Closing of one of few remaining video stores marks end of era in SH, society

Editor’s note: This is not a typical opinion piece, but this story reflects changing values and practices in our society in a way that makes it kind of a “hybrid” of news and commentary. Hence, we’re running it on this page.

By Sean C. Morgan

American Family Video, the last dedicated video rental outlet in Sweet Home, is closing this month and marking the end of an era already long gone in most other communities.

It may not be the kind of era or history – the sweeping struggle against utter evil in World War II or the grandeur and colossal failure of kings and emperors or the profound philosophical transformation of the Enlightenment that enshrined individual liberty – found in the history books; but movie rentals have been a part of American culture since the early 1980s, something that dramatically disrupted and altered the economics of the film industry.

It became an ordinary part of life.

As Pam (Beesly) Halpert of “The Office” said, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things,” the final line of the TV series, as she talked for the last time to the show’s fictional documentary crew and mulling its decision to spend years on end making a documentary about, of all things, a paper company.

“This is history,” said American Family Video owner Kathi Benson. “The good part of our history, and it was one of the fun times, the sweet spot of ordinary life” – the A&W, the Dairy Queen, the Mollie’s Bakery, that time when people could fish and camp wherever they wanted. “Sometimes it’s all about the simple things.”

After becoming ingrained deeply into American culture, newer technology in turn disrupted the rental industry. Today, subscription-based services, like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and many more, carry a vast library of content; and brand new feature movies may be rented from the comfort of home through providers like Comcast, DirecTV, Dish and many of the streaming services, albeit at three times the price of a Blu-Ray rental at American Family Video.

So it is with a touch of sadness that Benson, 67, has decided to close the doors on the business.

She and her husband Doug, who works daily in the store as well, plan to keep about 4,000 titles. They’ll take a few months off, but they’ll be thinking about opening a store at home, in their shop, two or three days a week in Sodaville. If they do, Kathi Benson said, they’ll eventually start carrying new titles.

Customers share that sense of sadness, she said, noting one who protested that Benson was “breaking up with” her and another who shed tears.

Patron David Jendro said he doesn’t much care for remote controls, the Internet and streaming.

“I really enjoyed one of the last of the video stores,” he said. He and his family enjoy life without cell phones and computers. “We like to enjoy the movies as the new ones come in. I’m going to miss it. I like the physicality of it.”

Jendro has been in Sweet Home since 1994, when he started renting at American Family Video.

He intends to follow Benson and her husband Doug, 59, wherever they go – if they open a new shop.

If they don’t open a new shop, he’s not really sure what he’ll do, he said, but if he has to, Jendro said he may turn to streaming.

“This means I won’t be able to drop in,” said Rosemary Whitmore, a longtime friend of Benson.

“But this means we can go to lunch,” Benson responded.

“I finally, after years and years, got Netflix,” Whitmore said, and that’s going to be her alternative. “But I did that out of loyalty.”

The video store needed the business in order to stay open, she said.

Doug Benson, even after 12 years working at the store, was still “the new guy.”

“A lot of the customers, they’re like family,” Benson said, and that’s what he has liked best about the business. “Sometimes a family talks about a little too much stuff, stuff we really don’t need to know.”

But it’s the comfort level among the customers and staff, allowing that sort of relationship, which he has appreciated. He’s going to miss seeing all of the regular customers, many of whom come in mulstiple times a week.

“It all just boils down to some of the great customers, the friendships that evolved,” Benson said. “It’s going to be missed. Part of me wants to get the Sodaville store going.”

But another part of him is thinking they will enjoy retirement even more. He plans to continue working on the canvas tops of boats.

Kathi Benson is mostly upbeat about it as she moves on to the next chapter in her life after 34 years in the video rental business. For her, it’s time to move on, but saying goodbye isn’t easy.

“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard,” said Winnie the Pooh, a line invoked by Lace-Anna Shiffert and Kennedi Waldrop during their graduation speech June 7.

And Benson’s fondness for the business and for her customers is what makes it hard for her.

“It was an experience,” Benson said. “I loved coming to work. Everybody that has been in video, it gets in your blood. I was blessed to be in it.”

American Family Video opened in Sweet Home in 1983 at Towne Pump, Benson said. She began working there as a clerk in 1985. She saw the battle between the Betamax and VHS videocassette formats – foreshadowing the more recent and more pointless battle between Toshiba’s HD DVD and Sony’s Blu-Ray.

Her store carried the Beta and VHS at a time when renters also rented the VCRs, renting stacks of movies to be watched over three or four days. VHS ultimately became the format of choice during the height of the rental industry.

The digital video disc replaced the cassette in the 1990s before the battle between high-definition versions of the DVD ended with a win for Sony’s Blu-Ray. When the dust settled, in Sweet Home at least, the Blu-Ray’s victory was hollow. In another two or three years, streaming began taking off, and Blu-Ray never took off the way DVD did. Blu-Ray never displaced the DVD player in Sweet Home, Benson said, although Benson had a relatively small number of customers who regularly rented in Blu-Ray.

“I saw the heyday of Hollywood,” Benson said. “Blockbuster came in after we did. Hollywood came in big.”

They were set up to fail because they had “huge leases.” When things began changing, “they had nowhere to go.”

Today, Blockbuster’s last outlet is in Bend, Benson noted. She has heard of other video rental stores here and there in Oregon although she doesn’t know how many still survive.

A chain called Family Video is doing well back east, she said, but it owns all of its buildings.

Benson’s earliest experiences in video rentals was very small-town.

“Sometimes, I’d go to the grocery store, and I’d be reserving movies for people,” she said. She even delivered movies – once by boat on Green Peter Reservoir near Rocky Top.

“I’ve had to pick up movies sometimes.

“I was blessed. I really was. It was really the small town nature that allowed me to deliver.”

American Family Video moved to the old U.S. Bank building, at the corner of 15th and Main streets in front of Safeway, in 1989.

“When we moved to the bank building, it really took off,” Benson said. The business had a traveling library that circulated among three outlet stores, including Holley Store.

The chain had 26 locations and was the 49th largest in the United States by volume, Benson said. She quickly became the manager for the Lebanon and Sweet Home locations.

“It was always so fun,” Benson said. “It was such an experience. You’re in a good mood because (you’re going to work) and getting to watch a movie.”

And with the people of Sweet Home, in particular, “it was like my extended family. I’ve gotten to watch people grow up.”

In the store’s heyday, people would run into each other and visit, Benson said. Lebanon had some of that, but not like Sweet Home. It was even more impersonal in Albany.

Eventually, competition from Hollywood, Blockbuster and Wal-Mart forced her to shut down the Lebanon outlet, she said.

She bought the Sweet Home store in 2010. By then, competition from Redbox had already surpassed the number of Blockbuster outlets, Netflix’s streaming service was expanding rapidly and the video industry was reorganizing.

Benson believes the world has changed a lot since then, she said. “It’s the busyness of the world today. Everybody’s life got so busy. It’s a sign of the times. (Video rental) is for when times were slower. We don’t enjoy the calmer things we used to. There’s a lot going on anymore.”

Some of the other options are more convenient than physically traveling and trying to park at her store, she said, at a time when people are just plain busier.

She thinks the quality of movies has declined in recent years, she said, and movie viewers are not as easily amazed.

The high rental cost at the bank building prompted her to move the store into the old Periwinkle Provisions building, at 1101 Main St., in 2012.

Other American Family outlets culled their collections, Benson said, but she kept her library intact. She believes the availability of the older rentals helped keep her in business a few years longer than in other cities.

“Not many towns had the volume we had,” Benson said.

Still, the bottom line kept making it more difficult to keep the store open.

Changes in the “sell-through” market affected the business too, Benson said. Many of her customers had large movie libraries of their own, and they would snap up used copies when the store was finished renting them. That part of the market has been declining as well as the rentals.

“It really costs $80 per day just to open the doors,” Benson said. That doesn’t count payroll. To achieve that, she had to rent at least 41 Blu-Rays or 22 two-day DVDs per day.

“I hope the town realizes that a small business has to have customers in to survive,” Benson said.

She said opening a part-time store in an even smaller community may have advantages.

“If it’s slow, I can be out gardening.”

If they decide not to open the part-time store, they’ll sell off their stock.

Benson is happy to move on, she said. “I’m going to miss everybody, but I’m ready. It’s time. We’re getting to that point. It’s time to have some fun.”

The last day to rent movies will be June 25. Benson intends to completely close the shop on June 30.