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Blockbusted: What happened to the neighborhood video store? 

Damian SchmittThere's no blue collars or khakis. No life-size posters of Morgan Freeman. And if it wasn't clear from the rows of indie and foreign

click to enlarge Damian Schmitt
  • Damian Schmitt
Damian Schmitt
There's no blue collars or khakis. No life-size posters of Morgan Freeman. And if it wasn't clear from the rows of indie and foreign films and the vintage VHS tapes for rent, then owner Damian Schmitt's tattoos and lamb chops could surely leave no doubt - you're not at Blockbuster.

The owner of Westside Video is talking about the store's history, which spans three decades, two locations, and several owners. It's a rich past, but the future is a little murky. Schmitt is soberly realistic about the nature of independent businesses and is hardly looking to host his own pity party as he outlines the pitfalls of big outfits like Blockbuster. He is, however, honest in admitting that he's not sure if Bend can, or will, support a locally owned, independent video store - meaning that when his lease is up in October, there's a chance that independent video becomes a thing of the past in Bend. He looks out the window out at Newport Avenue, and puts his position bluntly.


"Closing is not what I want to do, but right now is really gut-check time," Schmitt says.

In recent years, Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and other large video chains have all but pushed the neighborhood video store out of the market. In 2006, independent stores made up only 39 percent of the rental market, according to data provided by the Entertainment Merchants Association, a trade organization focused on the home entertainment industry. This number is expected to continue to drop in the coming years as online rental accounts, namely Netflix, which made up 16 percent of the rental market in 2006, are expected to continue their surge. Also, Redbox and DVDPlay rental kiosks, found respectively in Bend McDonald's and Safeways, have also shuffled into the market, providing $1 daily rentals.

With these figures in mind, it's almost natural to expect the steamrolling momentum of Netflix, coupled with the already widespread presence of major chains to soon eliminate independents all together. But in larger art-friendly Northwest cities like Portland and Seattle, independent stores are thriving - in Seattle alone there are actually eight independents scattered about a relatively small portion of the city. These stores often highlight a selection of indie and foreign films and other quirky flicks that aren't likely to be found on a Blockbuster shelf. It's this share of the rental market that Schmitt draws upon in Bend.

"I've always seen the store more like a library or a bookstore, where you might go in with something in mind, but you're open to checking out a different film," he says of the store's two floors of choices.

click to enlarge Image
  • Image
But no matter how many niche films Schmitt can cram into his Newport Avenue location, the selection will be a far cry from what Netflix can offer. The online, mail-to-your-front-door rental operation boasts a collection of more than 90,000 titles. Even if a store could get its mitts on all those films, it would need about 3,750 feet, or almost 3/4 of a mile, of shelf space to physically house one copy of each of these selections.

"You have access to every DVD imaginable and it gets mailed right to your door; you don't even have to leave the house. It's very hard to compete with that," Schmitt says of Netflix, adding that, like other independent video stores, he's toying with the idea of developing some sort of video delivery facet to his business, emphasizing that this remains in the idea stage.

The decline of the independent video store in certain cities, as well as the closure of even chain stores, could signify a change in the way we consume our media. Recently, Netflix created a process by which subscribers can watch videos from home computers, eliminating the need for physical DVDs entirely. In the 1980s, a VHS tape could cost as much as $80, but could be rented for 5 percent of that cost, creating an enormous demand for video stores. But now retail prices of DVDs can sometimes be found at a price only a few times more than the cost of a rental - leading consumers to purchase the disc rather than renting it.

While Westside Video is the last remaining true independent video store in Bend, a town that's grown to support four Blockbuster stores within its city limits, the climate is different in smaller Central Oregon cities like Sisters where Juan Sanchez has recently taken ownership of Sisters Video. Sanchez, who worked in the Southern California film industry for 11 years before heading north in search of kind faces and clean air, says that his success relies on Sisters' small town attitude and status.

"We're a dying breed," Sanchez says of independent stores. "It's just the big chains we have to compete with. But I'm lucky; I'm out here and I'm separated from all of them."

Sisters Video houses 8,000 titles and faces competition from only two other outlets in town - Sun Buster video and the rental service found within the Ray's grocery store. Sanchez says that he has customers that choose his store because they want to avoid online retailers like Netflix and that he's able to provide customer service that other businesses can't, such as special orders of hard-to-find films.

On a recent Friday evening, the Westside is bustling with families and other regulars, all of whom, when asked their reason for patronizing the store, voice an obligation to support not only Westside, but all of Bend's independent businesses.

"Coming from larger cities where hardly anything is locally owned, I think Bend is one of the places that still has pride in its locally owned businesses," says Rebeckah Berry, a Westside resident who moved to Bend from Salt Lake City about two years ago.

Annie Reitz has been coming to Westside Video since 1994, long before Schmitt owned the business, and softens her voice a bit when admitting she's also a Netflix subscriber.

"I have to confess, we're Netflix members, and that's been good. But there's also something really nice about coming here where there's friendly faces," Reitz says.

Even the chains have felt the heat from Netflix, which is why Blockbuster instituted a "no late fee" policy (not to mention its own online rental outfit). That didn't help Westside Video much. While its films rent for slightly less than Blockbuster (a two-day new release at Westside is $4 versus $4.25 at Blockbuster), Westside still has a dollar-a-day late policy.

"The late fee is a negative thing, but that's how I have to do it," he says of the fee, which he relies upon to keep his inventory rotating through the store.

But it's only a few minutes after that the neighborhood corner-store vibe of Schmitt's shop comes to light. A man in a Ping golf hat and a wind-burned face comes to the counter and sheepishly admits that he moved a few times over the last year and just came across a movie that's several months overdue. He winces as Schmitt tells him that he owes around $300 in late fees. Schmitt tussles with the situation for a few minutes, before eventually forgiving the guy's fees in full, asking only that he bring the DVD back as soon as possible - with a six-pack of beer.

There aren't too many businesses around (especially of the chain variety) that would accept a sixer in lieu of fees. But Schmitt's attitude toward his customers seems to embody the ideals of the neighborhood store - or at the very least how we like to envision locally owned businesses. Schmitt knows six packs aren't going to keep him in the ring with the major chains, but for now, he says it's about keeping people coming through his door - and not that of his corporate rivals.

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