Noe Valley Voice March 2005

Screen and Screen Again!
Community Connection Keeps Local Video Stores in Business

By David O'Grady

Video rental franchise Blockbuster made big news earlier this year when it announced it would abolish every renter's enemy: late fees. For many, though, Blockbuster's move was not good customer service but a concession to the impact of video rentals ordered online and received by mail.

Here in Noe Valley, our own video stores are feeling the competition of online retailers like Netflix, Green Cine, and even Blockbuster's own online rental service.

"No doubt about it, business is down due to Netflix, movies on demand, and other alternatives," said Jim Leal, manager of First Choice Video at Church and 24th streets. "Every time I see someone going by with one of those red Netflix mailers, my blood pressure goes up."

The allure of online renting may be hard to ignore, but recent visits to neighborhood video stores serve as a reminder that their role in the community is not so easily replaced.

The faint smell of popcorn greets you as you enter Video Wave on Castro Street, where you can grab a bag and munch away while browsing for films-- an experience you could create when renting movies online, but at the expense of a keyboard covered in butter and salt.

"When you walk into Video Wave, you get immediate access to the owner," said Alexander Gardener, co-owner of Video Wave with his wife, Gardenia. "Right there, you've experienced what's so special about it. Can you imagine walking into a Blockbuster and talking to the owner, or having the same relationship with your computer?"

No online retailer can recreate that level of service or reflect our community's unique interests as well as our local video stores. At Video Wave, for example, a sign on the door advertises help wanted for someone experienced in "twilight" films--a genre featuring faeries, goddesses, or Wiccan themes. That's not a section you're going to find at a homogenized franchise.

"I try to pick a variety of films that I think people in Noe Valley will find meaningful, including some top mainstream titles," Gardener said. "One popular film in the community lately has been Maria Full of Grace."

As if on cue, a woman pops into the store with a copy of that very movie to return. "It's an awesome movie, thanks!" she said, before dashing out the door.

Down the street at Noe Valley Video, co-owners Marlene and Brian Dunleavy were marking the one-year anniversary of their answer to Netflix, aptly called Noe Flicks. For $19.95 a month, you can check out up to three films and return them anytime.

"We tested out the idea of Noe Flicks with the community to see if it would work," Brian Dunleavy said. "When we first started, we had set the price too high for it to be successful. So we lowered the price and it just took off."

Noe Valley Video is one of the newer video stores in the neighborhood, having opened its doors in September 1998. At that time, inventory was so small that VHS tapes were turned face-forward on the shelves. Today, the store is packed with DVD and VHS titles.

"Noe Valley is like old-time San Francisco," said Marlene Dunleavy. "You went to the butcher, you went to the grocer, you went to the baker. You get to know your customers, and they get to know you. Over time, we watch the families who come in grow. Our store is like a part of their extended family."

Leal agrees that the sense of community fostered by Noe Valley store owners is an idea worth supporting. In fact, years ago First Choice Video was part of a chain known as National Video. "But when they wanted us to go corporate and wear uniforms, we got out of that deal in a hurry," Leal recalls. "We want to be what the people of Noe Valley want us to be--not what some corporate office says."

Staff at our neighborhood video stores really know their stuff, too. Gardener and his employees at Video Wave watch every video in their store for age appropriateness, offering customers more insight than the MPAA rating system. First Choice has an excellent collection of early classics, and if you ask for Mike, he will point out the best films from the silent era for you. And at Noe Valley Video, its ever-changing collection of "Staff Picks" reflects the non-blockbuster tastes of Noe Valley.

"Because I have kids and work full-time, it can be overwhelming to walk into a video store and find a good, interesting movie to watch," said Kim Nguyen-Gallagher, Noe Valley resident and Video Wave customer. "But the people at my [local] video store really know their product, and I value getting recommendations from a source I trust."

Despite all the benefits of renting from community video stores, what if you just want a few videos delivered to your door? Isn't online the easiest and fastest way to go?

"Actually, we've heard from customers who compared Noe Flicks and Netflix head to head and found that Noe Flicks is often faster," Marlene Dunleavy said.

"And we can be a lot more flexible than online retailers," added Brian Dunleavy. "For example, when people are traveling for extended periods, we can put their Noe Flicks subscription on hold."

Not even the seemingly endless selection of movies listed online tilts the scales. All three video stores are willing to order movies on request, provided there is a reasonable interest in the movie among patrons.

"We have our faithful core of customers who support us," Leal said. "And we still offer a lot of movies on videotape, because a lot of movies our customers are looking for aren't available on DVD--or at those online services, which don't carry videotapes."

If there is any point to concede to online stores, it's the fact that they are open 24 hours a day (although a recent midday visit to found the site unavailable due to "scheduled maintenance"). But that convenience shouldn't come at the cost of our values.

"If you want community, you have to support it, because once it's gone, you can't get it back," cautioned Gardener. "The money spent in Noe Valley supports Noe Valley businesses and schools. But in the end, it's not just about the money. I consider my customers my friends."