FADE IN: Groundhog day. Saturday before Super bowl XLVII. The vintage picture postcard Main Street in Takoma Park, Md., the most liberal enclave suburb inside D.C.'s Beltway. Four blocks of concrete flowerpots, vegetarian heavy cafes, antique and curios parlors, an old-fashioned post office. Sandwiched between an independent ice cream parlor and "The Center For Healing Arts" sits a glass fronted relic: Video Americain, a community landmark for 18 years, and perhaps America's last best independent video store.
At 11 on this grey overcast morning, after having (as usual) spent the night in the store, Annie Solan, who along with her husband Barry owns this 20th century cultural gem, unlocks the door on the last day of this once thriving franchise. Devoured by our Matrix pre-Internet era, the store is a fading dream in our great global culture machine.
This last day for what may be America's last best video store marks a cultural and political tragedy, one akin to the closing of Detroit auto assembly lines -- but instead of closing an avenue to middle class security given by those assembly lines, the closing of video stores risks closing our eyes to the wonders of our global imaginations. At a minimum, the nebulous physical world phenomenon we call "community" will suffer a blow when this Main Street video store locks its doors.
When The Washington Post broke the news of Video Americain's demise just before Christmas, some 300 fans to pack the store a few nights later for a farewell party. Potluck brownies, bean dip and pizza donated from the two neighborhood pizza places filled the tables. There was even a cake. State and local politicians held a microphone on the crowded floor and read official proclamations from their respective legislative bodies praising the store for service to the community.
Long-time customers took the microphone for speeches beginning with: "When I first came... " or "My son in college grew up coming to this store." A middle-aged bearded customer, who watched and cataloged 314 of the store's French language films in a loose-leaf binder, said: "I tried my best to go completely through the section, and I hadn't finish yet."
Public access TV filmed the whole scene as tribute speeches went on without intermission. A scruffy brown bull terrier roamed through the forest of legs with school children who grabbed colorful animated case covers of the newest straight-to-DVD rental off shelves, calling out "Mommy look at this!" even as Daddy tried to get them to look at one of the Die Hard franchise films, saying: "Someday you're really going to love this."
But that was weeks ago, when the mourning for this inevitable day was still fresh. Like the morning after in American Graffiti: It's all over except the packing up. Unsold films will be boxed, loaded into a truck of unsold films to ride off to some tomorrow, hopefully not to be forgotten in some Raiders of the Lost Ark storage facility.
Movies have shaped and reflected our political and cultural viewpoints since Charlie Chaplin's first silent film antics in 1914's Making a Living. Movies created their own global culture. To quote the classic promo: "The language of film is universal!" Movies let hipsters in Manhattan sharing common experiences with the Bollywood fans of Mumbai and the new Red Capitalists of Beijing.
TV sets invaded America's post WWII homes like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. TV gave people a new means to absorb cultural stories, news, and information -- including broadcast TV movies, all in the comfort of our homes. Video stores brought the movie palace to the TV screen, but as films slip into our consciousness via downloads, our shared cinematic experience slips out of our global imaginations. The physical world we call "community" suffers another blow as this main street video store locks its doors.
Studios first released movies on a take home format in 1975 on Betamax and VHS in 1977 but without the intent of creating or aiding a rental industry. In fact, some older VHS boxes are stamped "not intended for rental." Then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington congressional battles and a 1984 Supreme Court decision excusing VCR's from "contributory copyright infringement" legitimized the use of the video machines that were in just over 10 percent of America's homes.
In 1979, Barry invested in the 50-year-old Newark, Dela., State Theater even as "home videos" lurked like a Godzilla monster over time's horizon. The State was a "repertory" theater that showed classics or popular films no longer in new release theaters -- A Clockwork Orange, Rocky Horror Picture Show, even Flesh Gordon and Deep Throat. In 1985, Barry couldn't ignore the "redrum" writing on the walls, started a local video rental company (the State Theater closed in 1986). Barry eventually formed Video Americain, taking its name from Humphrey Bogart's cafe in Casablanca. At its height, Video Americain boasted six stores, from Delaware to D.C., including one that appeared in a John Waters' film Serial Mom.
Stores like Video Americain became community hubs energized by the "magic" of movies in an increasingly conglomerated, isolating world. Their community center role fostered films from all over the world. This store catered to families, with two couches arranged in front of a big screen TV that's always playing a staff pick movie, a Costco-sized jar of pretzels by the counter for customers, and even a small, yellow and purple plastic indoor jungle gym in the "kids" film section.
Browsing through the 30,000 titles at Video Americain meant interacting with actual fellow human beings, not just anonymous online or promotional reviews. Instead most of the low-paid clerks who ended up working for independent stores like Video Americain loved movies, relished talking with customers about movies, recommending and even discouraging customers in their choices.
Unlike Randal in Clerks, Video Americain employees like me who worked at "independent" stores got to immerse ourselves in the movies we loved and help other people have a chance to love them, too. We broadened our love of film and got an education with minimum wage paychecks. Quentin Tarantino said that working in a video store helped him learn enough about movies to enter the business without any formal degree or diploma. One of Video Americain's former employees, Sean Williams, is now a major motion picture cinematographer.
I relished working in such a magical place, having a legacy in the movie business: My grandfather managed movie theaters in Montana; my father had his first novel made into a movie and works as a screenwriter; my sister, a former video clerk, now is an Academy Award-nominated documentary director-producer.
Main Street stores like Video Americain have become another victim of the Internet era. With the alleged broad availability of movies online, both illegally and legally, people don't feel the need to frequent a brick-and-mortar locations. This same mentality and technological innovation has led to the near destruction of several industries, including one of Benjamin Franklin's masterpieces, the postal service.
However, unlike letters (and junk mail), which emails (and spam) have all but replaced, there is no format in place to archive the dying video rental industry. Like the future generation humans portrayed in WALL-E, consumers of our major cultural forces will increasingly sit like slugs locked in their homes facing screens that tell them what's worth consuming, hoping that the review they're reading is by someone with similar tastes, and not a paid promoter.
Because of this, foreign and classic films will flutter away from lack of net exposure. The cultural depth of film will become shallower. Tragically, even in this one Video Americain outlet, there are VHS movies that were never recorded on DVD or a format that can be read by modern computers. How many wonderful classic films, masterpieces even, will be lost because they never made the leap from physical to digital?
To paraphrase Ziggy Marley, an artist brought to mainstream popularity in part through a fringe movie called The Harder They Come and a creative artist from another endangered industry depicted in Empire Records: If we don't know our past, how can we know our future?
On this last day, as it bows out from this crumbling cultural stage, film lovers seize the final chance to expand their personal collection as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day plays continuously on the big screen, a yearly tradition. Around 11:30 that night, an hour and a half after the official closing time, the last customer buys 13 titles, walks out the door into the snowy night. At some point children who were waiting for their parents to buy their favorite movies made small snowmen on the city bench outside the store window. Annie collapses in a chair and Barry starts playing soul music from the iPhone dock speakers. Weary clerks pause for five minutes before Annie begins to lay out packing plans for the next day, as the store still holds several thousand films, now bound for a storage unit. A tragic fate for the films, and well as for film lovers everywhere. FADE OUT.