Le Video Is Le Saved—and So Is a Piece of SF's Soul

Ian Eck | April 16, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

When news broke that Inner Sunset's Le Video, the rental store beloved by SF film buffs, would be closing, it was only natural for some of us cynical types to shrug in the same way we shrugged when the local Blockbuster removed its faded blue awning. In a world of internet-to-TV streams, Netflix binging, and HBOGo hi-jacking, the indie video rental scene seems like a fossil from a forgotten time.

But, thankfully, the city's art lovers still outweigh the city's sighers and shruggers. Because, in spite of the encroaching obsolescence of analog video cassettes and check-out-stand DVDs, the world (and more specifically, San Francisco) still needs its Le Videos. Here's why.

When Le Video founder and owner Catherine Tchen announced that she could no longer bankroll the store’s flatlining business, the store's legion of fans understandably freaked out. There followed an outcry of customer support that spurred a $35,000 Indiegogo campaign along with a $10,000 donation from Daniel Handler, the author of the Lemony Snicket books. That total, while helpful, wasn't enough. Tchen announced a bigger solution: Le Video would downsize its display of movies (although the catalog of over 100,000 titles will be available to reserve online), move into the upstairs mezzanine, and rent out the bottom floor to Green Apple Books—an extension of the bookstore's Richmond location (it plans to move in by August 1st).

This was not only great news for film aficionados, it was good for the stores themselves. For Green Apple Books, the expansion would allow it to further its reach into a new neighborhood. For Le Video, they’ll be collecting rent and an increased customer base from one of the most successful book stores in the city, if not the country (The 47-year-old Richmond District bookseller was recently named Book Store of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly).

But most of all, the move presents a promising method of survival for "old media" institutions like these. The solution: Become a center of community culture. Instead of getting trampled by internet innovation, use the web to your advantage (Tchen initially asked for help on Facebook), host special events and speakers, and if all else fails, band together with businesses of a similar customer base. Even for mom-and-pop shops, this is not a radical new business model: think of the cafe-art gallery pairing, the craft stores next to secondhand shops, or hell, even the bar/buffet/strip club combo you can find in the seedier stretches of North Beach.

It doesn't take a genius to point out that people who watch obscure foreign films might also enjoy a good book. And at a time when old media is falling to the wayside behind touchscreens and streaming video, these old-school avenues of art and culture need to stick together. And not just for the books or movies' sake, but for the community itself.

To understand why, consider the example of Marcus Books in the Fillmore. It is another of these "old media" cultural centers that is facing oblivion despite historical significance. Started in the 60's, the bookstore became an incubator for black literature and culture. And despite being named a historical landmark by the city, the building was sold last year at a bankruptcy auction and is now facing shutdown. Buyback offers from the non-profit group Westside Community Services were denied, and a crowdfunding campaign failed to raise enough money. The problem with Marcus Books—one which Le Video fortunately doesn't face—is that the Fillmore no longer houses the rich black culture it once had. It's hard to salvage a community center when the community itself has been decimated.

But the forecast is not quite so dire for the Le Video/Green Apple marriage. Despite predictions of the downfall of independent bookstores, in recent years, the well-run, well-marketed local bookstore has had a newfound resurgence. Record stores, too, have remained a fixture in the hipper parts of some US cities. Physical videos, on the other hand, may not hold the same allure—nobody’s coveting first edition DVDs, and you don’t see people flipping through old videocasette catalogs, smelling the plastic. However, the magic of film connoisseurship isn't found in the nostalgic snap of a videotape case, it's located in the audience experiencing a cinematic experience together.

This is why a community meeting space for books and movies is so refreshing, especially in a San Francisco whose neighborhoods are becoming increasingly homogenous. Whether you're a techie who likes film noir and reads thrillers, a barista looking to read about the French New Wave, or a 70-year native who wants to revisit the classic black-and-whites of your childhood, the one thing that brings together people of all different backgrounds is their enjoyment of art.

Good art sparks ideas within people. Not just ideas for innovation or disruption or creating the next big app, but ideas for ideas' own sake—ideas about what David Foster Wallace called “what it means to be a fucking human being.”

That's what Le Video and Green Apple Books can provide that Netflix and Amazon can't: a place for human beings.

Besides, where else can you rent a copy of Troll 2 these days?

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