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An Ode to Scarecrow Video

From around the time I was 10 years old, I viewed myself as a huge movie buff. In high school, it was the main thing I was known for. I swear to you, nobody in Yakima (population 90,000) knew more about movies than I did from 1994–97. So it was a bit of a shock when I started working at Scarecrow Video in 2006, where—compared to the average staff member—I knew basically nothing.  

The people who work at Scarecrow Video are freaks. I had one co-worker who spent an entire year watching three movies every day for a year (nearly 1,100), just to prove to himself that he could do it. Each employee had his/her own specific fixations: Obscure ’70s TV movies. Subversive Italian sexploitation horror. Gothic musicals. The entire catalogue of Warren Oates. These guys had already seen all of the movies I’d seen, many times over, and they’d moved on to another, higher, level: pure obsession.

I’ve never loved anything as much as these people love movies. They never want to stop watching movies, and if the store somehow stayed around forever, they’d never have to. There are something like 130,000 unique titles there (nobody really knows for sure). That’s roughly enough for someone to watch new movies all day long, without sleeping, for fifty billion trillion years.

I worked at Scarecrow for almost exactly 10 years. That’s the longest I’ve ever had a job, by a wide margin. That’s over one quarter of my life. I watched the children of customers grow up and start their own accounts. I watched older customers gradually fade away until family members called us to let us know that they had died. Think about that. They thought the folks at the video store would want to know. We did.

One man, a fussy-but-kind gentleman who enjoyed horror films, had terminal cancer and decided that he would spend the last of his days watching all of the obscure movies he could get his hands on. His tumor was plainly visible and quite gruesome. In his final few months, most of us dreaded helping him—it was viscerally difficult to look at him. Fortunately, one of our co-workers had a huge heart and a deep capacity for confronting tragedy (she’s goth). I figure she was one of few sources of joy for him in those nightmarish final months.

The job wasn’t all schmaltzy human-interest stories. Over the years people screamed at me, called me “retarded,” threatened to have me fired and made unconscionable messes in our bathroom. More than once, I heard a person sincerely call our late fee policy “draconian,” which seemed a tad dramatic. Any time you have to reach back to ancient Greek history to find the words to describe a negotiable $27.00 charge, you might have lost your sense of perspective.

Over a decade, I watched the video rental industry decline to a devastating degree. In the last few years, not a day went by without someone coming into the store surprised to see us because they thought that video stores no longer existed. It’s weird to work for an industry that most people assume died out, but I was proud to work at the largest private collection of movies in the known universe, a Mecca for true movie buffs. Also, I was dirt poor and afraid of the future every day.

Scarecrow is known as the greatest video store on Earth, one of the final carriers of the physical media torch. It is much loved among people in Seattle and beyond for its vast archive and legendarily knowledgeable staff. Tarantino once made a pilgrimage. We’d have visitors from Europe and Asia who swooned, finally getting to witness the legend first hand. French parents would buy T-shirts for their kid back home—“he’s going to be so jealous that we came here!”

Scarecrow successfully transitioned into a nonprofit two years ago. When we won the Stranger Genius Award for film in 2015, the audience gave us a standing ovation. I was on stage at the Moore that night with all of my co-workers, and the adoration from the crowd was palpable. After that wonderful night, we got back to the business of being afraid of disappearing forever.

In mid October, I got a call in the early morning. It was the final, concrete verification that I would start work at a new job in the next week—one that provided benefits and a decent wage. After I hung up, a few seconds went by and I was surprised to find myself crying. It was from relief. Working at Scarecrow for a living was like working on edge of a cliff, for minimum wage. Being poor is already stressful, try being poor with the added grief of possibly losing even that due to the proliferation of streaming services. If you’re a real movie buff, add losing a vast percentage of the movies available to you at the exact same time.

One of my co-workers said the most telling thing to me during the darkest time for the store—this was three years ago, when we weren’t sure the nonprofit was going to happen and it seemed like the doors would soon close forever. “It’s not losing my job that I’m worried about the most,” he said. “I can always get another job, but there will never be another video store like this.” Even in his moment of personal crisis, he was wondering where he was going to go to see the movies he wanted to see. That’s a movie buff.

The nonprofit is gradually trying to phase into a volunteer workforce. I’ve been surprised to see how many people have wanted to give their free time to the cause. When you have to be at a place every day, when your livelihood is tied to its ups and downs, it’s easy to forget how incredibly cool it is.

I’ve been at my new job for more than two months now and my anxiety levels have decreased significantly. Last week, I went back to the ‘Crow to visit and pick up some old paychecks. When I pushed open the double doors and walked in, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was awed once again. There it was, in all of its glory: Two stories of pure cinematic glory, 120+ years of recorded history. Plus: porn!

I was in a hurry, but I couldn’t help myself from pacing around the shelves, ogling all of that beautiful box art. It took me back to the first time I went to Scarecrow, when I first arrived in Seattle in 1998, when the store was primarily VHS tapes. It took me back to the video stores that I grew up in: Crazy Mike’s and Video Ultra in Yakima. It took me back to the tiny video section in the Albertsons’ down the street from the house I grew up in, where I used to gawk at the R-rated boxes for hours and wonder what kind of mysteries they held.

It made me remember how much of a movie fan I really am. Even if I pale in comparison to the real pros. 

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