Last Night of the Scarecrow Video?
Earlier this month, it was announced that Blockbuster Video would close its remaining stores for good, having been taken out by the plentiful Redbox kiosks and streaming operations such as Netflix. I was not saddened in the least by this news; over the last two decades, Blockbuster helped drive many independently owned rental stores out of business. I consider myself lucky that I did not have to go through life only having Blockbuster to rely on for my movie-watching needs, because in my neighborhood exists one of the biggest rental libraries in the world, Seattle’s Scarecrow Video. But in a world where the destroyer of video stores has been destroyed, Scarecrow is struggling to stay afloat.
Scarecrow Video was started in 1988 by George and Rebecca Latsios. George was an avid film fan and collector. The store began with an inventory that consisted of George’s personal film collection, some 600 titles at the time. The goal of the store was not to bring in customers by only stocking the newest releases, but to be a haven for film aficionados by stocking nearly any and everything that was released onto home video. This philosophy led to the store running out of space on a few occasions. The company moved into its current multi-story location in Seattle’s University District in 1993. Scarecrow’s current library consists of somewhere around 118,000 individual titles on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and all manner of imports. If a film has been released on home video, chances are very good Scarecrow has it in the highest quality version available somewhere in its massive catalog.
In recent years business has slowed at Scarecrow because customers are under the misconception that watching whatever film is easiest to find is better than taking the time to get something you really want to see. I spoke with Scarecrow employee Matt Lynch about the changes the store has seen since the advent of streaming. “Lots of folks are operating under the assumption that they can get pretty much everything online,” Lynch says. “While we offer about 3-5 times what Netflix, for example, offers at any given time, obviously that misconception has caused a great many folks to stop coming in.”
Something missing in this new age of renting movies from your couch or in a parking lot is the loss of human interaction. We no longer talk with someone about a film before deciding to invest two hours of our lives to it. Lynch explained to me the importance of the personal touch to Scarecrow and its employees, “We have a tremendously knowledgeable staff, people whose expertise has developed from pure experience, just watching movies, rather than school or books. And we have broken down our vast collection into some pretty crazy subcategories (My favorite, “Vengeful Acts of a Wrathful God” was actually split into two sections a few years ago, “Nature Gone Amuck!” and “Disaster!”), because we really place a premium on the browsing experience. We encourage people to come in and spend some time looking around…we guarantee there’s something they’d want to pick up. The queue you can skim through online is collated by a computer that sorts a bunch of titles out by keyword and whatever it’s programmed to think is popular. It doesn’t even represent the full amount of titles a particular service offers you, whereas at Scarecrow, it’s all there, as organized as we can make it.”
As Matt mentioned above, one of the best things about Scarecrow Video’s layout is how specific it can get to help you find what you need. As a massive horror fan, I often find myself wandering through the store’s Psychotronic Room (named for Michael J. Weldon’s 1983 tome THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM) and searching through various subcategories for just the right film. Just a small sampling of the room includes shelves entitled “Stalkers” (home of serial killers and slashers), “Werewolves”, “Stephen King”, “Lil’ Bastards” (where you’ll find all sorts of ankle biters from Chucky to the Leprechaun), “Cannibals”, and “Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Etc.”
Since Scarecrow is a store run by cinephiles for cinephiles, you will also find a large emphasis placed on the auteur. Right next to the registers you’ll find The Directors section, where horror luminaries such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg sit alongside Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. These director sections are helpful for people such as myself, who want to see every title a favorite director was involved in. Love Stuart Gordon, but you’ve seen all of his Lovecraft adaptations? Well nestled on the shelf alongside those cult classics is a safety program written and directed by Gordon in 1988 entitled KID SAFE: THE VIDEO. This obscurity stars Andrea Martin from the original BLACK CHRISTMAS, and is only available on VHS. Obsessed with the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? Head over to the George Romero section and choose how you want to view the film. It’s available in the original black & white version (in multiple editions due to exclusive bonus features), in color, in 3D, as the 30th Anniversary reedit, as a “Survivor’s Cut” fan edit, and in a version hosted by Elvira. If that isn’t enough NOTLD for you, you can also grab the VHS of a documentary made on the film’s 25th Anniversary which includes insights from those influenced by the film including Sam Raimi, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper.
Scarecrow has always supported the horror genre. They carry releases that you’ll never find on Netflix or in a Redbox, including cult classics released by independent companies such as Scream Factory, Synapse Films, and Scorpion Releasing. They were the first video store to stock the made-on-demand discs from The Warner Archive, which included the disc debuts of many classic made-for-TV horrors from the 1970s. They’ve also hosted signing events featuring genre names such as Bruce Campbell, Barbara Steele, and the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
With everything that Scarecrow Video has to offer, you might think no amount of streaming choices or rental kiosks could hurt business. After all, they were one of the few to survive Blockbuster. But rental numbers have dropped about 40% over the last six years. In order to combat these falling numbers, Scarecrow has tried many new avenues to bring attention to the store. Matt Lynch hosts the Scarecrow Video Podcast, where employees talk film and interview filmmakers, including Master of Horror Joe Dante, about their careers. Lynch explains what else the store has done to stay afloat during these difficult times, “Mostly we’ve tried to bring more foot traffic into the store…by adding things like an espresso stand and a screening room. We’re doing our best to get the word out with limited resources.”
This upcoming holiday season is a make or break time for Scarecrow. If business doesn’t pick up, this Seattle landmark could be gone by next year. Locals can help turn the tide by coming into the store and renting more often. New daily deals were recently added to give customers more 2-for-1 rental options and movie/food combos on the weekends. Or you can grab some coffee, beer, soda, or candy from VHSpresso and watch a movie in the screening room. There are screening events scheduled every night of the week which you can keep up with at Scarecrow’s official website http://www.scarecrow.com and Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Scarecrow-Video/36013293728
Fans from around the world can help Scarecrow Video by shopping at their online store located at the official site. “We estimate our for sale selection at about 2000 individual titles for sale on DVD and about 1000 on Blu,” says Lynch. “And that’s setting aside the metric ton of used VHS, DVD and Blu we sell.” Not able to find what you’re looking for online? Call the store at (206) 524-8554 and they’d be happy to special order something for you, including imports. Movies aren’t the only thing the store has to offer, they also have a variety of film LPs, books, posters, and fanzines for sale.
If film fans allow a massive catalog like Scarecrow to fall, then we are helping to usher in the end of the video store era. Future generations will not know the joy of looking through a horror section and being scared and amazed by the bloody images looking back at them from the box covers. They will not know the classics of the genre because they are only able to rent discs from a kiosk that offers 200 titles, 95% of which are new releases. They will not be able to seek out the obscure film they just read about because it’s not available to stream. These new advances in viewing films may make things more convenient, but I for one don’t want to live in a world without video stores.
Photos by Ronny Soesatyo