As members of a nomadic military family in the ’80s, one of the first things my parents did when arriving in a new location was to sign up for a membership at the nearest video store. It was their small way of planting a flag in their new community, of feeling like part of the neighborhood. I did the same thing when I moved to Portland 22 years ago: Before my first week of residency was out, I had an account at Movie Madness.
With the home video market continuing to shrink, and with the number of subscriptions to streaming services continuing to rise, thousands of video stores—from monolithic chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video to independent outlets like Portland’s Trilogy Video Store, Clinton Street Video, and Video Verité—have gone out of business. With them has gone the chance to stumble across a new favorite film among stacks of unknown tapes and discs, the opportunity to glean institutional knowledge from devoted video store clerks, and the thrill of finding countless invaluable films that will never be available on any streaming service.
Portland-based filmmaker James Westby looks back on this recently ended era with nostalgia. He’s a video store vet, having worked in nearly a dozen different shops, in the process learning about the history of film while making lifelong connections with co-workers and customers.
“It’s so many different things,” Westby tells me. “It’s the community and the friends I made there, hanging out with the people I worked with, and the people that would come in all the time.”
Westby pays tribute to the lost independent video stores, the society of film geeks who inhabited them, and the few shops that remain with his latest film, At the Video Store. Filmed over the course of six years, Westby’s first documentary—he’s best known for his comedies Film Geek, The Auteur, and Rid of Me—perfectly captures the often shambolic nature of these home video emporiums, boasting interviews with the proprietors of shops like Ivan’s Alley in New York and Video Americain in Baltimore. There are also a slew of marquee names—like Barry’s Bill Hader, legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman), and writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Please Give, Enough Said, Parks and Recreation)—who jump at the chance to profess their love of their favorite stores.
The film also serves as a wistful time capsule: Many of the stores Westby features in At the Video Store have since been shuttered.
“I just got lucky,” Westby says. “A lot of the stores that went out of business were going out of business when I filmed them. Like Videorama [the small Portland chain that closed in 2016]. That was bittersweet, because I worked there. It was such a strangely well-curated store.”
The film does offer glimmers of hope, featuring Portland’s Movie Madness and Seattle’s Scarecrow Video—both of which were saved from the brink of oblivion by generous benefactors. Westby also makes sure At the Video Store doesn’t turn into yet another dry documentary, thanks to scrappy editing and the inclusion of a handful of original songs that humorously poke at the rise of Netflix and Redbox, written by the director and performed by the likes of Laura Gibson, Liz Vice, and erstwhile Mercury contributor Mo Troper.
“When I edited [At the Video Store] together, it was good,” Westby says, “and there were some great soundbites in there, but it was just kind of a boring talking heads movie. I knew I wanted to do more with it. So I wrote a bunch of video store-related songs that helped structure the movie and got more-talented people to record them.”
As sentimental as Westby is for the video stores of yesteryear, he embraces the streaming era, even hoping to get At the Video Store picked up by a streaming service after he takes it around the country for pop-up screenings. And after he releases it on VHS, of course.
At the Video Store screens Monday, December 16 at the Hollywood Theatre with director James Westby in attendance.