By Devin Holt
The lines in Le Video's battle to stay open couldn't be clearer. On one side is the type of unique, personal business that makes San Francisco great. On the other is a Goliath-sized dose of technological inevitability, and the simple fact that most people won't go across town for something they can get at home for a few dollars a month. Given these odds, the March 12 Facebook post announcing that the city's largest video rental store would close by the end of April "unless of a miracle" was, perhaps, no surprise.
But in 2014 San Francisco, when every dive bar closing or nonprofit move across town raises cries to save "the soul of the city," the public reaction to Le Video's closure was swift and sudden. Those cries gave Catherine Tchen, who opened the store in 1980, the push she needed to re-examine her business model, start an Indiegogo campaign, and give Le Video one more sequel.
"It was the staff and customers who said 'No way!,'" after her announcement, Tchen says.
Articles and lamentory Facebook rants poured in from around the globe by morning. Some people said they couldn't live without Le Video; others threatened to discontinue their Netflix accounts in solidarity. SF Weekly film critic Sherilyn Connelly called its collection "one of the marvels of San Francisco."
She wasn't exaggerating.
Le Video carries somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 titles, and that collection has been curated by Tchen over the course of three decades. "Because we import movies and buy from collectors, we have stuff that's not on Amazon or Netflix, and some things that you can't even find on Torrent," Tchen says. As examples, she lists the store's 4,000 imports and around 5,000 out-of-print titles. "We also carry all the titles from Twilight Time that are not available via streaming."
To lose Le Video would be to lose affordable access to all of those films. It would mean losing one of the only places a film student can find the alternate version of Brazil that was forced on Terry Gilliam by the American studios, and one of the few ways to see Orson Welles's Journey Into Fear, the cultish roller disco comedy Skatetown USA, or Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange.
But beyond that, it would mean losing the last place in San Francisco where someone can feel truly lost amid an unbelievable inventory of films and TV shows. Where else could Blacula and Shaolin Dolemite mingle with thousands of anime titles and 15 rows of British television? Le Video's most obvious counterpart, Lost Weekend Video, carries a still-impressive but much smaller 25,000 titles. (Lost Weekend has its own troubles. Co-owner David Hawkins says the store is doing "poorly" and warned that San Francisco might not have any video stores by this time next year.)
And, let's not forget, Le Video offers a chance to interact with actually-human algorithms who love movies. A random employee was able to recall instantly that the original Fame should be under Alan Parker, but was actually in the Just Dance section. An older gentlemen wandered in for the first time to discover a movie he had been seeking for years simply waiting on the shelf. He picked the box up, turned it over, and smiled like a young boy who just found a buried treasure. Netflix can't do that.
But the things that make Le Video special could be the hardest to keep.
Tchen is more upbeat now than she was in March, but there is no denying that the store's wall-to-wall video model was unsustainable. She sees her current plan, with Green Apple Books taking over the bottom floor and Le Video packing its collection into the mezzanine upstairs, as a modern update that preserves the human element.
"We're going to reinvent the video store concept," she says. "Instead of aisles and aisles — which, let's be honest, we can't afford — we're going to put the whole database online."
Customers will browse and rent online from home, or at a kiosk in the store, and pick up their rental from the counter.
"And for people who just want to touch things, they can come in and see everything we are buying," which will be on display in a smaller browsing area upstairs, she says. Eventually, Tchen wants to host movie nights and lectures in the space. "We want to become more a place where people can come and hang out," she says.
This plan assumes that people who are willing to come pick up a movie are also interested in books. It's too soon to say if it will work, but early indications are good. Green Apple had enough faith in the business to sign a 10-year lease, and Le Video's Indiegogo campaign surpassed its original goal of $35,000 with time to spare.
This won't be the store's first reinvention. Le Video has had several locations in the Inner Sunset since it opened in 1980. Back then it was "a store within a store," in the form of a small shelf in Tchen's photography supply shop The Darkroom. She carried mostly foreign imports and black and white classics from directors like Yasujiro Ozu, Sergei Einsenstein, Marcel Pagnol, and Alfred Hitchcock.
"I was told I was crazy back then by a local distributor," she says.
If that same distributor were to call today, he would probably tell Tchen she is double-crazy to keep a video store running in the era of Netflix. But San Francisco has always been a crazy place.