Netflix recently got a nice PR bump from Reddit, when someone posted the amusing results of an exchange enacted entirely in Star Trek nerdspeak with a clever customer-service rep who goes by the name Captain Mike. (Sample: “LT, what seems to be the problem?” “Visual displays are erratic, sir. Season 5, episode 13 of Parks And Recreation is behaving oddly.”)
I was reminded of that story when several similarly themed stories passed through my feed on Monday, all about the same topic: the decline of old-school video stores. One, from KOMONews.com, is about the potential closure of Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, one of the largest and greatest video stores in the country, if not the world, with a selection the staff estimates in the neighborhood of 120,000 titles. (It’s so big, they’re not sure.) The other, from DNAInfo.com was about the way some New York City video stores have been “getting creative” in order to stay afloat in the age of Netflix. This includes places like Videology, a joint in Williamsburg that recently converted its floor space into a bar and a screening venue. It still rents movies, but most of the titles are housed in the basement; rather than browsing through rows of shelves, customers make their selections at a computer kiosk.
Videology is a very cool movie-themed bar (I hosted a live episode of my podcast there last fall, and I’ve heard great things about its weekly trivia night), but it barely qualifies as a video store. Some places cited in that DNAInfo article seem to be doing well along more traditional lines; my friend and film journalist Aaron Hillis told the site business is up at Video Free Brooklyn, the store he bought in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood last year. But they’re the rare exceptions. To survive as a video store in this environment, it seems, you better become something other than a video store—like a bar or a coffee shop or a library—or you’re in real trouble.
Even an icon like Scarecrow Video is facing hard times (it reports a 40 percent drop in business) and potential permanent closure. Earlier today, Blockbuster Video, the former juggernaut in the field that muscled out hundreds of local and independently owned stores, announced it was closing its remaining 300 stores and getting out of the domestic retail business entirely. It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration anymore to say that I’ll see the end of all video stores in my lifetime; it’s starting to seem like a very real possibility that my future children will never even set foot in one.
As someone who grew up haunting local video stores in New Jersey (R.I.P. Video Home Center’s “five movies, five days, five bucks” deal), and who credits the year he spent working at New York City’s famous Kim’s Video as his unofficial Ph.D. in cinema studies, I recognize that I have a slightly irrational and overly romantic view of the subject, one colored by emotion and nostalgia as much as cold hard fact. But even with all of Netflix’s advantages (and as a regular user I would be the first to admit, it has many), I still believe there’s a place for brick-and-mortar video stores. And the Netflix Captain Mike conversation, a story as depressing as it is entertaining, highlights a big one.
The fact that that exchange went so viral—it was shared some 20,000 times on The Huffington Post alone—is a sad reminder of how low our expectations have gotten when it comes to the world of online customer service. If the exact same conversation happened in real life, it would be kind of cute (or possibly slightly creepy); it was only funny because it happened through the intermediary of an enormous, presumably unfeeling mega-corp like Netflix. The streaming giant’s website is so utterly faceless and devoid of personality, it was genuinely surprising to find a recognizable human presence buried beneath it.
We live in a world where immediacy and instantaneous access is the fundamental driver of commerce. Convenience certainly has its place, but expertise should still have one too. I’d like to think one reason Hillis’ Video Free Brooklyn continues to thrive is because its staff is populated by critics and cinephiles who care deeply about movies as movies and not just as “content” for the streaming maw. They can guide you to personal recommendations based on your taste and their own hard-earned knowledge of film history, rather relying on a dodgy algorithm. Yeah, Captain Mike can repair your video quality, and make a joke about it while he does it. But can he suggest an obscure title you might want to watch once it’s fixed?
At a traditional brick-and-mortar video store, a response to a customer question by an actual person with a name and a sense of humor would be the bare minimum of professionalism. At Netflix, it’s treated like a massive achievement. Which is why we still need the former in a world dominated by the latter. So if you live in Seattle, and you feel like watching something tonight but you’re not sure what, why not head over to 5030 Roosevelt Way NE instead of randomly picking whatever trickles to the top of your Netflix home page? I bet whoever’s manning the counter can pick out something great for you.