Monday, November 30, 2015

Le Video's Last Stand

The word on the street is that San Francisco’s new address is “Hell in a Hand-basket” and the postman just delivered another letter there: Le Video is closing. Today. After 35 years of glorious service to the Inner Sunset neighborhood and San Francisco in general.
When its doors opened somewhere around 1980, it presented itself as an alternative to Blockbuster. Not just a place to rent movies, but a place to rent films. The whole glory of American filmmaking was available—Marx Brothers, Frank Capra films, Billy Wilder films, Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Bogart-Bacall, Tracy-Hepburn, Fred and Ginger and hundreds more. But why stop there? The foreign film section was equally large—Truffaut, Kurusawa, Bergmann, Fellini, and etc. etc. Add to the mix contemporary films (and movies), documentaries, lectures by Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and folks like that, a family section, an adult section (upstairs). Some 100,000 holdings in the collection!
In the early days, going to Le Video on a Friday night had a taste of actually going out to a movie. It was crowded, there were lines, there was a social buzz in the air. And for someone like me who likes to browse with physical objects on shelves, it was a playground of discovery. Reading back covers and finding out about films I never knew about— some in the end, not worth knowing, but many surprising gems. Including as recently as my last rental three days ago. Who ever heard of Clark Cable and Loretta Young in a film titled “Keys to the City” that takes place in… San Francisco!? Well worth a watch. But you ain’t gonna find it at Blockbuster. And probably not Netflix either.
Le Video sailed effortlessly through the shift from video to DVD, keeping both for a while for dinosaurs like me and then some Blue-Ray. They had great 10-video deals and so you had the sensation that you were getting a “free rental” until they ran out. The staff were knowledgeable and congenial, all the best qualities of the Mom and Pop stores that have virtually disappeared in the American landscape.
But in the past ten years, the crowds thinned out as Netflix ascended and a few years back, it looked like the store would have to close. They came up with one last valiant, last-ditch and inspired  solution— they rented out the bottom floor to Green Apple books. This was a great boon for my neighborhood which once had three great bookstores within two blocks and then none for years. And though Le Video on the second floor wasn't quite the same, they were still with us. They put their collection in a back room and in the stacks where thin plastic covers. When you got a DVD, it was in a plain case, no liner notes to read. Not as satisfying.
The solution turned out to be a temporary life-support system. I walked in to rent something last month and got the news that there were a few weeks left and that was that. There was talk about a giant sale of their stock, but apparently some mysterious person or store bought it all up and no one seems to know where it will be. And so a great icon of the Inner Sunset neighborhood has gone the way of Sunset Stationary and Irving 5 &10 store and all the other remnants of a rapidly bygone era.
As for me, my choices are narrowed to the library, streaming Netflix on my computer or getting them in the mail for my old TV with a DVD player (horribly inefficient, not in-store browsing, no getting out of the house, etc.). I know all of this is a first world complaint, but I’m old enough to be allowed to make it. The whole move toward the weightless, abstract, digital, ethereal (Netflix streaming) drives me crazy. But I’ll go to wherever I have to for that two hours of non-thinking relaxation (movie) or thought- stimulating and heart-opening experience (film). 
Meanwhile, thanks, Le Video, for all the years. I’ll miss you.

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