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Local movie stores stay afloat in online tide

Streaming video has washed away most brick-and-mortar video stores in the past few years, but a few hardy local shops are fighting the tide — with personal service, advice on movies and a selection rich in films hard to find on the Internet.

D.J.'s Video, founded in Ashland in 1984 when watching movies at home started becoming all the rage, offered 30,000 titles in a 17,000-square-foot store in the Ashland Shopping Center. But the advent of Netflix and other competition forced it to downsize to a much smaller shop in the Railroad District in 2010. It still offers 28,000 titles, however. "People like it, being able to walk in, hold the DVD boxes in their hand and talk about movies," says owner Andi Black, whose parents, Jerry and Deanne Thompson, founded the business. "We provide a niche in the market. You don't have to wait for your video. And some people live too far out in the country to stream video."

D.J.'s can offer "the latest and hottest" as soon as new films come out on DVD, she adds, "and we offer competitive prices — $1.99 with no monthly subscription, like on Netflix or Amazon."

Moviegoer Habib Shahin peruses Video Explorer on Oak Street in Ashland and lauds owner Steve Lanusse's exotic selection of 5,000 titles, many of which are foreign, indies, TV series or films you've never heard of but feel compelled to watch once you read the box and ask about it.

"It has a personal feel here, and I like to support a local business," says Shahin, holding a video about philosophers in Berkeley. "This is stuff you can't find anywhere. It's a special place, where if you describe what you want, they have some names of films for you."

John and Perii Owen say they're old-fashioned and don't want to figure out how to connect the computer to the TV and get streaming video. And they don't want monthly fees.

"We love small businesses," says Perii. "It's a wonderful vibe in here. Steve keeps it personal. It pushes you to get out of the house and engage people."

"You always find people to talk to," says John.

For longtime customer Kathe Smith, who lives down the street, it's a simple matter: She doesn't have a computer.

"It's a treasure house of movies here — and he is always selling the overstock for $5 or $6," she says.

"Online there's a million movies and everything's disconnected from you," says Paula Montfort. "Here I find something I would never have thought of looking for."

Despite the economy and the mania for streaming video, business is holding steady after seven years, says Lanusse.

"It's a convenient location in the neighborhood and has lots of movies that aren't on Netflix. People are aware it's a small business and they like that feeling," he says.

If you want films in Farsi, Turkish or Himalayan, they're in stock. If Lanusse doesn't have a rare film a customer is seeking, he can buy it on the Internet or at closure sales of other video stores, he says.

Annaliese Hazlett wanted "Reign Over Me," a documentary about a man who lost his wife and two daughters on 9/11. She needed to review it for her college class in social work. It wasn't on Netflix, she says, but Video Explorer had it.

Twenty-six-year-old Video Quick in Talent weathered "the perfect storm" in 2009 and lost 20 percent of its revenues when the economy caved in, Redbox and Netflix boomed and chain stores cut prices, says owner Curtis Thompson.

"A lot of people are coming back from Netflix for the knowledgeable service, face-to-face contact and the good feel of browsing, like in a library," says Thompson. "Some people still value that over the computerized experience."

Are the local entrepreneurs going to be here in, say, five years?

"Well, there's only so much pie to slice," says Black. "But we've been able to co-exist with them (streamers) so far. Online, you can't go browse and see what you're in the mood for that night. We're not going out of business, though no one can tell the future. If it changes, it changes."

Thompson says he accepts that "video stores will be extinct at some point, just like the drive-in theater."

"The older generation won't be here anymore and the younger set are more attracted to computers," he says.

"Everyone tells me it's going to be all streaming soon," says Lanusse, "but I want to be hopeful. Look at people, they still buy newspapers and still want to go in a store to buy CDs. There's still a chance it will live on."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.