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A nonprofit foundation in 2014. The Scarecrow Project offers memberships beginning at $50 a year.


So much better and more important than Netflix it isn't even funny, you guys.

Two years ago, the future of this city's biggest and most culturally significant video store, Scarecrow Video, was dark. Then-owners Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough explained to the public that a steep decline in sales and increased competition from online streaming video vendors had broken the business. Unless something fell out of the sky, their doors were to close in early 2014. Scarecrow, which was then about to celebrate its silver anniversary (it opened on December 9, 1988), had never really known financial stability in its long history. Ten years after its founders Rebecca and George Latsios opened the store, and expanded its inventory from 600 to 40,000 items, it was bankrupt. Tostevin and John Dauphiny appeared at the last minute, settled debts, and bought the business just in time. But that time finally ran out at the end of 2013. A year later, however, Scarecrow Video was saved by its employees, who transformed the store into a nonprofit foundation, with help from the Grand Illusion. Almost a year after that, half of its staff was on the stage of the Moore Theatre receiving a Stranger Genius Award for film.

"I just want to say here," said marketing director Matt Lynch to conclude his acceptance speech, "none of us would be on this stage if it wasn't for Kate [Barr, the business director] and Joel [Fisher, the manager]. Their hard work and commitment made all of this possible." He then turned to Barr and Fisher and applauded them with the audience. But were we really clapping because Barr and Fisher are so hardworking and committed to renting videos? Is this why the judges of the award picked this 27-year-old institution and not one of the other two very talented nominees—Mel Eslyn and Clyde Petersen? No. It was something else.

The hard work that Lynch was referring to had little to do with ringing up sales, making sure customers are satisfied, and stocking the latest releases. It is about keeping an idea alive. This is the genius of Scarecrow: It has been and will always be about an important idea. Indeed, one of the reasons it has repeatedly run into financial difficulties, and why it has 120,000 items stuffed into its store on Roosevelt Way, is that the power of this idea has never been repressed or checked by the hard facts of day-to-day business.

But what is this idea? To explain it, I need to begin with the video that the people at Scarecrow selected to represent their work and essence at the awards ceremony. It's a two-minute clip from Final Cut, a feature film entirely composed of samples from other movies, some recent, some very old. For Scarecrow, the film represents "the diversity of [their] collection and the lengths they go to keep it intact." It was also picked because it's "not available anywhere" and has the esoteric charm of being a "supplement to a textbook for a Hungarian film class." Fisher discovered and obtained the film while he was attending his brother's wedding in Hungary (this story is a movie in itself). Lastly, the way Final Cut entered Scarecrow's world-famous collection had echoes of the way the video store's founder, George Latsios (who died of brain cancer at the young age of 44), would take trips to Japan to buy rare and odd laser discs.

The clip, which features one of the hottest numbers in the history of Hollywood—Rita Hayworth singing "Put the Blame on Mame" in the 1946 noir classic Gilda—is an intoxicating concentration of images that alternate between mesmerizers (Nicole Kidman and her blood-red lips, the goddess of Metropolis swirling her hips) and the mesmerized (John Cusack leaning on a door with a dumbstruck mouth, Robert De Niro's face sinking into that satisfied smile of his). If this clip was to show anything to Hungarian film students, it is what cinema boils down to: idol worshipping. And the idea behind Scarecrow is to be nothing less than a cathedral for this gloriously godless but very human art of idolatry.

When the celebrated director Quentin Tarantino walked from his downtown hotel to Scarecrow in the University District, he called it "a pilgrimage." The kind of language that best expresses Scarecrow's idea is religious. "Scarecrow has a vast, unique inventory, and the rambling store with its film-mad employees feels like a quirky shrine to cinema," wrote Moira Macdonald in the Seattle Times. "Scarecrow Video [is] Seattle's temple of home video," wrote Katie Rife in the Onion. Furthermore, around the time Tarantino made his pilgrimage, the mid-1990s, Scarecrow had a small video-viewing room called Sanctuary Cinema.

In the old days, movie theaters were often palatial and exotic. This is how we once worshipped the idols. You might live in a shack, but when you were in the cinema, you were a pharaoh. Video stores, which came into prominence in the 1980s with the rise of home entertainment, were for the most part unlovely places. There was nothing sacred about them. As soon as you were in one, you wanted to find your tape and get out. Scarecrow changed all of that by sanctifying the rental space. One goes there not just to rent films but to be in the presence of our idols and to bask in the aura of a hundred thousand disks and cassettes. This is the idea we awarded on Saturday.

So what is Scarecrow going to do with its 5,000 bucks? "The money will be used to help with our screening-room renovation," says Barr. "With a projector donated to us by the Grand Illusion, we are hoping to turn this space into a community room that allows for a more enjoyable viewing experience while still allowing us the flexibility to engage with the community in new and different ways. This is something that has been in the planning stages for a few months, but we just started a fundraising campaign this past month. The serendipitous timing of winning this award makes it all that more special to us."

Amen. recommended