It sounds just a bit like a Frank Capra movie. Scarecrow Video, the University District store beloved by movie buffs but long troubled by financial problems, appears to have found a happy ending: Several of its employees, with a little help from a friendly neighborhood cinema, are spearheading a drive to convert the store to nonprofit status.
This comes with the blessing of the current owners, who are donating the store’s assets — including its legendary inventory of approximately 120,000 titles. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the transition begins this week.
Kate Barr, a Scarecrow employee and founding board member of the new nonprofit, said that the decision to pursue nonprofit status was made earlier this year. Though Scarecrow has been a Seattle institution since 1988, it has often struggled, and the recent popularity of streaming has cut deeply into the video-rental business.
Last October, Scarecrow owners Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough sounded the alarm. They announced that rentals had declined by 40 percent in the past six years, and that without a large boost in customer numbers, the store would need to close. A strong holiday season followed, but by January business had slumped again.
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“We weren’t specifically thinking nonprofit — we were basically casting around for any idea,” McDonough said last week, adding that she and Tostevin hoped the collection could stay intact, in Seattle and available to the public. “We had several educational institutions and film organizations that were interested in taking it over … to use as a library, something like that.”
But ultimately, McDonough said, Barr and another employee, Joel Fisher, came up with the plan to go nonprofit. Such a move could keep the collection together and add many benefits, including more flexibility regarding memberships, volunteers and donations.
One of the largest independent video stores in the country, Scarecrow has a vast, unique inventory, and the rambling store with its film-mad employees feels like a quirky shrine to cinema. Barr, an employee only since last year but already in love with the place, saw an opportunity: a way to keep the store open and offer expanded educational components to the community. With fellow staffer Fisher, and assistance from Tostevin and McDonough, a proposal was created for a new kind of Scarecrow — “not just rentals, but getting the collection out there and used in other and different ways.”
“I can’t describe how excited we were,” said Tostevin, “that it was a group of people that we know, that have Scarecrow’s best interests at heart.” Among the founding board members, in addition to Barr and Fisher, are Alamo Drafthouse Cinema founder and CEO Tim League and longtime local film critic Robert Horton.
Later this fall, Scarecrow Video the for-profit business will close and a new nonprofit corporation, known now as The Scarecrow Project, will appear in its place. The Grand Illusion Cinema, just a few blocks from Scarecrow, is the fiscal sponsor of the project, lending its nonprofit status during the transition. The Kickstarter drive, lasting a month, has a goal of $100,000; funds will be used as startup money and for preservation and expansion of the collection. Details can be found at www.scarecrowproject.org.
Assuming the fundraising is successful, Barr said, customers soon will see subtle but distinct changes. Though the store is planned to close for only a day or two during the transition (tentatively planned for October), new rental agreements for all customers will have to be drawn up, new opportunities for memberships and volunteering will be available, and new programs are in the works.
“We think there’s so much potential and so much possibility here,” Barr said. “The owners would not have gone forward with our proposal if we didn’t have a financially viable one. This isn’t just a group of kids saying, ‘This would be fun!’ We’ve done our due diligence — we feel like from our end, we can make it happen. But we can’t do it without the support from the community.”
It’s the end of an era for Tostevin and McDonough, who’ve owned the store since 1998, but they look forward to being part of the new Scarecrow’s community. “Being in this industry, we’ve watched a lot of other great video stores around the country fold,” McDonough said. “We have this opportunity not only to not fold, not just prolong the death, but be able to create something new.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org