The Rebirth of the Video Store

September 20, 2017
Byron Beck

Byron Beck

PDX Correspondent

Once upon a time, not so long ago (aka 1989), there were nearly 30,000 video rental stores in North America. Over the years, due to our changing viewing habits, the closures of mega-chains like Blockbuster, the advent of online streaming, and the fact you could rent a movie out of a box at the same place you could buy a Big Mac the number of video stores reduced so dramatically that it is a bit of a surprise when someone runs across one, much like seeing a public telephone or a hand-written letter. But, unlike the public telephone, the rebirth of the video store is well underway.

That said, there are still thriving video stores throughout the United States, primarily in rural areas and far-flung states without hi-speed web connections, like Alaska given that commercial rents in cities have been skyrocketing. And, according to Forbes, Family Video is doing a bang-up business with a chain of 759 locations spread across 19, mostly mid-west states, and Canada. But Family Video, which focuses on the habits of small town America and buys its films outright before it rents them to its patrons, is the exception and not the rule.

The disappearance of something that once was such a big part of every family’s weekend routine—going to a video store and picking out your favorite film—intrigued James Westby.

Westby is the director of quirky, arthouse favorite films. His most well-known are “Film Geek,” “The Auteur” and “Rid of Me.” What he is perhaps least known for is that he is also the step-brother of rock legend, and Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain.

And although he maybe related to rock royalty, and has several films under his belt, Westby grew up just like any other mild-mannered kid in Aberdeen, Washington who had a thing for skating. In fact, it was skateboards and skateboard culture that led him to make his first films.

“It emanated from skate videos,” said Westby. “All I did in high school was skate and watch the same videos over and over—mostly The Bones Brigade stuff —which led to seeing things like “Repo Man” and “Decline of the Western Civilization.”  Also, I remember my Mom and I used to read the same Dean R. Koontz novels and have casting sessions together; figuring out who could play all the parts, were it to be made into a film.”

Due to his love of film, and that fact that it’s what a lot of filmmakers of his generation did (think Kevin Smith), it was in the Northwest city that he currently calls home, Portland, and in Los Angeles, that Westby spent many a day and night as an employee behind the counter of a video store reminding customers to “be kind,” and “rewind.”

“(In Portland) I worked at Moyer’s First Stop Video, then later Rocket Video (in L.A.), then (in Portland) again at the Videorama stores.” For Westby there were so much more than just stores. “There were actually more than that,” said Westby. “There was a personal, coming-of-age-connection aspect.”

Besides making his own films, and working at video stores, Westby was hired by Hollywood Video, a large rental chain, to make what turned out to be their final training video, (they went out of biz less than a year later). Snippets from that training video have made it into his current project. 

Westby is currently putting the finishing touches on his “Great American Video Store Documentary,” which he know refers to as “a personal essay-documentary-comedy-musical” about the death and life(!) of the great “American Video Store.”

“(After watching what was happening to video stores) at one point I decided to interview my friend Marc Mohan, who owned Video Verite, right before his business closed,” said Westby. “From there I started collecting more interviews and then the movie started to morph into this weird thing and it’s only gotten weirder.”

Westby, whose favorite things about making movies is “making people laugh and cry…sometimes at the same time” and least favorite thing is “raising money” has a thing for making tiny-budgeted, “lo-fi” films. “My budgets positively dictate the aesthetic…or most of it…or a whole lot of it,” said Westby.

“The “Great American Video Store Documentary,” is a self-deprecating but nostalgic and kind of surreal collage mostly about the video stores in Portland, Oregon – past & present – the ones I’ve worked in and the ones I still patronize,” said Westby. “The movie focuses on the people I’ve worked with and/or gotten to know over the years and their families.  Then there are several heroes of mine in the film, each tied to a video store; (directors) Todd Haynes and Movie Madness in Portland, Oregon; John Waters and Video American in Baltimore; Gus Van Sant and Universal Video in Seaside, Oregon and several more.”

Westby assures that the film is “not one of those movies where you learn everything about its subject,” but more impressionistic and more about the stories and the atmosphere and the movies and the bittersweet loss of a classic meeting-up place. Much like a video store.

The rebirth of the video store

Westby still goes to his local video store, Movie Madness, at least once a week, even if he doesn’t rent anything ( “I love the smells,” he said) and understands why video stores are still part of our culture even if VCRS aren’t.

“As someone in my movie says, ‘some people just don’t know about the internet,’ said Westby. “A lot of (still existing video outlets), like Great American Video & Espresso in Milwaukie, have older clientele. But they also have a drive-thru espresso window. My film has a fairly heavy focus on the combo-store paradigm that Portland has embraced, and which has helped keep so many of them in business.”

Westby said his film, which he has been working on for five years, should be completed this fall, with a early 2018 release. And, yes, he plans to release it on video.

After all his work both in video stores and on this project, Westby is in an unique position to discuss the future of what so many see as the film world’s equivalent to the dodo bird. He doesn’t want to see them go extinct but he sees it as inevitable, unless video store outlet owners adapt.

“The reason it is bound to disappear is that a video store is a physical media rental store,” said Westby. “Clearly there are modern-day success stories of independent bookstores and record shops. But, at a video store you go in and borrow a piece of plastic for a few days and then you have to bring it back. Hard to say how long that model can continue, even at its massively scaled-back present.” 

His suggestion? “Get a second business going along your video store!” said Westby. “Someone should do weed and movie rentals.” 

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