit?

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