There was something about walking through the door of a video store that made most people instantly forget every movie they ever wanted to see. As employees, we were keenly aware of this brand of amnesia and we all had our tricks to point aimless customers back toward the perfect rentals. Sometimes this involved a mini therapy session, prescribing cinema based on mood, demeanor, or the answer to the question "What was your day like?" Other times, if we were lazy, or if you were being rude, we'd just ask, "What was the last movie you really liked?" and go from there.
Each of us had our specialties: If one of us didn't have the expertise in the genre you were seeking, 9 times out of 10 we could hand you off to an employee who did. Independently, we all did a fair amount of research, and by research I mean "movie watching," and we learned the subtle but critical difference between "I want a comedy" and "I need a comedy."
None of us made much money. I never got a dollar more than minimum wage, which diligently caught up with every raise. Why would an intelligent and talented group of people endure virtual poverty?
Because the perks were awesome: We had an enormous video collection (rivaled only by Scarecrow Video, the world's largest and best video store—more on Scarecrow in a minute). We could watch whatever we wanted all day at work (except for R-rated fare—for that, we had to wait until all the kids left or for 9 p.m. to roll around). We could rent movies to our heart's content (a bottomless desire, as we all had an abnormal love of movies and television). We could make a racket because we were in a building without neighbors (on Saturdays after closing, some of us would lock the doors and practice music). But the rarest bonus of the job was that we really liked each other. One time, the power went out and we could have all gone home, but instead we played Scrabble in the parking lot until the power came on again.
To those who would say we were "in a rut" with entry-level jobs that had no opportunity for advancement, I would point out we were honestly doing what we were most passionate about and in a thriving neighborhood still eager to support our endeavor, however ultimately futile.
I moved to Seattle from New Mexico in 2004 with some friends on a whim, after a brief and losing bout with college. When I walked through the narrow entrance to On 15th Video, all my rationalizations for moving to the big city were instantly validated. It was an enchanting departure from the strip-mall chain stores I grew up with, and to me it symbolized that the city was a true epicenter of culture. It was the first job in town I applied for, and it only took a year of Myspace schmoozing to get it. I stayed for nine years.
Housed on the bottom floor of a century-old firehouse, On 15th Video was the kind of bitchin' mom-and-pop video store I thought only existed in films like Clerks or True Romance. A ragtag smattering of posters patchworked over exposed brick. A dusty musk. A claustrophobic labyrinth of droopy wire shelving, painfully pregnant with VHS tapes and DVDs. The buzzing neon sign that hung in the windows danced in reflections on the wet concrete outside.
When I started, everyone was a little standoffish around me, but I understood that if you cared very deeply about your job and what you were doing, it was instinctual to be hesitant to share that with just any schmo off the street. It wasn't long before I broke through, before we were a tight-knit faction. The building became more of a home than most of the homes I've ever lived in.
But there was this alarming trend that whenever I went on vacation, "bad things" would happen. In 2011, I went to New York and everyone at the store lost their health insurance. When I was home for the holidays in 2012, our longtime manager Steve clocked in for the last time. In 2013, I was on my honeymoon when the store's closing time moved from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. and most of us lost an hour off our shifts.
So when I took an extended 18-day vacation at the end of summer, it should have surprised nobody that the store just up and closed for good.
We all knew this day was coming. It was this ominous dot hovering on the horizon. No one could tell you how far away it was or when it would get here. We cheered as Hollywood Video and Blockbuster folded, but it was cautious cheering, to say the least. We solemnly mourned the deaths of Broadway Video and other local video institutions, until we were the lone Capitol Hill video store. Still, we sallied forth, countering and adapting our business model to mimic those of our automatic (Redbox) and digital (Netflix) aggressors, and of course continued providing something they couldn't: educated, nuanced, in-person, on-the-spot movie advice. There was a noticeable dwindling of customers, but oddly, we were optimistic about the store.
The news that Scarecrow was struggling just like us provided no solace. If the world's most ridiculously comprehensive video store couldn't make it, surely we weren't far behind. Thankfully, in August, Scarecrow pulled a Hail Mary and achieved nonprofit status with a fantastic Kickstarter campaign. This gave us hope... a hope that didn't last very long. Out of nowhere, our number was up, and there was nothing we could do.
Without going into the politics of our particular video store, I will say the ending was confusing and abrupt, and it involved the owner putting a new padlock on the door to which none of us had a key. To this day, none of us have received our final paychecks. On October 16, he e-mailed all of us to say: "We have just received the first check in from the liquidator; it was much smaller than expected and took a lot longer to collect than expected. Everything we're bringing in will go to you for the final payroll. I'm just waiting for another check or two to combine together to send each of you a check." That was a month and a half ago.
"If I see him on the street," one of my former colleagues says, "we're gonna have words."
I e-mailed the owner again last week to ask about the status of our checks, and haven't heard back.
Despite being dealt such a massive blow, the rest of us all still hang out on the regular. None of us has once voiced concern that just because the store is gone, our friendships would dissolve. If anything, going through the loss together might have strengthened our bond. We still bug each other endlessly with movie trivia, news, and gossip, so much so that we've decided to continue our blog—as it stands, titled "The Ghost of On 15th Video," although that could change—with the goal of continuing to offer movie advice. There was such an enormous outpouring of support and grief from our loyal customers when we closed that it seems like the least we could do. Though the store sits vacant, its shelves but memories, its neon grayed out, On 15th will live on. That is, so long as I never take a vacation again.