Seattle's Scarecrow Video is pictured.
Hallie Golden/CityLab

When streaming upended the industry, Seattle’s Scarecrow Video reimagined itself as a community hub and keeper of an archive that can’t be matched online.

Four years ago, the owners of Scarecrow Video brought all their staff members together to deliver some bad news. Like video stores across the country, the business was struggling. Its rentals and purchases had decreased dramatically as customers flocked to online streaming services. The owners were writing their own checks just to keep the business running, but they couldn’t do it anymore. It looked like they might have to part with their collection of over 130,000 videos—one of the largest publicly available video archives on earth.

For the staff, the news was devastating. The business had grown from a few hundred tapes in the back of a record store in 1988 into a Seattle icon, or a “movie Mecca,” as one customer called it. In fact, just in the last 15 years, its titles had doubled. “If this collection gets broken up or sold off, a lot of stuff’s going to vanish. It’s going to go into the pockets of collectors. It’s going to wind up in a library basement somewhere,” said Matt Lynch, Scarecrow Video’s marketing coordinator. “We wanted to make sure that it stayed available to people.”

So the staff came together to pitch their own proposal. The idea was simple: They would keep the collection together, in the same space and open to the public, but transform the business into a nonprofit. After some back and forth over details, the owners agreed to donate everything in the store—the films and the shelves they were stored on—to Scarecrow Video, the nonprofit.

The result is something like a museum mixed with a video store. A team of 20 volunteers devotes hours each week to collect movie returns and restock the shelves. Most evenings, they hold one of their many community outreach programs for the public, such as the Children’s Hour, an event with the public library across the street that features a series of stories, videos, and activities for kids that center on a specific theme.

Scarecrow Video is pictured.
(Hallie Golden/CityLab)

And Scarecrow’s work as a nonprofit has helped to highlight just what could be lost if movie stores were swept away in favor of more convenient technology. Its collection includes films dating back to 1893, representing 129 countries and more than 126 languages. “These are our cultural assets,” said Kate Barr, president of Scarecrow Video. To put in perspective just how many titles they have, consider the fact that the total number of titles available on Netflix and Amazon only total about one-fifth of Scarecrow’s collection.

“It’s a movie-lovers’ paradise,” said Alex Williams, 48, who worked at the store from 1998 to 2000, and said he has shopped there at least once a week ever since. “Pretty much anything you can think of, they have. And that’s not true online.”

It has become increasingly apparent over the past decade that movie businesses can’t compete with the offerings, instant gratification, and automated recommendations of online streaming services. “It would be an understatement to say brick-and-mortar stores are in a state of decline,” said Brett Danaher, assistant professor of Economics and Management Science at Chapman University. The shops that have survived tend to be in remote regions without reliable internet or mail (Blockbuster is still alive in Alaska), serve a community of aging or non-digitally savvy people, or be frequented by customers who patron the shops because of their novelty.

Scarecrow has taken a different path. It exchanged its for-profit business for 501(c)(3) status to keep its diverse collection together and available to the public, leaving it reliant on both rental revenue and support from people all over the world who—whether they’ve been to the store or not—want to see the collection preserved.

Four years later, Scarecrow Video hasn’t just survived, it’s done quite well. It took the staff less than a week to raise the $100,000 they needed to get the nonprofit off the ground, with donations coming from as far away as Australia, Japan, and Bulgaria. And each year when they ask for more money, they’ve been able to get it from a band of loyal patrons.

“People who love movies, whether they’re cinefiles on the one end or just regular old movie lovers, I think people had that feeling of, ‘I want this place to be there when I’m ready to come to it; when I need it,’” Barr said. In honor of the store’s 30th anniversary, the organization just launched a new fundraising campaign on GoFundMe. It’s working to raise $100,000 “to lay the foundation for our next 30 years,” according to its website.

Seattle's Scarecrow Video is pictured.
(Hallie Golden/CityLab)

But while this format seems to be working for Scarecrow, the chances of it being some kind of business-saving blueprint for movie stores across the country is unlikely. “You don’t need nearly as many museums as you do stores selling the products when there was actually a lot of demand for them,” Danaher said.

There are other groups that have launched smaller nonprofit video stores in recent years in the U.S., including Facets, in Chicago, and a group in Baltimore plans to open Beyond Video in the spring. But some of these nonprofit ventures have already had to close shop, including Video Fan, in Virginia, and Vidiots, in Los Angeles, which is working to re-open in a new location with cheaper operation costs.

The transition to becoming a nonprofit was not as simple as filing a collection of government paperwork, Barr said. They actually had to re-educate the public about what they were. “There is no precedent in our culture to say, ‘Well this type of video collection is a nonprofit, but this type is a for-profit business,’” she said.

That harsh reality set in when they submitted an application for a grant with Washington’s King County. When Scarecrow didn’t get it, they requested feedback from the peer panel that reviewed the application. They discovered an array of reviewers confused about how Scarecrow Video was able to apply when they’re a “video store.”

The re-education process is slow and cumbersome. And while they’ve made some progress, there’s still more to do. But many in the community are supporting them along the way. In fact, last year, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold and Director of the Office of Film and Music, Kate Becker wrote a guest editorial in a local paper about why Scarecrow Video is a Seattle icon.

“No other city in America can boast having such a unique and important collection fully accessible to their residents,” they wrote. “They are truly caretakers of our shared culture, history, and film arts, and undeniably a Seattle institution.”

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