This is a story about how things can slip away, like a cat on your lap who slinks off so stealthily and silently that you don’t immediately notice. Until this week I hadn’t been to a video store in a very long time, or really even thought about video stores much. They were, I remembered, nice places — ubiquitous in the ’90s and the aughts, where you’d drop by on a busy Friday night or a quiet Monday to find something good to watch. If you had a store in your neighborhood, maybe you were a regular; getting to know the staff and the stock a little bit, recognizing treasured friends on the shelves, leaving with a few slim, sticker-covered plastic cases that each held a new world.
The last family-owned video store in Seattle, Reckless Video on Roosevelt Way Northeast in the Maple Leaf neighborhood, is on the verge of closing down. Its owner, Mike Kelley, contacted me last week, because I have a little bit of history with Reckless: I wrote about the store back in 2002, when it reopened in a new location — a little blue house with a front porch — after its original building, across the street, burned down in a Thanksgiving weekend fire. (I went searching for that story on seattletimes.com and it seems to have disappeared; funny, again, how things slip away.) And I visited the store often as a customer, watching as its inventory changed from VHS to DVD/Blu-ray.
And then, well, probably like you, my recreational viewing — when I had time for it — changed; streaming made it easy to watch whatever I wanted, or most of what I wanted, without leaving the house. And while you and I sat on our couches and clicked things, neighborhood video stores started to disappear, one by one. Now there are only two left in the city after Video Isle’s closure in January: Scarecrow Video, which transformed itself into a nonprofit in 2014, and Reckless, a family business that’s been open since 1991.
The numbers Kelley shows me have dramatically declined over the past five years: In 2014, his store logged about 75,000 rentals; in 2018, that number dropped to 33,500 — less than half. He’s been lucky in that his family owns the building Reckless is housed in — they also own the Ace Hardware store next door, where Kelley also works — and having no lease has kept expenses down. Still, there are five part-time Reckless employees to be paid, the stock of movies and TV shows has to be kept current, and the lights need to be turned on. The store’s operating at a deficit right now, Kelley says, and that can’t go on forever. “But I don’t want to just close down and not let people know this is happening.”
Kelley’s interested in the question of what happens to neighborhoods when small, locally-owned businesses close, wondering “if we’re recognizing, as a citizenship, what point-and-click means.” He points to the personal service his store provides; his carefully curated selection of some 30,000 titles; his prices (recently lowered to compete with streaming services); and the dozens of staffers who’ve worked in his store over the years — for many of them a first job, learning life skills and responsibility while nurturing a love for movies in a neighborhood business. And while young people now often don’t even have DVD players, Kelley notes that streaming isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; not everyone is online, or comfortable on the internet.
“We have a great core group of renters, but it’s not enough,” Kelley said. He’s down to about 600 customers a week; he needs something closer to 800 — maybe another 20 a day — to keep the business alive. To Reckless’ former customers, who might remember the store fondly but haven’t visited for a while, he has a message: each renter matters. Keep streaming, he says, but maybe stop by Reckless now and then, too.
After coffee across the street, Kelley opened Reckless early so I could wander through its five quiet rooms with their neatly stacked shelves. I’d forgotten the candy-shop wonder of seeing so many movies — not just a screenful at a time — together: Reckless has, for example, nine different movie versions of “Jane Eyre,” shelved together under “Bronte Sisters.” There are walls dedicated to movies shelved by actor name, or director name; a large foreign-language film selection; a room full of family-friendly fare; endless rows of binge-ready TV shows, and “The Perfect List” — Reckless’ trademark list, made by customer survey back in 2000, of “movies to watch all your life.”
Employee picks occupy a prominent corner: Cameron recommends “Mulholland Drive,” “The Master” and “Manchester by the Sea,” among others; Lili likes “Moonlight,” “American Honey,” “Rear Window”; Noel’s suggestions include “Young Frankenstein,” “Mean Girls” and “Blow Out.” You read the lists, wondering whether these films have ever been in this particular proximity before, and thinking about how a person’s favorites — a real person, not an algorithm — are a window to who they are. All the movies I’ve loved, some of them rented from Reckless Video long ago, became part of my story; Cameron and Lili and Noel and the others are shaping their own stories, and sharing them.
I ended up reinstating my membership — it had, perhaps unsurprisingly, disappeared, as things do — and renting a season of a TV show I’d been fruitlessly searching for on Netflix just the other day. And I left hoping that a few other people — oh, maybe 20 a day — might do the same. It’s not likely, but movies are full of surprise twists; maybe life has one in store.
Sure, it might be time — and Kelley concedes this — for the video-store model to go. Technology marches on, as it always will, and it may have marched right past Reckless Video and every other little store with candy by the counter and shelves crammed full of dreams. But he, and I, just wants to be sure that we’re all paying attention. Sometimes, you don’t realize that you missed something until after it’s gone.