Going Old School
I love learning, talking and writing about businesses that have a personal story behind them. I’m also one for nostalgia and I do believe there’s room for places such as expertly curated video stores in this world despite the plethora of digital options. I’m beginning to realize that we live in a world where all too often we take the convenient way out. Whether that be ordering books online, downloading media, or having pizza delivered. I’m guilty of all of these things. But recently, I’ve started to spend time in places like the Seattle Public Library (the downtown branch is incredible!), used music stores (check out Silver Platters) and I’m always interested in sitting down for a meal at a small, local place. It’s become so difficult for us as a people to submit to the idea of having to trudge out to a store to pick something up physically. We have become slaves to the notion that if it can’t be bought online, then we don’t have time for them.
Visiting a brick and mortar establishment brings a level of personal experience that cannot be found when everything is done ‘virtually’. Don’t get me wrong – I do not enjoy standing in line at the bank. That is a great virtual experience to be had by all. But I do enjoy talking to the people in small businesses where there is value in interacting with the people that work there and listening to what they have to say. Getting help and asking questions with real-time expert responses. Recently, I’ve gotten into the ‘backyard chicken’ movement (is this really a movement?) and have enjoyed spending time with the people at Portage Bay Grange in the U District. Sure, I could go online and look up all of this stuff. But it’s superficial and I can’t always ask the second or third question in sequence if I’m ‘Googling’ something online. However, I can ask their staff and learn everything I need to know quickly and in person.
The Scarecrow Video Story
I recently heard a spot about Scarecrow Video on KUOW and really enjoyed hearing about the place and it’s owners, husband and wife team Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough. It also made me realize that despite the fact that I live less than a mile away from the store I had never been in. So, about a month ago I took my kids and we signed up and started renting our films the ‘old school’ way. The kids loved the place – its walls covered with movie boxes, a film playing above the counter, the theater-style snack options complete with flavored popcorn. They’d never seen anything like it – the Netflix ‘queue’ doesn’t quite have the same impact on you. It also brought me back to my video store rental days except it was better. It wasn’t some soulless re-incarnation of Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. This place was real. It was like a movie library/museum and I suddenly longed for hundreds of hours of spare time so I could rent and watch all of these films I’ve always wanted to or never knew existed. I had to know more…
I had asked to speak with the owners, who graciously agreed, and so I recently went out to meet Mickey at Scarecrow Video which is located at 5030 Roosevelt Way NE in the University District in Seattle. We quickly dove into the conversation which follows and covers the gamut of films, the store and the history that is Scarecrow Video. Three things are clear about Mickey: 1) she’s a self professed ‘movie nerd’, 2) she loves what she does, and 3) she has a deep passion for making sure that people support local businesses and the places that make Seattle unique. It’s also clear that she’s more than just invested personally as a business owner – she’s invested in social component and culture of watching films as a source of community. She loves the ritual of watching films with friends, talking about them, dissecting them over a meal or glass of wine. These are all deeply rooted, personal things to Mickey that make her love the world of movie-making.
With that, I asked Mickey about Scarecrow Video and how it has come to be the go-to place for finding everything from that hot new release to that obscure foreign film you want to see.
How did Scarecrow Video get its start?
It started just over 25 years ago. George and Rebecca Latsios were the previous owners and they were film buffs. They collected lots of VHS tapes and they started the store when they had a couple of hundred or so to rent out. They lived near the old Backtrack Records and Video and they rented out their own films there before opening their own place on Latona Way in Wallingford in 1988. Later, they moved to the current location on Roosevelt Way and they ran it until about 15 years ago when they sold to us. George had some health issues and the store had gone into bankruptcy. We had heard the store was being sold and were interested as customers to find out what was going on. One day we went into the store and asked one of the employees how the sale was going. He told us that it had fallen through. So, we consulted with our friend and former partner John Dauphiny and then decided to buy the place – without knowing anything about the business!
So neither you nor Carl had any background in running a video store?
None at all. We saw the digital age was coming and the writing was on the wall as internet connectivity existed. Music streaming had just started and we knew that video was on its way but we had no idea for how long. The store had been in a difficult spot for a bit of time prior to our purchase. Someone had taken it over, then it went back to George and Rebecca. What they had for a Point of Sale (POS) system was not good – it couldn’t hold enough records for all of the films they had in stock. So, for example, they had to pull out summer seasonal movies and replace them with fall movies. Then, they were culling their customer lists for anyone who hadn’t been in for a couple of years due to database limitations. John and Carl had to write a new POS system as there was no commercially available system that could handle the volume of inventory and transactions that we did. We also had to restore health insurance for the employees, regain the trust of suppliers and assure people that they were trying to maintain the business. We also kept George and Rebecca on to educate us, maintain continuity, keep the neighborhood feel and ease the transition to us.
It was a lot of hard work but fun at the same time. We went from being customers to owning the place and were like kids in a candy store. It was so much fun to have free access to all the titles and to be able to take home anything we wanted to watch. Carl and I use movies the way people use music. It’s common for us to have the movie on in the background in our office. When good scene comes on we both stop, watch, and then go back to whatever we were doing.
How would you describe the selection at Scarecrow Video?
Its not so much that its vast. It’s that its as close to complete as it can be. Even now, we are still working to make it more complete. If something has been released on home video in the world, theres a good chance we have it. If you can’t find it here – almost universally it does not exist.
What were your original goals vs. what they are now?
As it turns out they have come full circle. The main goal is trying to figure out a way to keep this collection around and available to the public.
Other than the obvious technological changes – what has changed since you bought the store?
One of the things that is the most frustrating to me, and this is a downside of technology, is that we have overly ‘commoditized’ art in general. When you talk about how easily you can get books, music, movies – and how easily you can do it without paying; it’s frustrating. Younger generations don’t think of it as stealing – it’s just how you acquire that stuff.
This reminds me of a time I was talking with friend about rude behavior at movie theaters. My friend didn’t understand why texting in movie was a bad thing to do. The whole point of going to see a movie is to get away and immerse yourself in the experience. Not see a little flashing screen out of corner of eye. That experience is now fragmented. As we have turned towards our way of living towards a ‘fast food’ culture – media is going the same direction and we devaluing it. We’re consuming whatever is easy to get.
I don’t need every movie to be big, important and serious. I want to pay the filmmaker for having created that movie. I want them to be rewarded so they will keep doing that. At least musicians have a live music forum to generate additional income. But filmmakers don’t. The more we devalue the communal film viewing experience the worse off the industry will be. Some of my greatest experiences in life have been watching a terrific movie in a huge movie house. Then going out and discussing that film with friends – it’s something we’re losing that I’m not happy about.
What are some of your favorite films?
I love horror movies. My first ‘grown up’ horror movie that made me realize that horror movies could be more than just monsters was the Jeremy Irons film where he plays twin gynecologists – Dead Ringers. I realized that horror films didn’t have to be these silly, stupid genre things. And my absolute favorite is the only movie that has ever caused me to have a physical gag reflex – Dead Alive.
My favorite drama is a guilty pleasure – Steel Magnolias. It embarrasses me to say it but damn I love that movie. For action it’s Aliens. Alien is a horror movie but Aliens is action all the way. For comedy, it has to be Office Space. I can watch this over and over and it makes me laugh every time. Also, movies that critics think are brilliant but I have a fiery hatred for are Unforgiven and Schindler’s List. I know people might think it’s crazy but I hate Schindlers List as a film.
Why should people come into Scarecrow Video vs. rent online/stream?
Well, the first thing is that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You don’t have to pick one vs. other. There is value in being able to order a movie online without leaving the house. There is also enormous value in having all of this available. And in having access to people that can help you find what you are looking for and make educated recommendation or steer you away from a bad film. There’s value in interacting with other people.
What kind of people do you hire here?
We don’t expect people to be film nerds – but we expect that they may want to become one. We also care about getting people to work here that want to learn more about the movies and have a desire to share that experience with other people.
Is there a typical Scarecrow Video customer?
They have learned over time which employees they respect and those that can help them. If they come in with esoteric needs, they will find someone here who can help them. Our customer base over the past 10-15 years has skewed older. Families tend to be from the neighborhood and I wonder if easier to bring kids in because easier than picking online. Perhaps they respond better to the tactile experience we offer?
There’s also this bizarre resurgence in VHS. Two college kids walked in about 5 months ago and were looking at the VHS tapes. I told them that they were in the wrong section and they quickly rebuffed me by telling me that they knew where they were.
What are some of the unique things that make Scarecrow Video what it is?
The selection, our employees, and the ability to find most anything you are looking for here. I love overhearing conversations between customers, staff and I know other customers like this too. They want to hear what others are saying about movies and their opinions about them. This place has a heartbeat of its own that is just for the love of movies. People come here for a reason and it allows them to daydream.
It doesn’t matter how complex an online search algorithm is. You still may not be able to find what you are looking for. A friend of mine came in and wanted something different and eclectic – so the clerk recommended ‘Delicatessen‘. My friend took it home, watched it and loved it. When she came back and asked the same clerk for another recommendation he didn’t have one – Delicatessen is a pretty eclectic film. But another guy in back overheard him and yelled out ‘Cemetery Man’ and he was off and running. You can’t get that experience from a computer.
How is business and how is it trending?
We had a really good November and December. The people of Seattle have responded and really tried to help out. That said, it’s unclear how sustainable it is and we are in the process of exploring other avenues to find out what that means. We know that asking people to continue to patronize the store as it stands is a lot to ask. We also know it’s tough to ask people to drive down here, find parking, etc.
We’re doing more events too. People have come out for the trivia night which has been popular. We’ve also sold tons of t-shirts, movies and the like. It’s so gratifying to hear people say ‘I don’t need a t-shirt but I am going to be one to help Scarecrow.’ But we can’t sell enough t-shirts to offset the drop in video rentals. Right now, we are as operationally efficient as we can be. If we could eliminate 80% of physical display then we could re-use that space. But then people wouldn’t be able to pick up and handle the media and the store would lose part of what makes it so great. They’d just be coming in and looking everything up on a computer.
What is on the horizon for Scarecrow Video as a business?
It’s very expensive to maintain this collection. We need physical space. We have thousands of titles in what we call ‘deep storage’. They are accessible but only available via computer lookup. We need to find enough auxiliary business to support the primary business which is tough to do. We could also go the non-profit route and are exploring options and trying to figure out what that means. All this being said, it appears at the moment, that the model we have won’t sustain itself.
As I was wrapping up our conversation, I asked Mickey whether there was anything she wanted to add about Scarecrow or anything else. After a brief pause she said, “the thing I keep coming back to is this – if I could remind people to pay attention to what they care about. The time of the local video store is almost over. There’s only so much certain businesses can evolve. Video stores can’t evolve. This is not the case for other businesses. We’re ignoring places that make Seattle cool, fun and interesting. I’m guilty of this myself and I have to focus on it and pay attention. Go to Archie McPhee, get some chocolate at Theo’s, buy a book at Elliott Bay, eat at your favorite small restaurant. Pick 3 places that you would be sad about if they closed – and commit to going there next month. Spend $5 at each of them. Support them. If they went away, you would be sad. But you can still do something about them and support them while they are still here. If you love the place, it’s not a hardship to go there.” Well said.
Go to Scarecrow Video – or any other small business that makes Seattle special. Make the time to do it. Talk to real people. Enjoy the moment.
Remember what it was like when everything wasn’t an email, voice mail or text message away. Make a habit of it. What was once old will become new again. It can be liberating. Trust me on this.
For Scarecrow’s 25th anniversary last year, the manager curated films from George, Rebecca, Carl and Mickey’s all time favorites that would be played in the Screening Room over the commemorative weekend. Mickey picked films that changed her life, view of film, and of the world and she knew she would have never found them without Scarecrow Video. They are (in no particular order):
- Taste of Cherry
- Cemetery Man
- City of Lost Children
- Expiration Date
- Ju-On (The Grudge)
- Legend of Zhu
- Meet the Feebles
- Moonrise Kingdom
- Shaolin Soccer
- Spirited Away
- The Hole (the Thora Birch movie)
If you are interested in reading some other great stories about Scarecrow Video please check the following links: