For a long time, a sign by the front door has greeted customers of Reckless Video: “Thank you for shopping retail. The Internet is not a neighborhood.”
If you could somehow teleport yourself inside a Netflix algorithm, it might look sort of like Reckless: stacks and stacks of DVDs, in their slim plastic cases, piled high on endless shelves. They are organized by genre, both straightforward and fanciful, or by actor or director or award pedigree or newness. The perfect movie for you, whatever your mood might be, is sitting on the shelf somewhere; you just need to find it, and the finding is part of the fun.
But there isn’t much time left to enjoy this cozy cinematic haven, a family-owned movie rental shop that’s been operating in Maple Leaf for 30 years. Owner Mike Kelley has reluctantly decided that it no longer makes financial sense to run a DVD rental store in an age of streaming.
“It’s the end of the road,” he said, at the store earlier this month.
Reckless’ last day of rentals will be June 27; a liquidation sale will begin July 1, and the front door will close for good July 31. A bigger door closes as well: Reckless is Seattle’s last family-owned independent video store and its closure means there’s only one video rental store left standing in Seattle — Scarecrow Video.
It’s curious when a sea change in culture happens so quickly and irrevocably: A lot of us can remember when video stores were everywhere. When I lived on Capitol Hill in the 1990s, there were two across the street from each other on 15th, and both seemed busy. For a long time, from the ’80s well into the aughts, renting movies and watching them at home felt like a miraculous thing: You could be on your own couch instead of at a theater, and you could watch what you chose, not just what happened to be on TV. Video stores were treasure boxes, full of movies you maybe didn’t know existed; for a few dollars, you could take a chance on what might become a new favorite.
And now, just like that, those places are gone, and so very quickly. As recently as 2012, there were 38 video rental stores in King County, according to U.S. Census data. Seven years later, it was down to four.
Where did those stores go — or, rather, where did their customers go? Most of them went online, as streaming became easier to use and many people found it more convenient than going out (unless you happen to be looking for something that your streaming service didn’t have). Based on that logic, you could see the end of Reckless Video not as something sad but as technology marching on. A tiny store closing doesn’t create a huge ripple; its four part-time employees have other jobs, as does Kelley, and the few steadfast customers near the end will figure out other ways to watch the movies they love on physical media. They can still borrow DVDs from the public library or rent them from Netflix (yes, Netflix still sends movies in the mail, through dvd.netflix.com) or Redbox or from the local treasure that is Scarecrow Video, now a nonprofit organization with endlessly browsable shelves and a new rent-by-mail program. The latter is currently halfway through a major fundraising campaign, called Scarecrow 2.1: The Future of Physical Media.
“They’re Disneyland,” said Kelley of Scarecrow, a place he admires. “We’re more like an ice cream shop.”
That little ice cream shop, with its dozens of shelves labeled by someone who was clearly having fun (in the foreign language area, “Ballard” is the label for Scandinavian films), is nostalgia now. If most of us hadn’t moved on from video stores, Kelley would be thinking about next week’s new releases rather than planning the closing sale. But it’s a moment to hit pause, so to speak, and think about what’s gone.
To do that, I spent a little while hanging out at Reckless recently, on a few cool late-spring afternoons; as several of the employees told me, it’s just a nice place to be. A movie, chosen by whoever’s on shift, plays on the wall-mounted TV; I watched as a teenage customer became enthralled by “Inception.” Business was a slow but steady trickle: An efficient mom came in with three kids (tasking one of them with “find something for Dad”); a man came in asking for the “Downton Abbey” movie; a woman requested the “Hairspray” musical; a dad picked up a reserved Harry Potter. Most customers seemed to have heard about the closure, some expressed sadness at the news. Many were trying to use up their prepaid movie passes (a good deal at Reckless: 10 movies for $20) before the store closes.
According to employees (one of whom told me he’d happily have worked at Reckless for free), the most frequently rented titles at the store are the Harry Potter movies, “The Princess Bride,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and one of those Jesse Stone movies with Tom Selleck, which the same guy kept renting over and over for a while. The store has about 30,000 titles, and another 2,000 or so stored in the attic; movies that, for whatever reasons, customers stopped renting. There’s a time for everything; movies — and people — move on.
The building that holds Reckless has been around a while; it’s a little 1920s-vintage house, now painted a cheery blue. Before Reckless, Kelley tells me, it was a used-book shop. He’s not sure what will be next for the building (which his family owns, along with the Ace Hardware next door). Its five rooms, complete with a floor that pleasantly squeaks in certain spots, hold stories; you think about the thousands of people over the years who’ve happily lost themselves in these endless titles and their wealth of possibility.
I wandered through the five rooms, enjoying how movies shelved next to each other made for intriguing neighbors: Merchant-Ivory next to Takashi Miike in the directors’ section; “Get Out” next to “The Great Escape” (the two titles seemed to be having a conversation) on Reckless’ trademark The Perfect List shelf; “High School Musical” and “High Society” together in the Song & Dance section. Video stores are like libraries, preserving culture: Reckless’ collection, carefully curated over many years, is a glorious history of movies. You won’t find this exact collection anywhere online — not Netflix, not Amazon.
The final DVD I rented from Reckless was, appropriately, “The Last Blockbuster,” a documentary about the final remaining Blockbuster Video store in Bend, Oregon. (Here’s a nice little bit of 21st-century irony: This movie, essentially a history of and an affectionate ode to video stores, is available for streaming on Netflix.) Blockbuster once had more than 9,000 stores; now, after a series of bad business decisions, rapidly changing technology and a swerve in customer behavior, it has just one. That store has become a beloved community hub, and you watch the movie wondering if something similar could happen to Reckless. But high-tech Seattle isn’t Bend, and we’ve voted with our non-footsteps.
“Where will they move to?” a Reckless customer asked a companion, on the way out the door the other day. Nowhere, except our memories. Sometimes things, even wonderful things like neighborhood video stores, just end.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.