Two weeks ago, a melancholy 23-year-old wandered into Lost Weekend Video on Valencia Street and began pouring his heart out to the woman behind the counter.
He'd just been through an awful breakup. He needed the kindness of strangers — and perhaps a little Hollywood escapism.
"Well, do you want to wallow in it, or be cheered up?" asked the woman, Christy Colcord, a diehard film buff who helped found Lost Weekend in 1997.
It seemed the guy was in more of a wallowing mood. Of the various movies that Colcord suggested, he chose After Life by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, a drama in which the souls of the recent dead try to select a favorite memory to sustain them for eternity. ("It's a good film for anyone experiencing an existential crisis," Colcord says.) Then he picked one more — a dark comedy about a depressed detective who falls in love — before quietly sauntering out.
"There's no way Netflix would have ever recommended those films," Colcord says, recounting the interaction a few days later. While Netflix has a fairly precise algorithm based on users' past selections and browsing habits, it lacks the intuition of a human video store clerk. And because the system is by nature formulaic, it won't point you to some offbeat film you've never heard of.
To Colcord, relying on "taste" formulas is tantamount to being stuck in a small town during the Blockbuster era, and limited to whatever movies the mega-chain had in stock. It's the exact problem that small independent video stores sought to rectify in the first place.
Now, of course, they're all fighting to stay afloat. With business taking a sudden nose-dive over the last few months, Lost Weekend recently posted an SOS on its website, asking patrons to help mitigate the crisis. Profits had already dipped with the advent of Netflix and the economic recession that followed. But only this year did Lost Weekend see itself thrown into dire straits as its customer base decamped for Oakland. New Mission dwellers don't have the same loyalty, Colcord says. They appreciate the nostalgic quality of video stores, but won't actually patronize them. Streaming services and file-sharing sites have changed the way we consume media, rendering the old corner-store model obsolete.
After watching its income shrink by 60 percent over several years, Lost Weekend recently took another 30 percent hit. The store now caters to a small group of retirees, ardent cinephiles, and members of the technologically dispossessed. Among them are also a few hangers-on who've been priced out of the city, but who still come in to work as baristas, waiters, or store clerks, "serving the people who can afford to live here," Colcord smugly remarks.
She counts herself as one of those people. A burgundy-haired bohemian with a fishbone tattoo, she lived in the Mission for 20 years before exorbitant rent prices drove her out to the East Bay. Now she commutes back to Valencia Street every day to run a business that's also a shrine to the old neighborhood — and to old-school nerdery.
With three arcade games jammed inside its foyer, and copious shelves filled with DVDs, Blu-Rays, and even VHS tapes divided by theme (silent, noir, '80s teen flix) or auteur (Gilliam, Sayles, Polanski), it's the kind of place where a movie geek might linger for hours, reading the backs of jackets or scouring for obscure titles. The owners screen World Cup matches and host live comedy shows in their basement, affectionately dubbed The Cinecave. If prodded, they could hold court on the merits of Galaxy Quest or some obscure four-hour Romanian film.
In rapidly developing areas like the Mission District, they've become an endangered breed.
"It used to be that after moving to a new neighborhood, you'd orient yourself by finding the local video or book or record store," Colcord says. "Now people just think we're a novelty."
Lost Weekend's proper analog, another cash-strapped store in the inner Sunset called Le Video, is confronting many of the same problems. In March, the store started an Indiegogo campaign to stave off impending closure; it survived by renting the bottom floor of its two-story building to Green Apple Books.
"Our typical customers are retirees who don't really use the internet to find movies," long-time employee John Taylor says, indicating that a small handful of people are keeping the store alive. At this point, he adds, Le Video's collection of British mysteries is its main selling point — they're really big with that age group.
Taylor is cautiously optimistic about the store's redesign. Other video shops have tried similar survival tactics, he says. Faye's Video & Espresso Bar on 18th Street allocates half its business to selling coffee and tea; others provide a large inventory of PlayStation games or iPhone accessories. Video Wave, in Noe Valley, has persevered by cramming its vast collection into a tiny storefront. (Co-owner Gwen Sanderson says that despite a faithful clientele, Video Wave only breaks even.)
Because Lost Weekend is a tenant, rather than a building owner, it can't take quite the same liberties as some of its peers. It can't subdivide space and rent to a bookstore or a cafe owner; it's cursed with a business model that's two iterations behind the current technology. And, with Blockbuster shuttering its last stores this past November, the future of video rental looks grim.
That said, Lost Weekend isn't without a cult following — not to mention its trail of adoring supporters. Many people offered to throw benefits or donate cash after hearing of the store's plight, Colcord says. She certainly appreciates the gesture, though she'd rather they come in and rent videos.