Independents: the heart of the American Dream

Since the early days of video rental I have patronized locally owned neighborhood video stores. Of course, at that time - the early 1980s - independent video stores were it. Chain stores didn't exist. So, when I hosted my first sleepover featuring "a video" (the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn film "Charade"), we rented it from Premier Video, the only video store in the neighborhood.

I have long since left the neighborhood of my childhood, Premier closed its doors almost 10 years ago and chain stores, online and grocery store video rental desks have proliferated. Independents are no longer the only game in town, and I sometimes wonder if the market still has a place for small, locally owned shops. The possibility that it does not has had me worried for a number of years. The arrival in our neighborhood of two outlets owned by the same chain did nothing to allay those fears.

You can imagine my relief when, during a lunch with the owners of several locally owned video stores, I learned that independent video stores are not an endangered species. "We've been told we were on our way out ever since we began," remarked Craig Wilson, owner of Queen Anne and Fremont's Video Isle, "and here we are."

One of the big differences between when the independent operators began and now is that when independents started up, the studios loved them: they were the only ones renting videos. With the advent and expansion of chain stores, however, the studios have more or less abandoned the independents that gave the movie industry a shot in the arm, sometimes cutting exclusive distribution deals with the chains that make it difficult for independents to stock new, big-budget films. Nevertheless, like many of the movies that fill their shelves, the independents have survived because they offer something special that chains and big business can't duplicate: a sense of community, customer service, variety and a true love of the business.

Our lunchtime conversation frequently returned to the sense of community inherent in locally owned stores. They serve as a place for neighbors to meet, catch up and share recommendations and news. Friday and Saturday evenings usually find a steady stream of locals flowing into our neighborhood store. Inside, the smell of freshly popped popcorn accompanies sounds of conversation and laughter. A well-behaved dog or two may be found at the counter looking for, and receiving, a pat and a biscuit from an employee.

Throughout the year, photos of neighbors trick-or-treating or coaching and playing on neighborhood soccer and baseball teams appear in the windows, replacing the regular movie posters. Zoƫ Claire, "store manager/Goddess" of Reckless Video in the Roosevelt area, commented on the lively atmosphere in her shop on a snow day a couple of months back. Neighbors could not get to work or school because of dangerous driving conditions, but they could walk down to the shop to share weather woes and rent a good movie or two.

Another source of community is fostered among the stores themselves. Although independent video store owners might seem to be natural competitors, they consider themselves peers. Working together to promote a healthy business environment for the group as a whole, they attempt to ensure that the independent video stores freckling the city's neighborhoods are well stocked, well staffed and generally well run. Within regions, cities, and neighborhoods, storeowners and managers come together to share information, ideas and even product.

They understand and value the power of association, sharing information on a variety of subjects including employee and even customer reliability. If an individual poses a recurrent problem - stealing or damaging merchandise, for example - word spreads and the culprit may be effectively banned from local stores.

When titles distributed exclusively to chain stores become available for purchase at retail outlets, owners may purchase many copies, for their own stores and associates' stores as well. (This practice is both legal and protected under the First Sale Doctrine, which "means the distribution rights of a copyright holder end on that particular copy once the copy is sold.")

Additionally, the Independent Dealers of Entertainment Association (IDEA) focuses on meeting the needs of the video rental industry's historical base; the "brick and mortar", non-publicly traded video stores with 100 or fewer shops. Its mission statement is to "empower the independent sector of the home video industry to grow their businesses through networking, communication, education and business tools."

In addition to camaraderie, a sense of operating in good faith with customers is another hallmark of the independents. Wilson described it as a "relationship with integrity." He shared the story of a regular customer who came in looking for a film to watch with her 11-year-old son. When she placed a copy of Stanley Ku-brick's ultra-violent, R-rated "A Clockwork Orange" on the counter, Wilson suggested she might wish to reconsider her choice. The lady in question, who had not yet seen the film herself, declined. Wilson persisted, offering her the chance to take the film home for free if she would watch it first, without her son, then decide whether she felt it was appropriate for him.

While the store owners and employees try to be responsible - paying attention to the age of those renting R-rated films and tagging family accounts regarding who is, and who is not, allowed to rent movies with PG or higher ratings, for example - their self-policing efforts can only go so far. Once a video gets home, viewership is out of their hands, and parents become solely responsible for what their children see.

According to Sean Bersell, vice president of public affairs for the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), independent stores that continue to survive and thrive have done so because, like successful small businesses of all varieties, "they have adapted, been innovative and created a niche for themselves."

Seattle's Scarecrow Video, for example, is know as the "largest video store on the West Coast," with more than 70,000 titles available for rental. If a customer looking for a particular title is unable to find it anywhere else, chances are good it can be found in Scarecrow's inventory.

Others may specialize in something particular, like Maltese Falcon on Aurora, which carries the "top 6 percent" of films from 1916 to the present and is "the last of the Mom and Pops," according to proprietor Alfredo Cassy. Rain City Video, in Seattle, operates three shops in three different neighborhoods within the city, each catering to the specific interests and needs of the local clientele.

Another trait shared by successful independents is a love of cinema. Owners and employees alike tend to share a passion for film and an eagerness to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with others. Step into one of these stores on a Saturday night (or any afternoon, for that matter) with an undefined cinematic hunger, and you will find an owner, employee or even fellow customer ready to assist in identifying and satisfying that urge, possibly with something you might not have previously considered. These are people with expansive frames of reference not limited to the "hot, new release."

An example is the collective experience of Wilson, Claire and Kent Smith - owner of Seattle's Island Video in Madison, Greenwood and Laurelhurst - with 1998's "Croupier," a sharp character study set in the world of gambling and starring Clive Owen. When it was released, they say, the chain stores had no idea what they had in their hands because it was not a high-profile film (director Mike Hodges has a cult following but no wide reputation, and Owen wasn't yet well-known). So "Croupier" sat in stacks, un-rented, in their stores. The independents, however, knew a good thing when they saw it, and it became a hot title for their stores and customers.

Sometimes it is difficult to admit mistakes or change a way of thinking; habits can be difficult to break. But sometimes be-ing proved wrong comes as a relief. The opportunity to learn more about the video rental industry was a liberating experience for me. I have been disabused of the worrisome and inaccurate belief that independent video stores cannot survive the swelling ranks of corporate video merchants.

It brings to mind Frank Capra's classic films of underdogs who succeed despite resistance from bigger, sometimes financially massive counterparts: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "You Can't Take It With You" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Of course, that is the legacy of the American Dream, one that I hope survives. Anyone who works hard and honestly and uses his or her imagination can secure a successful, satisfying life.

Even small business owners in an increasingly corporate America.

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