“Best Video?” Daniel’s silver name tag-Daniel Ortiz, Shift Manager-catches the fluorescent lighting as he watches a customer shuffle out of Blockbuster into a drizzly October night, Blood Diamond in hand. “Yeah, I know Best Video. It’s up in Hamden.” Ortiz, who finished high school and then started at Blockbuster-“I like movies”-is 22, with a fuzz of black beard, patchy in places, and the pale skin of a horror film devotee. (All-time favorites: Audition, The Exorcist, Friday the 13th.) “Anytime someone comes in here asking for tapes, I send ’em there.” He nods towards the seven thousand tape-free titles that fill Blockbuster’s aisles. “They’re like the last bastion of VHS. They’re still holdin’ on.”
Best Video holds on in a quiet Hamden neighborhood tucked between downtown New Haven and strip-mall sprawl. Victorian-style houses with trim lawns sandwich the store, and the closest other businesses are Walgreens and Dairy Queen. Other than the name’s claim, etched in red letters on a white sign, and the small, perpetually-packed parking lot, nothing seen from the road intimates what lies within.
Far from Blockbuster’s light-up sign, on the same October night, a smattering of customers wanders through the aisles of Best Video’s thirty thousand films. Section headings are a movie lover’s dream. They range from the serious-by director (Visconti, Bill Forsyth, Mel Brooks), by country (Argentinean, Balkan, Cuban)-to the normative (Best Comedy, Best Low Budget, Best Oscar Losers)-to the whimsical (Weird ’60s, Fantasy Adventure, Sexploitation, Godzilla).
Hank Paper, the founder and owner of Best Video-whose sharp, vaguely mischievous face appears sketched on the orange “Hank’s Pick” stickers that dot hundreds of DVD cases-recalls a favorite anecdote: “A group of Russians that came here once said there were more Russian films in the Russian section than in all of Moscow.” (There are 144.)
Since Hank opened Best Video with five hundred movies in 1984 (“it wasn’t large in quantity,” he says, “but deep in interest”), New Haven area residents have had two options for renting movies: Blockbuster and Best Video. But cookie-cutter operations have never threatened Hank’s local gem. Leaving the wildly knowledgeable staff, astounding selection, and quirky personality of Best Video for a sterile wall of New Releases is like descending from cinephile Heaven to some big-budget purgatory.
In the last few years, however, a bull has wandered into this small-town china shop. “This place has the atmosphere of an old New York bookstore,” another employee named Hank H., the “other” Hank, tells me one afternoon. “It’s a throwback.” I nod, and feel the need to assure him my family has always been a Best Video member. “It’s important for people to realize,” he continues, “that you can’t get a sense of community without community gathering places.” True. But this invocation of community space is a newer, subtler justification of Best Video’s existence than the classic, underdog idealism of many small businesses.
“So…” I finally venture, “Do you think some people have stopped coming to Best Video because of Netflix?” His warm face tightens for a moment. “Oh. Yeah. Definitely.” I don’t ask how many.
Mike, a big guy with a gray, scraggly beard and a puppy-dog smile, has worked at Best Video since he “put the first barcodes” on the first video boxes. In his spare time, Mike writes “The Black Maria,” a blog named after Thomas Edison’s first film studio. “They would turn the whole thing around to catch the sun,” he explains of the studio, still amazed. “The entire thing was all covered in tar paper, and the ceiling would open to let in the light.” Like Mike, most Best Video staffers know the minutiae of film history, or at least their favorite strains of it, inside and out.
But Best Video itself is part of a different historical narrative: the short but ever-evolving story of how America consumes movies. When Hank Paper opened Best Video in 1984, VHS tapes, and the stores that rented them, were novelties. “I hear there are these places called video stores cropping up,” Hank’s father told him as his screenwriting career in Hollywood lost steam. “Why don’t you check it out?”
“The transition from Hollywood to private consumption was revolutionary,” explains Richard, Best Video’s no-nonsense business manager. “25, 26, 27 years ago, if you missed Casablanca in the movie theaters-that was it.” In the early ’80s, major movie studios tried to ban VCRs by claiming copyright violation, incensed at a development that would, without doubt, permanently alter the role of the cinema in American life. They failed, and Best Video opened. “Young people take it for granted,” Richard continues. “They watch DVDs on their computers and think nothing of it.”
Netflix is a boon for discriminating movie lovers in the sticks. “The subscription has revolutionized our lives,” Bill T. Jones, choreographer and director, volunteered recently to the New York Times Magazine about his TV-watching habits. “We’ve been having a kind of French-film festival around here lately. We’ve also been looking at documentaries on Judaism.”
Best Video, always in tune with its customers’ needs, has been running a similar mail-order service for years. In 1994, four years before the birth of Netflix, Best Video shipped hundreds of titles a month to countries across the world. Its service, however, can hardly compete with one of the ten largest users of first-class mail in America.
Despite the company’s brilliant capitalization on this at-your-doorstep concept, Netflix marks another step in our society’s steady march toward perfect customization in perfect isolation. Cinema has become yet another area of modern life that we have divested of place, as if physical location were an archaic notion we struggle to shed. In an age when replication signals business success, Hank firmly insists there can only be one Best Video, and it can only be here.
“People from Hollywood, L.A., Washington, D.C., New York are always asking us to move or open another place,” Hank admits as he stands behind the counter, leaning over a large paperback I assume is a movie encyclopedia, and later notice is the Old Testament. “But we could never replicate what we have here. For one thing, I’m here.” Even if the selection could be duplicated (which it couldn’t), there’s no carbon-or electronic-copy of Hank.
And in a sentiment echoed by other Best Video staff members, Hank believes the particular character of the local community has allowed his store to thrive in a way it might not elsewhere. From the die-hard skateboarder looking for the latest cult hit to the academic couple on a Czech film kick, from the graduate student researching silent films to the huddle of gel-haired boys who just want to see Transformers, Best Video and local residents hit it off a long time ago and have maintained a real friendship ever since.
Of course, as a native of New Haven and longtime Best Video member, I am inevitably recognized. Joseph LaPalombara, a retired Yale professor in political science, interrupts my browsing to ask my last name. Moments earlier he had instructed a staff member to “F8” him, referring to the button that brings up a customer’s rental history, because he’s “a little punchy” at this time of day and can’t remember whether he’s already seen The Lives of Others. He found Best Video the “day or week” it opened and has been renting about four films a week ever since. “You’re Jonathan Lear’s daughter?” he asks, looking at me again. “I met you when you were this tall,” he says, lowering his hand to about three feet off the ground.
A few minutes later, Stewart, another longtime Best Video patron, wrests from me that I am a senior English major with an uncertain future, and then tells me he knows the exact film I have to see. Stewart, for his part, rents whatever movies his wife tells him to-“she’s from Harvard”-although, in general, the couple favors a foreign sensibility. Standing under the Best Video awning, Stewart assumes the staff’s proudest duty: recommending the perfect film you’ve never heard of.
“When people walk in here,” Hank explains, “we don’t say ‘Oh, have you seen Knocked Up? It’s great!’ It did get good reviews. But we implicitly try to gauge your mood, your interests, and show you something you’d never find otherwise.” Stewart looks at me, and smiles wryly. “It’s called I Know Where I’m Going,” he says. “See how especially for you…?” I do. It’s a film, he tells me, about a young English woman in Post-War Europe who takes off for the Scottish Hebrides, because all the men have been killed, and, accompanied by a great Scottish tune, discovers a new life. “The word for it is sweet,” Stewart concludes. “It’s a girl movie.” I rent it, and Hank gives it to me free of charge.
t Blockbuster, half an hour later, I ask Ortiz if he ever recommends movies. “Oh, yeah,” he grins, “All the time. I just ask people what they’re in the mood for.” A thought occurs to me. “I was wondering if you could recommend something for me. I’m looking for something sweet. A girl movie.” I try not to elaborate. Ortiz’s face drops for a split second, then lights up again. “How about The Holiday?” Regrettably, I’ve seen it. “Oh, wait! Have you seen Knocked Up?” I tell him that sounds perfect.
As I walk out, Ortiz is trying to assuage a customer on the phone. “I know, people come into the store yelling, ‘Where’s my on-line coupons!’-and we’ve got no answer!” he sympathizes, twirling his fingers in the black telephone cord. “I’m sorry man, I’m as confused as you are.” Netflix is clearly causing Blockbuster a headache all it’s own.
When I get home, I open Netflix and slowly type in “I Know Where I’m Going.” Stewart told me at the height of his excitement that “no one else in the world has it,” but slight hyperbole was certainly part of his charm. I hit return, and, of course, it’s there.
“Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is a headstrong young woman who travels to the bleak and moody Scottish Hebrides to marry a rich lord…” I stare at the page for a moment, disappointed to have found it. But, really, who cares. Would an algorithm charting my preferences ever have led me to the film that’s going to change my life?