Video Store Spotlight: A Q&A with Scarecrow Video (Seattle, WA)
Interview by Eddie Gurrola Photo Credits: Scarecrow Video Twitter; Wikipedia
Home Video has been there for us in a way we've never needed it before over the past year. In celebration of the format, we've reached out to the folks that own and operate some of the baddest video stores in America to hear about how they got started, where their passion comes from, and how they've adapted to new customer needs during the pandemic.
Scarecrow Video in Seattle, WA, with its 140,000 film collection that's reputed to be the largest in the world, joined us for a Q&A, which we're excited to share below.
Cinematic Void: Let's start with the history of the store. Can you give our readers a breakdown of how Scarecrow Video became what it is today?
Scarecrow Video: Here's the short version! Greek-born George Latsios learned English by watching American movies and collected movies as a teenager. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1983 with his video collection. George and his wife Rebecca founded Scarecrow in 1986, when George began renting a couple hundred of his personal VHS tapes out of the back of his friend’s record store.
In 1988, they opened a video rental store in the university district featuring 600 titles. Over the next decade, George bought so many movies it plunged the business into bankruptcy, with debt topping half a million dollars. In 1999, the store was sold to Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough. George and Rebecca divorced, and George moved back to Greece. He died of brain cancer in 2003. By 2013, video rentals at the now infamous store had nevertheless plummeted, along with the overall decline of the home video rental market. [So] in 2014, to ensure the collection was not dispersed or sold to a private collector without public access, the store transitioned to a non-profit business. Today, it is still something of an experiment, to run a video rental business from a non-profit video archive library [perspective]. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that is access to movies. Scarecrow Video remains dedicated to making sure the community has access to the broadest possible collection of motion pictures in the best available format.
You have what might be the biggest collection of films in the world. Especially regarding the rare VHS tapes...what's the process like of storage and care to make sure these beauties stay preserved?
[We're at] close to 140k titles now! Preservation for us is all about making the movies available. We don't have the person-power, time, or resources to do fancy things like climate-controlled storage or individually cleaning the tapes, so mostly we do our best to make sure that we're careful, that the movies work when they're rented, and that we check out any reported issues.
Have you taken it upon yourself, or had discussions with other organizations, about preserving some of the rare VHS in your collection digitally? How do you feel about the idea of that?
Some of our rarer and copyright-orphaned stuff has indeed been digitally archived by MIPoPS - Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound. You can see most of that stuff here.
Beyond that, unfortunately it's illegal for us to make digital copies of copyrighted work that we then make available to others for rent or purchase. We're allowed to rent out legally purchased copies, but any other duplication or exhibition is technically a no-no.
Also check out: CV's Video Store Spotlight with CineFile Video (LA) CV's Video Store Spotlight with Videodrome (Atlanta)
Scarecrow transitioned to a non-profit model in 2014. For the uninitiated, why do that? What type of greater flexibility can be had as a video store running as a non-profit?
The main thing that non-profit status did for us was that it allowed us to keep the store open and available to all. If Scarecrow had permanently closed, the catalog would have very likely been broken up and sold off to collectors or local institutions that either couldn't care for it or would limit access to it. See the story of Kim's Video in New York (H/T: Karina Longworth) and what happened to that vast collection for a real horror story.
When folks come in to Scarecrow, what do you hope they get out of the experience?
Being among all those movies is an experience all its own. It's hard to explain what the space feels like to someone who hasn't been in it.
But mainly what we want people to realize is that there is so much more out there than the studios and the streaming services would have you believe. Literally thousands of movies you can't find anywhere else. You come into the store, and you will find something you've never heard of and can't wait to see. Your new favorite movie is in those stacks somewhere.
For my part, as I've been working there for almost 20 years, the space itself is almost like an extension of my brain and body; I can't imagine my life without it.
How would you describe the horror/cult movie section? Does it have a different vibe than the rest of the store?
Physically it looks pretty much like all the rest: crammed to the gills with movies, and like a lot of the other rooms, it's broken up into some fun sub-categories. Some personal favorite sub-categories: Lil' Bastards (your Chuckys, your Leprechauns, killer babies, etc), Nature Gone Amuck (killer animals and so forth), and the Mondo Macabro section for your truly bizarre horror films from countries like Turkey or Indonesia.
We'd imagine you have many titles in that section that have been off everyone's radar, that have never made the leap past VHS to even DVD. How did you go about acquiring some of the independent titles that fit into this category?
Well, the store's been around for over 30 years now, so a lot of that was just picking up titles as they were released. But also a lot of thrifting, garage sales, bargain bin scavenging, literal dumpster diving, you name it. In our 90's heyday - before the internet changed everything - we even sent folks overseas to buy foreign VHS and Laserdisc.
What have you noticed about customer watching habits since the pandemic started?
With COVID, we've only been able to rent via pickup or by mail, but with everyone stuck at home, we've definitely noticed that they're still hungry for movies. We're super lucky to have such loyal customers that have continued to support us this past year.
Final question: If we made it out to Seattle for our first trip to Scarecrow, what are a couple titles you'd recommend we pick up? You know, ones we most likely would never get to see elsewhere...
This is an impossible question. Everyone wants to know what the rarest movie at Scarecrow is. What's the Crown Jewel? But the truth is, the collection itself, in toto, is the Crown Jewel. It represents a hundred-plus years of cinema, with films in 126 languages from just about every country in the world. There's just nothing else like it on Earth.
After this interview was conducted, Scarecrow launched Scarecrow 2.1, a new crowdfunding campaign to help support their future. To find out more about Scarecrow 2.1, or to make a donation, click here. Be sure to make a trip out to Seattle once Covid is over to visit Scarecrow Video, and to connect with the store online, no matter where you are, here's their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.