Culture

Not sure what to watch on movie night? Ask an Oregon video store clerk

By Jenn Chávez (OPB)
Feb. 3, 2024 2 p.m.

A few iconic Northwest video stores endure through the age of streaming

Remember Friday night at the video store? Shelves stretch along the walls, gleaming with possibilities: popular new releases, indie sleepers, cinematic classics, cult favorites, even cartoons for kids. If even just imagining this brought the smell of popcorn to your nostrils, you’re not alone. Video stores have a way of kicking nostalgia into overdrive for many who were around for their heyday. In big cities and small towns alike, they served as a gateway to cinema — as accessible as your local shopping center.

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"This is a delirious and crazy collection in every capacity, and we have to keep it alive," says local award-winning filmmaker Todd Haynes, whose work is shelved in the independent directors aisles.

The independent filmmakers section of Portland video store Movie Madness, as pictured in this 2017 file photo. The store is one of several in the Pacific Northwest that are still holding strong in the age of streaming services.

Aaron Scott / OPB

While many video stores have shuttered in more recent years with the rising popularity of movie streaming services, it’s a mistake to think of them as extinct. Luckily for Pacific Northwesterners, a few iconic video stores are holding strong in the region, keeping the movie rental dream alive for film lovers, young and old.

For example, Bend now holds a global video store claim to fame as the home of the last surviving Blockbuster Video on the planet.

Meanwhile, film institution Movie Madness continues to serve Portlanders and other visitors with a vast collection of movies to rent, more than 30 years after its founding. The store became a nonprofit in 2018 when Portland’s historic Hollywood Theatre assumed ownership and operation of the store from its retiring founder. It also houses a museum of film props and costumes and a miniplex in the back for screenings and film classes.

A woman with blond hair and glasses stands in the new releases section of a video store, smiling. Shelves full of DVDs to rent are behind her and to her left. She's being interviewed, and an arm holding an OPB microphone is partially in view.

Sara Reinhart has been working as a video store clerk at Portland's Movie Madness since 2021. For OPB's At Work With series, Reinhart talked to OPB about what it's like to work in a movie-lover's paradise.

Mia Estrada / OPB

What has helped stores like this survive in the age of streaming? Perhaps one thing is a special quality that algorithm-driven streaming services can’t match: the expertise and enthusiasm of the employees behind the check-out counter.

Video store clerks are your friendly neighborhood cinephiles: walking, talking film encyclopedias who leap at the opportunity to share their latest movie obsessions with their customers.

”We can personalize a lot of things,” said Sara Reinhart, who’s been working at Movie Madness since 2021 and is now a manager at the store.

“[We have] employee pick shelves, we do weekly curated shelves, we ask local artists and musicians to curate shelves. And I think that really sets it apart from just being a retail store. We try really hard to include different things, or hard-to-find things, and I think we do a really good job of that,” Reinhart said.

For OPB’s “At Work With” series, which asks Pacific Northwesterners from different professions what it’s like to do what they do, OPB headed to Movie Madness to learn more from Reinhart about being a video store clerk in 2024.

What are your memories of renting movies at video stores?

Like many, Reinhart grew up renting movies and fondly remembers her hometown video store.

”I grew up in a small town in Oregon, and we had a Mountain Video, I think it was called. I went there multiple times a week. We’d have a stack of [VHS tapes] that I’d bring home,” Reinhart said.

Later, when she moved to Portland in the early 2000s, she found Movie Madness pretty quickly. While memories of Mountain Video’s magic may have helped draw her there, the selection kept her coming back.

”Honestly, it was the horror section. I’ve always loved horror movies, and it was incredible to see so many. There are a lot of things that I’d never even seen before,” she said.

What’s your process for figuring out which movies to recommend to customers?

One of the most common requests made of video store clerks is a recommendation for a good movie. While most clerks have their personal favorites, this skill requires some finesse tailored to the person who’s asking.

”Not everyone’s going to be the same. You can’t recommend the same thing to ten different people,” Reinhart said.

So she follows clues to help her figure out which movie is right for the renter’s own movie tastes and interests. She said lessons learned from her previous job at a library help her with this.

”I think what really helps is having a customer come up and say, ‘I really like this movie. Can you recommend something like that?’ … or, walking them back to a certain area and having a conversation about, ‘well, do you like this director?’ or, ‘what type of movies do you like?’ or, ‘do you want it to be long, short?’ Just picking out questions [to give] you a better idea of what the person’s actually looking for,” she said.

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An OPB listener wanted to know if Reinhart remembered any particularly hard-to-find movie requests she’d gotten from customers. She brought up not a specific movie, but a type of question she often gets:

”If someone has this idea of this movie that they know that they saw, but they do not remember the title of it or who’s in it or anything, if I have time, I will sit and just help them search to find this movie, and it’s so satisfying when we do. They’re always so happy!”

What’s on your pick shelf?

Reinhart’s latest batch of employee picks are all movies she’d seen in the past month. Though horror movies are her passion, her picks spanned multiple genres.

KLUTE (1971): “I’ve had it on my list forever. It’s [with] Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda.”

THE MECHANIC (1972): “[It’s with] Charles Bronson. I love a good chase movie.”

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016): “It’s by a French director, [Olivier Assayas.] I watched that and then I immediately went and rented Irma Vep by the same guy, and both movies were incredible.”

CHILLERS (1987): “It’s pretty corny but it’s a horror anthology movie. It’s about these people who are all stuck in a bus depot, and they’re all telling their personal stories of what happened to them, because maybe they’re ghosts? It’s unclear.”

What movie or movies did you discover while working at a video store that you never knew existed and became your all-time favorites?

A front-facing DVD box is seen on a white shelf among other movies. It features the shiny grill of a classic car, with eerie red-tinted scenery in the background. Above the movie title, The Car's tagline reads, "WHAT EVIL DRIVES...."

When asked what movies she's discovered at Movie Madness that she now loves, store employee Sara Reinhart mentioned The Car, a horror film about a possessed vehicle.

Mia Estrada / OPB

“Honestly, I find a movie that’s totally new to me that I love once a week, probably,” Reinhart said. “There’s one over here … it’s called The Car, which is similar to Christine. It’s a possessed vehicle.”

“This one I’ve actually liked for a while,” she continued. “It’s called Dead and Buried. It’s a town with a secret.”

What’s the importance of physical media in a digital world?

“If you buy something for streaming online, wherever you get it from, they still kind of own it, in a way. With physical media, it’s like you have an artifact that you’re picking up,” Reinhart said.

Plus, she said, the store’s collection includes out-of-print items, many of which can’t be found via streaming.

”Just to have those available, I think, is really cool. [And] if it’s damaged or something like that, we may never be able to get another copy of it again. So I think it’s just having these pieces that are so important culturally … these physical things that you can hold and watch.”

What’s helped video stores like this endure through the age of streaming? What do they provide that’s special?

A female clerk with blond hair and glasses smiles behind the check-out counter at a video store. There is a clear plexiglass barrier separating the employees behind the counter from customers. In front of the counter, a customer is partially in view, checking out a stack of DVDs. On the counter sits a tip jar adorned with a picture of Elvira.

Sara Reinhart, a clerk at the Portland video store Movie Madness, checks out some movies to OPB's Jenn Chávez in January, 2024.

Mia Estrada / OPB

Reinhart compared the video store to something like a library, or a museum — a social gathering space for the community. She said Movie Madness’s film memorabilia displays help customers connect to film more, and unique offerings like curated shelves add a personal touch.

”There’s always something new and something that someone is really excited to talk about or show [you],” she said. “I’ve discovered so many movies and people working here that I’d never heard of before, and I don’t think that would happen on Netflix or a streaming service.”

She especially enjoys chatting and exchanging movie recommendations with the store’s regulars.

”I’ve gotten to know them for the past couple of years, and a lot of them have a really good sense of humor, and we joke and just talk about things.”

Overall, it’s the whole nostalgic package of going to video stores that sets them apart from scrolling through an app at home.

”It’s just such an experience to go do. It could be because I grew up with video stores, so to me it’s kind of a sentimental thing as well,” Reinhart said. “It gets you out of the house, you get to go do something fun. We have a popcorn machine, you can get popcorn, it’s just a whole thing!”

Editor’s note: Before she became a journalist, OPB’s Jenn Chávez worked as a clerk at Portland’s Movie Madness.

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