Thursday, September 27, 2012

RIP 4 Star Video. The Rise and Fall of San Francisco Video Stores

Must say that I’m really bummed about the closing of 4 Star Video in Bernal Heights.  It’s been my video store since moving to the Excelsior 10 years ago.  I’ve held off on entering the Netflix world, in part to support my buddy Ken Fad Shelf, who purchased the store 5 years back, but also because I like video stores.  I like browsing the aisles, bumping into films I hadn’t come to rent.  I like hanging out with the people who hang out in video stores or are crazy enough to own them.  That’s part of being a film junkie.  

In a way, it’s odd that the demise of 4 Star is the store closure that hits the hardest.  Maybe that’s because it’s the one that I frequent now, and whose closure will force me to go to Netflix or a similar rental solution.  Maybe it’s because it’s the store my son has grown up in.  Last month my 11 year old browsed the shelves and pulled three films that we could watch that night—Powaqqatsi, The Phillip Glass documentary, or Broadway Danny Rose.  The choice was mine.  He loves hanging out in video stores, record stores, and bookstores.  I’m glad he’s had the chance to have those experiences, because in all likelihood, there’s a short window left to be moved by those activities.

It’s funny I’m even bemoaning the downfall of the video store.  I was pretty skeptical during the infancy of these stores.  It wasn’t like you could go find the films of Richard Kern or John Waters in video stores.  But then I moved to San Francisco in 1987 and the video stores here were eye opening.

I’m proud to have been one of the first members at Naked Eye, Wild Wild Video, Leather Tongue, Dirty Tongue, and Lost Weekend.  My membership card numbered less than #100 in all those spots.  Naked Eye was my first love.  A mind-bending selection with all the American Underground titles you could want.  All the Russ Meyer movies, Beth and Scott B shorts, and a huge stock of Target Videos.  Me and my friends watched them all.  Of course back then in the group-housing scenario, you all shared a card. Even people you didn’t live with shared your card.  For a good couple of months, every time I went in, Steve, who ran the joint was always harassing me to return Ken Russell’s The Devils, a title my ex-roommate had checked out and never returned.  I never even saw the movie…and still haven’t to this day! 

Wild Wild Video was another great one.  It started over by The Kabuki in Lower Pac Heights, a very bizarre place for a store featuring every psychotronic movie you could shake a stick at.   I don’t even think they carried anything but psychotronic videos.  Talk about a specialty store doomed to close!  Owners Mary and Prax, were great to chat with.  They eventually relocated to SOMA and eventually moved on to other pursuits.

The Valencia corridor came alive in the 90s.  Leather Tongue was first in the door.  Lisa who ran the joint was awesome in a crazy 90s way. You felt like a deviant just walking into that store.  In fact, she ran out of space for her porn titles, necessitating her to open a second store called Dirty Tongue…just for her dirty movies!

Lost Weekend opened a short time later and may end up as the last store standing.  Dave, Kristy and Adam are still carrying the torch.  I was over one of their apartments shortly before they opened.  They had started amassing their collection, and titles lined their apartment walls.  Lost Weekend was/is a true labor of love and passion, and, as a result, has the best selection of all.  The store is curated by film buffs who love it all and know how to put it together and display it.  I can still go in there and chew the fat with whoever is at the counter and always come away with titles I wasn’t expecting to grab.  

In all likelihood it too has an expiration date, but maybe being on Valencia will help stave off the inevitable.  I’ll go there to rent some titles, but certainly not as frequently as 4 Star.  It’s just too far away.  It used to be 1 block from my house, now it’s not so conveniently located, and, alas, I think Netflix is in my future.

I’m sure I’ll love Netflix.  I’ll love the immediacy and the instant access.  I'll love not having to make an additional trip to return a video and being charged a late fee. But I know Netflix is not going to stream or even have every oddball title I want, and I guarantee it won’t have the same flavor of wandering down Valencia Street, popping into a store filled with friends and debating the merits of The Cinema of Transgression vs. Mumblecore.

Note: Please don’t give me grief for not mentioning Le Video.  I know it’s great.  It’s just I’ve never lived on that side of town.