Reckless Video, Video Isle and Scarecrow Video are the last three video-rental stores in Seattle. It's a rough go, but they see themselves as more than just a place to pick up the latest releases.
Mike Kelley was drawn to movies at a young age, often riding his bike from his childhood home in Yarrow Point to the John Danz Theatre in Bellevue.
That love of film would grow through his lifetime into a career, with Kelley and a partner opening Market Street Video in 1988 and Sunset Hill Video in 1989.
Two years later, Kelley struck out on his own with Reckless Video in Maple Leaf, one of the last three video stores in Seattle, the others being Scarecrow Video in the University District and Video Isle in Fremont. From a time when video stores and chains were found in almost every neighborhood in town, it’s come to this.
Despite a lifetime working in the video-rental business, Kelley is realistic about how much longer he can do so.
“I understand what’s happening. I understand what’s happening with people’s choices,” Kelley said.
Kelley isn’t looking for sympathy. Reckless and the others have persevered in a small business long after hundreds have other have failed, crushed under the immense pressure of changing consumer behavior and streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu.
In the 27 years since opening Reckless, Kelley has rolled with technological changes and personal challenges. The VHS tape gave way to the DVD and there was a fire that burned down the original Reckless. Then came streaming videos, and shifting consumer habits has made the business more difficult.
Kelley said stores like his have survived because they are convenient, offer something you can’t get online and appeal to a sense of community. “Reckless is still alive because we have a great neighborhood,” Kelley said. “There is a relationship to the art form that isn’t available online. Video stores are curators, like libraries and museums.”
Battling powerful trends and technological changes requires owners and employees dedicated to slogging it out, day in, day out. Both Kelley and Kate Barr, Scarecrow’s executive director, say what they do in the physical world has advantages to the digital realm. They include human curation and extensive catalogs: Scarecrow has about 131,000 titles and Reckless has 30,000 compared to the 5,000 or so titles available on Netflix. All of the stores — but Scarecrow in particular — offer another societal service by preserving physical copies of not only popular movies but arcane titles and TV shows that the streaming websites can’t, don’t or won’t ever carry.
“We don’t want to downsize. We want to keep this collection together and believe the power in it is the diversity of voices,” Barr said.
According to the Entertainment Merchants Association, the number of independent video rental stores in the United States has fallen from 8,500 in 2008 to 2,825 in 2017. A lot of those stores are in the Midwest and other rural regions where reliable internet access isn’t yet a reality. Major chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video went from 9,138 to 755 during the same time period.
Kelley thinks deeply about what makes a neighborhood function and attractive and ponders whether people will want to support local businesses that create community, employment and revenue for the city when they can order a movie from their couch and have virtually anything delivered to their front door.
“Do we want to live with the online experience and is that the only door we will knock on?” Kelley asked. “We have to, at an individual level, decide what neighborhood do we want to live in. I see Reckless Video as part of that question.”
Sarah Stiltner and Preston Cronce drop by Reckless at least twice a week. They pay for streaming services but feel a strong emotional attachment to renting videos. Cronce grew up going to and renting movies with his parents on Friday nights. Stiltner says it’s the personal touch at Reckless that keeps her coming back. “The knowledge of the people who work here. They always have great recommendations,” she said. “It just has the neighborhood feel.”
The future is far from certain for these stores. Video Isle, which didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, closed its Queen Anne location in 2015. Scarecrow became a nonprofit. Kelley said business is flat, and that while there is still a core of regulars, the causal customers have slowed.
Spreading a love of film and preserving and growing the collection, which includes VHS tapes and laserdiscs in addition to DVDs, is at the heart of Scarecrow’s mission. To adhere to this mission and sustain the business, the U District institution switched to a nonprofit in 2014 after the previous owners decided to sell. However, they told the staff that they wanted to keep Scarecrow in Seattle and its expansive video collection together and open to the public. The owners were also open to any suggestions. The staff and some volunteers put together a proposal and the owners accepted.
Life as a nonprofit wasn’t a fix-all, coming with its own set of challenges, Barr said. “When we became a nonprofit we understood we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing,” she said. “For us, this was a paradigm shift.”
Barr said this means helping people think of Scarecrow’s collection as a “cultural asset” as opposed to simply videos to rent. Barr is also focused on finding new ways to pull people into the store and, more broadly, develop their interest in the art form of film. Soon after becoming a nonprofit, Scarecrow started adding activities like a children’s hour – where kids do crafts, science experiments and read books in addition to watching short films. Scarecrow is also venturing outside its physical location by sponsoring movies at Magnuson Park.
Finding ways to engage with the community has been easier than the development aspect of being a nonprofit. In April, Scarecrow hired longtime customer John O’Connor as development director. He’s still trying to formulate what that’s going to look like for Scarecrow.
“There isn’t a template that we can use for fundraising because we are such a different animal,” O’Connor said. “There is a lot of currency that Scarecrow has earned in the public eye as a Seattle institution, but also as a national resource.”
Scarecrow has mostly relied on small donations of $100 or less since becoming a not-for-profit. O’Connor is in the midst of guiding a 30th anniversary fundraising drive. The drive, through GoFundMe, is $83,000 toward the $100,000 goal. There are perks, depending on how much a person donates such as curating their own display shelf. O’Connor knows that, while fun and endearing, such enticements need to work in tandem with the cultivation of bigger donors.
Owning a video rental store hasn’t always been a solitary affair. There was a time when the industry was zooming along in the late 1990s that Kelley joined forces with other independent stores forming Seattle’s Best Video Stores. The group pooled resources to market their stores and negotiated with one of the major distributors of videos. The cooperative approach worked and was mimicked by rental stores across the nation. Seattle’s Best Video Stores lasted about eight years, dissolving around the time that Netflix roared into the video market.
Kelley laments the loss of so many of his one-time collaborators. Standing in the middle of Reckless’ main room, surrounded by new releases, Kelley says if there is only going to be a video store left he wants it to be Reckless. In the next breath, he says, “I don’t want to be the last one.”
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Reckless’ collection is assigned mostly by genre to the five rooms that make up the old blue bungalow housing the store. Down the road at Scarecrow, it’s collection sprawls through two levels and fills various rooms and nooks. In addition to the “new releases” section, Scarecrow has some creative sorting. A good portion of the collection is organized by director, and then there is the more whimsical. The horror section has a subsection called “Li’l’ Bastards,” and there is another for movies with car crashes called “Vroom!!.”
Sitting behind the counter in Reckless’ main room is Noel deCordova, who embodies the personal interaction people want from video rental stores. He is quick to come around the counter and talk about the movies he has selected for his portion of the “Staff Picks” section. He excitedly pushes his long red hair from his face as he explains why “What about Bob” — the psychiatric farce with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss — is his favorite movie.
That sort of human interaction isn’t something an algorithm can recreate, he says.
“I’m trying to be the friendly face. You get lost on Netflix and Hulu with the scroll,” he says bending and straightening a finger in the air demonstrating a familiar part of searching for videos online. “It’s not so isolated here. It’s a safe place where you can leave your problems at the door.”