David Hawkins and his two business partners, refugees of the music industry whose careers were winding down, made a switch to the video rental business 17 years ago. They snatched up a hot property in San Francisco’s Mission District and opened Lost Weekend Video.
"We thrived pretty much from the get-go," Hawkins says. "It was like we opened our doors and in they came."
Fast-forward to present day: the independent video store is still around, but its revenue has easily dropped 50 percent from its peak a decade ago.
As dismal as that sounds, they're actually one of the bigger success stories in the video rental market, simply because they still exist. With the popularity of Redbox, Netflix, and other online viewing alternatives, the country is down to a smattering of local stores mostly concentrated in major cities.
Lost Weekend's business started to take a dip with the 2008 financial crisis. Hawkins says video stores tend to weather recessions, since renting movies is a less-costly alternative to movie theaters. This time, though, many of Lost Weekend's customers were hit so hard, they left San Francisco altogether.
So how have they hung on?
The store's inventory — 25,000 DVDs strong — is a big draw. Hawkins insists that some of the streaming video services provide limited selection, so customers "settle and end up saying 'I guess I’ll watch this Kate Hudson movie again.'"
In contrast, with a physical store, Hawkins argues there's an unbeatable alternative to stopping in, hearing a knowledgeable employee's recommendation, and having access to hard-to-get films.
"We're the new barbershop," he says. "There are fewer places these days just to hang out. Cafes are no longer as social, and if you don't go to bars there are so few new social gatherings popping up. I worry that if we let all of video stores close, our neighborhoods will be a lot less interesting."
Lost Weekend, like some of its surviving counterparts, is trying to keep this allure intact while adding on more events and entertainment to become a true destination. Because of its owners' music connections, bands are a constant presence, and screenings, talks, and even comedy shows are becoming a bigger deal.
Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, which may the nation's largest surviving independent video store, opened an in-house coffee shop, and is in the process of building-out a screening room to draw in customers.
Open for 24 years, Scarecrow has built up a shining reputation, even beyond Seattle, for its impressive array of 117,000-plus movies. Still, this success has sometimes been a hindrance.
"We have a lot of buzz and a lot of good-will built up, but I think everyone tends to assume that we're doing well and they don't need to come in and support us," says Jen Koogler, Scarecrow’s marketing coordinator.
As a result, Scarecrow has taken some financial hits. What has worked in its favor is being in a huge film city, and only a stone's throw from the University of Washington. Beyond students and professors, clientele come from all walks of life and seek out all genres.
"We're known for having everything. A lot of VHS and laser discs that simply were never released on DVD," says Koogler, who also produces blogs and video podcasts for the store. "We bring in a lot of imports from other countries. British TV shows, for example, are really big right now."
And having an ever-present connection to the community has gone a long way in sticking around. Scarecrow sponsors a number of film festivals and donates movies to area youth centers, which keeps them in the neighborhood fold.
Across the country in Atlanta, Videodrome is one of the last independent video stores left, due in large part to its location in Poncey-Highland, one of the city's few walkable neighborhoods.
Owner Matt Booth, who opened the store in 1998 after working for corporate video stores, says he's not trying many gimmicks; simply by staying relevant in neighbors' lives, Videodrome has just now had two of its better years. Customers especially flock there for specialty categories such as Italian horror, Thai and Korean action flicks, film noir, French language, and DVDs categorized by director.
"What we offer is an experience. Maybe it's a date or maybe it's a cheap night out. Either way they're able to see the movies, touch the movies. It's an event, more than scrolling through a Netflix queue," Booth says. "(Video rental stores) might not be around forever, but we're here now."