Ever since I was a second-grader, I’ve had a life-long love affair with classic horror movies, monster flicks, creature features, etc., particularly those from the 30s and 40s. It is an affair that began with a school book fair purchase of a book on the classic Universal Horror monsters and continues to this day. My work place mug features Boris Karloff in the iconic Frankenstein Monster’s make-up, and my apartment is decorated with framed replica lobby cards of my favorite films from the era. Well, all except one, The Cat Creeps.
If you’ve even heard of The Cat Creeps, you are in the minority. The film is a 1946 supernatural-tinged crime melodrama from Universal; clocking in at just under an hour, it was the sort of B-movie Hollywood studios made to round out double-features in an era before television. I purchased the lobby card mainly because I like the look of it and because I knew of the film, having read about it in various books on classic horror cinema. It’s a silly, dated picture with lots of 40s fast-paced, tough guy talk, and pretty much the only reason it is remembered today is because it was packaged with the rest of Universal’s Horror/Suspense films when they first aired on television in the late 50s. However, if you would like to judge the film for yourself, good luck. You won’t find it streaming online at Hulu or Netflix, nor have I ever seen it on Turner Classic Movie’s schedule. Universal has never officially released the film on DVD, although video tape copies from the mid-90s occasionally pop up on eBay but will set you back a pretty penny (and do you even still own a VCR?). I never thought I would ever see it myself … until last weekend.
The discovery of a DVD-R import copy took place at Scarecrow Video: one of the last, great video stores in the country and, arguably, the largest in terms of titles available—not only Blu-rays and DVDs but even those extinct media dinosaurs laserdiscs and video cassettes (for those of you who do still own a VCR). It is a rich, vast, and unparalleled resource that serves the Seattle community and beyond. And it’s in trouble. If you’re a Seattleite, then chances are you’ve heard the news stories about Scarecrow video’s precarious situation and that the store faces a make or break holiday season. In an open letter on the store’s website from last October, the store’s co-owners Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough stated, “Our rental numbers have declined roughly 40% over the past 6 years. This isn’t a huge surprise—obviously technology has been moving this direction for some time—but the decline has been more dramatic than we had anticipated.
“[Scarecrow Video has] responded to the changing marketplace in pretty much every way we know how to. We’ve expanded our sales sections for both new and used movies, it’s now one of the largest in-stock Blu-ray sales inventories in the area. We’ve opened VHSpresso, serving some of the best coffee (from 7 Roasters), tea (from Teahouse KuanYin), and chai (Tipu’s Chai) around, as well as sodas, snacks and beer. We’ve created a seating-area/screening room/event space where we show films throughout the day and we hold events like book signings, filmmaker talks, and Tuesday night Geeks Who Drink Trivia. We’ve got a whole calendar full of events! We’ve brought in movie posters, film-related toys, books, and soundtracks on vinyl. We’ve added rental specials and date night and family package deals. We’ve increased our on-line presence and web sales. We’ve cut our operations costs as much as we can. But even as we try to offer our customers new and interesting reasons to come in, we simply are not generating enough traffic to support managing and maintaining the world’s largest collection of films.”
Scarecrow faces more acutely what many traditional retailers, University Book Store included, face in this Internet age. The World Wide Web offers fast, convenient, and cheap distribution of everything from movies and television to books, magazines, music, etc. And while this convenience can be in many ways wonderful, it comes at a price. Record stores are a rare breed nowadays; Borders closed last year, while Blockbuster video announced last month plans to close its remaining stores. Whenever another brick-and-mortar store closes, pundits either trumpet or bemoan how the internet has changed retail and media, offering you endless choices at maximum convenience while small and/or local retailers find themselves struggling to stay afloat. And while convenience in these busy times is an important consideration, it isn’t always the best option.
If you want to stream a movie tonight, your options are limited, although you may not even realize it. You do have thousands of choices but by no means everything; unless you’re content with major movie or television fare you will eventually discover, if you haven’t already, that at some point you hit a proverbial brick wall. You can watch The Third Man at any of several different streaming sites. But if you want to watch This Gun for Hire, another film noir based on a Graham Greene story, it’s only available on DVD. Or, if you want to hear award-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s commentary on the film, such commentary tracks are unavailable through streaming services, and the Criterion collection edition that features this commentary is now sadly out-of-print. Scarecrow and other video stores have you covered on all three options. In fact, most of Scarecrow’s inventory isn’t available streaming.
Book stores face a similar dilemma with the explosion of e-readers and e-books, but again a wealth of choices does not include every book that is or ever has been in print. Some of this has to do with copyright law, but a lot of it has to do with what media and publishing companies think will sell best and the costs associated with publishing and maintaining electronic media (server farms are enormously expensive to power and have to run 24/7). Meaning that if you’re interests–in either books or films–stray a little too wide of the mainstream, your choices could be seriously curtailed.
As wonderful and as extensive as the amount of information that exists online, there is still an argument to be made for physical media. In some ways, it is more durable and less likely to disappear due to caprice: for example, the infamous incident of the disappearing 1984 e-book. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued a memo encouraging studios and independent filmmakers to archive their films on 35mm film stock because the pace of computer technology is changing so rapidly that forms of digital storage, currently on the cutting edge of technology, could become obsolete in 5-10 years (do you even own a floppy disc?). At the Used Book Buying desk, where I work in the store, my colleague and I routinely see books published 10, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years ago. There is a solidity and permanence to what is now being called “physical media” that the online world cannot match. The thought that I could loose a favorite book, movie, or record album due to some rights dispute is a frustrating and frightening proposition. Fortunately, with a physical copy of the book in hand, it is something I need not worry.
This isn’t to say we should reject electronic media in favor of physical media, but that both should co-exist. It is a forgotten plot point of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that in the dystopian world of Guy Montag the government did not mandate censorship, it merely took advantage of prevailing tastes:
“The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! … Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation … carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time….” As long as you enjoy vanilla tapioca and dishwater.
Another wonderful thing about physical media, for many people is the joy of browsing: the ability to walk into your favorite store and discover something you weren’t even looking for or even know existed. This also happened to me last weekend at Scarecrow: looking for something to rent on a Saturday night, I perused the film noir section and discovered Rope of Sand, a 1949 crime thriller starring Burt Lancaster, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Paul Henreid (playing a character 180 degrees opposite to his Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) set in the diamond fields of South Africa. It’s a twisty, thrilling, gorgeously shot film filled with the four principals giving delightfully arch performances as they out-maneuver and double-cross each other to find a hidden cache of diamonds. It, too, was unavailable until recently when Olive Films licensed the DVD rights from Paramount.
The wealth of choices and hidden gems at Scarecrow Video is truly staggering, whether you want to explore WWII Occultism, Bollywood Jane Austen adaptations, Hong Kong thrillers, the films of the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, or the best of Argentinean cinema–you’d be hard pressed to find a subject for which Scarecrow Video doesn’t have at least one film. And even if you don’t live in the Seattle area, you can still take advantage of Scarecrow Video’s online shop.
Of course, not everyone loves to browse shops. For them, there is always the internet and online retailers, knowing exactly what you want and getting it quickly is a great thing, as is the joy of happenstance and discovery for those not so inclined. And for those of us who love to browse and shop, it is up to us to do as much as we can to see our favorite stores stay in business. To quote, once again from Scarecrow’s open letter: “We are committed to continuing through the holidays in the hopes that the changes we’ve made to our store and our operations will be enough to convince you, the customer, that Scarecrow and its unparalleled collection are worth saving. Ultimately, it comes down to whether people think it’s worth it to come back. So many people say to us, ‘I love you guys! I used to go in there all the time!’ Lately that has included, ‘What can I do to help?’ That’s simple. Come back in! Rent a couple of movies once or twice a month. Pick up a new Criterion film and have a latte. Buy something from us on-line. Come play trivia and have a beer or two, or come to our events. Let us help you find a movie you didn’t even know you’d love!” These are wise and important words (credit omar). The shop where I bought the lobby cards that decorate my apartment, Rialto Movie Art in Pioneer Square, exists no longer; I’m not sure why, whether the couple who ran the store retired or were unable financially to carry on further, but the reason is moot—I can no longer shop there. This Saturday, November 30th is Small Business Saturday, a great opportunity to show support for your favorite local business—buy some Christmas gifts or bring along a friend, share and recommend your favorite stores to everyone you possibly can—your support greatly increases the vibrancy and economic health of your community in more ways than you can possibly imagine.
Used Books Desk