business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

It was just a couple of weeks ago that the last Blockbuster store in the world - in Bend, Oregon - got an enormous amount of attention in the media, largely because it represented a retailing world now virtually obsolete. Blockbuster, after all, once had more than 9,000 stores and was ubiquitous on the retail landscape. And then there was one.

All of which made the New York Times story about another retail outlier - Scarecrow, a video rental store in Seattle - particularly interesting. (What’s with the Pacific Northwest and its ability to hang on to obsolete retail formats? It makes me want to check out the region’s best buggy whip retailers.)

The Times writes that “once video stores were the only place cinephiles could find favorite films after they left theaters. Then came the internet. The rise of online streaming services was a convenience for movie lovers, but it spelled, too, the end of an era … As for Scarecrow, it survived bankruptcy, the threat of closing and the death of its charismatic founder. In 2014, it became a nonprofit. And now, after 30 years, with more than 132,000 titles — many on VHS, laser disc and DVD — it is as much a cultural warehouse as anything else.”

But that’s not good enough for Kate Barr, Scarecrow’s president, who worries that it isn’t good enough for these films to be preserved in a museum-like setting. She believes that they are a vital part of our cultural history, and need to be experienced, not just preserved.

Barr, the Times writes, “worries that a dearth of vintage movies means voices from earlier generations won’t be heard. She points to hard-to-find documentaries and little-known gems by black or gay writers and directors. ‘Who is making decisions about what titles get seen?’ she asked. ‘I think it is important to not lose sight of the importance of movies. They reflect culture. They are cinematic history. It is important to keep these documents’.”

Barr tells the Times that running Scarecrow “is harder than she imagined. The store has added community events to attract new customers, sought donations and offered perks to members, including renting out video players. But the Hollywood filmmakers who used to venture north have not come to the rescue.”

(Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and film critic Roger Ebert used to be regulars, but apparently haven’t been around for a while. Ebert, of course, has an excuse - he passed away in XXXX.)

It is a fascinating story, and I feel a kinship with Scarecrow - it is a fair criticism that most movie services and channels focus on newer movies, big hits and so-called “tentpole” franchises. That said, it is hard to convince some folks that they should be exposed to films that some of us perceive as part of our cultural heritage, but a lot of people think of as just being old.

I have both such people in my family. No matter what I do, it is hard to convince my daughter that anything in black-and-white is relevant, or that the car chase in Bullitt is actually better than (and certainly the touchstone for) any of the chases in the Fast and the Furious movies.

And yet, both of my sons like old movies … and my oldest son, when interviewing for a job at a cable channel, startled the executive interviewing him when, asked what his favorite movie was, replied, “The Third Man, with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.” (Maybe I just did a better job parenting the boys … or at least showed them more classics. It also is possible that my daughter takes after her mother, with whom I have a running argument about John Ford’s The Searchers - she thinks it is ponderous and boring, while I think that it is one of the best movies ever made. When The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance popped up on cable the other night, I didn’t even ask her to watch with me. I don’t need the abuse.)

Despite my respect for what the folks at Scarecrow are trying to do, I’m not sure you can force feed culture - or anything, for that matter - to consumers who are not interested or engaged with the art form. (I feel that way about opera.) I’m glad that Scarecrow exists, and it is on my list of places to visit next time I get to Seattle … but it may be that serving as a museum for such cultural artifacts and as a living, breathing - and yes, even Eye-Opening - rental store for those who love the form will have to be enough.

At least it is something.
KC's View: