A couple on an evening stroll down Valencia Street comes to a stop outside Lost Weekend Video. They’re peering in through the big front window.
“I wanted to check it out because I haven’t seen a video store in a long time,” says Abel Martinez. “These days I watch a lot of pirated movies.”
Martinez is not alone. Almost half of all Americans have illegally downloaded a show or movie they wanted to watch. The number of independent video stores in the country has fallen by over half since 2004. And last year the national chain Blockbuster closed all its stores.
But Lost Weekend Video has managed to survive.
On a typical night you might walk in and see a movie playing on the two big televisions inside. Tonight, it’s basketball. About a dozen people mill around the aisles looking at the rows of DVDs and VHS tapes stacked spine-out. The place seems welcoming, which co-founder David Hawkins says was the original point.
“I think that’s what I was trying to achieve … a video store that wasn’t so large it was intimidating. Nor so niche that it was frustrating,” says Hawkins.
The origin of the store dates back to the late nineties. Hawkins and two friends were all working in the music industry, but wanted to do something different. Co-owner Christy Colcord had an idea.
“I suggested that maybe we think about owning a video store ‘cause we could sleep late and just talk about movies all day,” she says.
Soon after that, they started stockpiling their favorite indie and cult films and storing them at her place.
“I had the biggest apartment, down on Albion street, and my whole living room … every bookshelf, every pile just became full of VHS,” Colcord remembers. “They took up a lot of space, too.”
When they got to a couple thousand titles, they opened up shop. Colcord says there were a lot fewer businesses on Valencia at the time. But they did have competition – a couple other small video stores, plus Tower and Blockbuster were nearby. Colcord says Lost Weekend filled a particular need.
“At the time it was a lot of artists and filmmakers and old San Francisco types so there were people who were really into movies and media culture,” she says. “They were very enthusiastic ... about the kinds of films that we were renting.”
Even when Netflix first came on the scene, Colcord says Lost Weekend wasn’t really sweating it. But when the economy collapsed in 2008, people had to choose one or the other. David Hawkins says many of Lost Weekend’s die-hard customers lost their jobs and left the city.
“In the old days, we were a recession proof business. You know, spending $3 on a video was about as cheap a date as you can have,” Hawkins explains.
But today people can watch as many movies as they want for less than $10 per month. So they had to think of new ways to bring people into the store.
About two years ago, Lost Weekend started holding movie screenings in the store’s basement, which they dubbed the “Cinecave”. There are old red velvet movie-theater seats down there, which hold a cozy 20 people or so. Soon after the movie nights began, the store’s owners started experimenting with live entertainment – stand-up comedy and improv.
There used to be just a few comedy shows a month. But they were such a hit, there are now a few a week. The basement got relabeled the “Cynic Cave”. People pay $5 to $10 dollars a show to watch local comedians and occasionally big names.
“You never know what you might see,” says Blaire Shertock, who is in the audience tonight. She says she comes to comedy shows seeking something she can’t get at home. “It’s the energy that you get from the performers. I mean it might be improvised, it might be scripted, but I think nothing can replace that.”
The original purpose of the shows was to draw in more customers and make a little extra cash. But the performances have also created a place for people to come together in real time and space -- an alternative to watching something alone in your room on a laptop. David Hawkins wants to remind people that it can actually be fun to do things the old fashioned way, no matter what Netflix says.
“You know, the whole ad campaign is like, ‘Oh you’ll be so happy you never have to go to a video store again...those pesky video stores.’ It’s like: we’re not the dentist, we’re not the DMV.”
He says he can see the effects of technology on our lives, just by looking out on Valencia Street. Of course, he relates that to a movie.
“It feels a little like The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers sometimes, where either the streets are completely dead where they never used to be or it’s just a very different feeling,” says Hawkins.
But not all change is bad, according to Christy Colcord.
“Valencia Street is not going to be what it was,” she says. “And frankly, in 1995 people used to poop in our front step. So it wasn’t a dream time. But what we can continue to serve as is like this reminder of the community that Valencia Street used to have, in terms of artists and creative people, and people who wanted to talk to each other and didn’t want to sit in a box.”
Story update: Since we first aired this story a year ago Lost Weekend Video has faced the possibility of shutting its doors due to rising rents and declining business. But, they just announced they’ve come up with a new plan. It includes creating a searchable catalogue of their collection online and partnering with a courier service to deliver videos to your door. Find a link to their indie-gogo campaign here.