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Staying Alive 

The owners of Moscow's independent video store know the way to survive is to adapt

click to enlarge Manager Ben Hardcastle restocks the shelves at Howard Hughes Video. - TARYN PHANEUF
  • Taryn Phaneuf
  • Manager Ben Hardcastle restocks the shelves at Howard Hughes Video.

It's been years since Howard Hughes Video in Moscow turned a profit, but no one is keen on seeing it close. The owners turned to their customers for help, hoping to tap into Moscow's existing collaborative spirit to turn the video store into a cooperative.

The Moscow Video Co-op formed this winter and started raising money to buy the store from the current owners for $60,000. They're about a quarter of the way there, with a goal of raising half of the total by June 15. If they make it, they could take over ownership of the store, says Melinda Schab, general manager of the Moscow Food Co-op and president of the new video co-op board of directors.

"I don't see a future where the sale doesn't happen," Schab says.

Members can buy into the co-op for $200, which can be paid in full or in eight installments. Members get certain perks, like coupons and daily deals, and they have a say in who makes up the board of directors. To buy a share, you have to visit the video store.

While the store relies on frequent visits from cinephiles, the co-op's board hopes that others who simply want to see local businesses thrive also will pitch in.

"We as a community need to be better about reminding one another that if you value Main Street — the connection and the community — it is your responsibility to contribute to that economic engine in some way," Schab said. "It's my responsibility to this community to be supportive of our local businesses because I value what they bring to the vibe."

A SHRINKING INDUSTRY

Howard Hughes manager Ben Hardcastle said the store started to really see its numbers decline when Redbox became popular about four years ago.

As public preferences shift to streaming services and vending machines, the industry continues to shrink. In the 2000s, giants like Blockbuster put many independent stores out of business before going bankrupt themselves, unable to compete with Netflix and its ilk.

Reports from when VCRs gained popularity in 1985 say the U.S. boasted 15,000 stores — a number that kept going up throughout the 1990s before peaking in 2001. But the fall was hard and fast. In 2015, the industry consisted of fewer than 3,000 businesses in the U.S., according to market researcher IBISWorld. It's not clear how many of those are independent stores, but some estimate it's in the hundreds.

Seeing it less as a failed business venture and more as a catastrophe for the preservation of the art form, some business owners have adapted their model.

A worker-owned cooperative in Portland, Maine, has stayed alive by making itself an indispensable community hangout, opening a post office and selling ice cream in addition to renting movies. Seattle's Scarecrow Video turned its 120,000-item library into a nonprofit archive to keep a broad collection of media available.

Andy Fox, one of four worker-owners at Four Star Video Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, said customers prize the foreign and documentary sections.

"Those are films people would have trouble accessing anywhere else — lesser known but important films you can't really find on online services, at least not the aboveboard ones," he said.

He said those movies are important because they offer a glimpse of life from someone else's perspective — "especially ones ... that aren't products of pop culture."

Hardcastle has a similar mindset. He keeps a display of Studio Ghibli's Japanese animation films because none of them are legally available to stream, and they're expensive to buy. While he can only get a handful of copies of a new movie, he thinks the real advantage of the store's 32,000-item collection is its older films, including some that weren't ever made into new formats.

"If you're like me, you keep a couple VCRs around the house," he said.

LOCAL SUPPORT

In 2007, a group of five friends agreed to buy the business from the owners of the appliance store of the same name. It wasn't an interest in film that attracted them to the business. It was the ringleader, Gary Myers, who convinced the rest that it was important to keep the store open.

"He was a huge supporter of local activity," said Deb Reynolds, a co-owner.

They moved the store to 520 S. Main St., where it became a neighbor to restaurants, coffee shops and stores selling books, clothes and bikes.

In the decade since, Myers passed away, co-owners Pat Engle and Neil Franklin retired to Sandpoint and Reynolds' husband Kelly Moore went back to college. His looming graduation brings the possibility that they'll also move away to find a job.

In this new season, the owners hope people will act on their love for local business — like they did nearly a decade ago.

"If the community wanted this, they would step up to the plate," Engle said. ♦

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