Reels of Character
Video To Go hangs on as one of the county’s last bastions of independent and eclectic films.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
In a stormy Friday evening, Stanley Kramer’s comical ensemble adventure, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, plays on a 13-inch television propped above the counter. The video store manager is glued to the set, consumed by the 1963 movie.
There is no scripted greeting, no uniforms and no cardboard cutout of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in sight.
Video to Go manager Kristen Jensen looks up. “Ethel Merman was great in this,” she says. “I really have to watch this again.”
Snuggled next to a trophy store and Laundromat, Video To Go is nondescript on the outside and all about film on the inside. There are thousands of movies– DVDs and VHS– stacked every which way so tightly that a number of the boxes are crushed. Any open wall space is plastered with movie posters.
In an era where Blockbusters are ubiquitous and Netflix has become an $8 billion industry, this scene is an anomaly.
Jensen has managed the small store for 14 years. She greets most of her customers by their first names.
“It’s really fun to work here. Places like this remind us of the difference between independents and corporations,” says Jensen. “I’m used to the corner-store feel.”
Blockbuster Video sits directly across the street from Video To Go, two different universes parsed by North Monterey’s Fremont Boulevard.
Jensen explains to a patron that the recent release No Reservations is based on the German film Mostly Martha. Her knowledge of films– whether obscure or mainstream, cult or classic– is eerily impressive. It’s an expertise that comes in handy when helping customers find what they want.
“You’d be surprised how loyal our customers are,” she says. “Some have been coming here for years.”
As she points to the store’s massive collection of British TV series, including Bad Girls– a show about life in a women’s penitentiary– Monterey Peninsula College students Brittnie Panetta and Beny Cardenas hesitantly walk in the store. Jensen immediately zeroes in on the newcomers.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“We’re looking for a hard-to-find movie,” Cardenas says.
Jensen assures Cardenas he has come to the right place.
“Do you have a movie called The Secret?” Cardenas asks.
“Of course,” Jensen responds, already making her way to the wall.
Cardenas and Panetta are astounded. “[Blockbuster] told us to come here,” Cardenas says.
Jensen isn’t surprised. “[Blockbuster] always tells people to come here when they don’t have a movie or when someone is looking to rent VHS,” she says.
Cardenas and Panetta say the big chain is their usual video store of choice.
“I don’t know why we never came here. I guess we didn’t pay attention,” Cardenas says. “Now that we know we will definitely be back.”
Along with Video To Go’s selection of classic and hard-to-get films, the store’s other key niches are VHS videotapes and adult flicks.
“Not only do lots of customers still rent VHS, there are movies that still are not available on DVD,” Jensen says.
As for the adult films, Jensen euphemistically refers to that area of the store as the “educational section.” Neither Hollywood Video nor Blockbuster Video nor Netflix offers pornography, which, according to Jensen, accounts for most of her store’s revenue.
Jensen says Video To Go cannot afford to have tons of copies of hit movies, like 300, that Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video have. Her shop’s “new-release” section mostly contains one or two copies of the new-release hits.
“We carry the unrated version of films and have an adult section because we want to give customers the chance to choose,” Jensen says.
Of course, Jensen’s species of store represents an increasingly endangered choice– Carmel’s Monster Video and sister stores Carmel Valley Video and Carmel Video, where free documentaries are popular, are the only independent movie hubs left in Monterey County.
Though Jensen claims sales are fine, should it go the way of so many indie video joints before it, the Peninsula would lose a key component of its culture and identity.
“[Customers] tell me they like supporting the independents [like Video To Go],” Jensen adds, “because it keeps the local community thriving.”