As part of her social studies class at our local public school, my third grade daughter is being taught about something called "community." Students actually walk the neighborhood and learn about its key elements - schools, libraries, fire and police stations, homes, and local stores. This community is an enchanting one, and I am glad it is being taught as an ideal, but it is also anachronistic, leaving out the reality of the internet revolution, which, coupled with other forces, is upending geographically based community, and the public services and local stores we once took for granted.
This Artbound piece takes a look at stores, specifically the specialist stores selling books or DVDS or records, the idiosyncratic havens that dot the Southland, adding rich character to their neighborhoods, that are much-beloved because they are run by passionate enthusiasts who are far more nuanced advisers on the content of a book or a film or record you might like than Amazon or Pandora. And yet - if they have not already disappeared - these stores are on the way to extinction. What is the future for such treasures? If we value them, how can we help them survive?
Exhibit A is Vidiots, a video-rental store in my neighborhood of Ocean Park in Santa Monica, on Pico at 3rd Street, across the street from the AMF Shore Lanes bowling alley. Vidiots is a movie-enthusiasts heaven. It was founded in 1985 by Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber who, as if having stepped right out of the small town life being modeled at my daughter's school, actually met at pre-school. When they opened their store in the mid-80s, there was a video rental outlet on every corner and friends pooh-poohed the idea of yet another one, but they forged ahead with their concept for a specialist rental house where you would find arty and foreign films. 27 years and three expansions later Vidiots is still there and true to its origins, you still find metal stacks of videos (and of course, DVDS and Blu-rays and TV series), divided by handwritten signs into specific directors or themes.
Behind the counter is a regular, longtime staff that is always ready to offer an honest and highly informed opinion on a selection, and generally shoot the breeze about past, present and upcoming movies. They are also a fount of insider knowledge for those working in the movie business. Say you might be interested in working with a particular art director or producer, recalls Jay Mark Johnson, artist and former visual effects supervisor, Vidiots staffers will tap all his or her prior projects. One employee, Angela Matano, who has worked there since 1995, says that one of the attractions of working at Vidiots is that it is one of the few jobs where you actually get to spend your day talking about movies, a perk she says was missing even when she worked IN the movies. (Working on movie sets she found frazzled people, some of whom told her they never actually went to see films.)
"The other thing," she says, "that is fun about working in a place where you talk about movies is you meet people who are so interesting. As much as we are knowledgeable about film I think the customers teach us as well. Vidiots almost feels like a library or a community center; it is just this kind of ongoing project, we are a kind of human bulletin board."
Yet, this vital center is being eviscerated. The staff is substantially smaller than it was, seven down from a high of 20; where Vidiots used to have queues out the door on a Saturday night, sometimes you walk in and find it empty. Every time we get a late fee (essential to a video store's business model) on a return rental, my husband Bennett Stein and I are tested; is this the moment we finally cave and sign up for Netflix? And it's not just online rental that's the competition, say the owners, but vastly improved TV offerings and DVRs, generating 100s of hours of backed-up entertainment.
But it ain't over 'til it's over. Polinger and Tauber, in dialogue with their staff and with members (last year we were invited to offer up ideas for how to keep Vidiots alive), are trying new things. They've added an annex, for private hire, to screen movies and hold events and classes and that's helping some. They tried selling coffee but were shut down by the health department. They've added gifts and greetings cards and pushed sales of DVDs and ... chocolate. It turns out the chocolate bars are a big seller. As Matano points out, "the chocolate bars are almost the same price as a movie. People have no concern about spending several dollars on chocolate, but now they don't feel like spending that on a movie; it's such a strange way of thinking about cost and value."
Meanwhile, over in Culver City, neither coffee nor chocolate - too messy in the presence of beautiful print -- will be added to entice reluctant buyers at Arcana, another Santa Monica treasure that recently took the dramatic risk of going in the opposite direction from most niche book stores. It went bigger, leaving its tiny storefront on the 3rd Street Promenade and moving to Helms Bakery in Culver City, where it has tripled its size and created a new home designed by chic architects Johnston Marklee.
Arcana: Books on the Arts, founded in 1984 by Lee Kaplan (who spent several years prior to that exercising his connoisseurship at onetime community favorite Rhino Records) and co-helmed by partner and wife, Whitney Cook Kaplan, is a repository of amazingly eclectic and elegant books, covering, as Stein puts it, everything "from the forgotten to the taboo to the most famous within art, design and film." The new surroundings reinforce its extreme exquisiteness and gravitas, with a bright white entry way that leads to a long space in which books with titles like "Clint Eastwood, Icon," "Mies Van Der Rohe," "Donatello" "Rock Stars In Their Underpants," and "I Surrealist" are displayed like artworks on industrial, gun-metal gray stacks and hand-crafted wooden display cases. It feels, says Stein, like "an enlightened research institute or fine library, like a place you might find in New York City or Cambridge, Mass, or San Francisco. It's deliciously, sinfully smart; almost too smart for this town."
The fact of it feeling like a library may compound the fact that Arcana is increasingly used like a library. Plenty of people love Arcana, they linger for hours in the stacks, leafing through the books, using them for research, but the problem is, says Kaplan, they don't buy enough of them. According to Kaplan, it's not just that, as with other bookstores, people can check out the product then search for the cheaper version online, but there is another change in customer behavior: the education that Kaplan has traditionally offered his customers seems to be less in demand. "You get people wanting really specific, often very rare things because they say, read about it on a blog, or it was recommended in a magazine or by a friend. But then if you don't have the specific Rem Koolhaas book they're seeking in that moment, they typically have no interest in any other Rem Koolhaas title you might recommend, even if it is a more significant or beautiful book." He sees people, especially younger customers, falling for "a very sophisticated shorthand," wanting to have whatever obscure, high culture object is in vogue right now but reluctant to have their horizons enlarged.
So what is going to keep stores like Arcana or Vidiots alive? I spoke to the owner of another LA community retail treasure, Trashy Lingerie. Kaplan had mentioned that the famed underwear emporium charges a $5 membership, meaning that everyone pays at least something for the privilege of being in the store. But it turns out the membership is simply so Trashy Lingerie can remain closed to the public so it can legally deny entry to creepy people it doesn't want to have inside ogling the shoppers and the underthings. But, says owner Mitch Shrier, what every niche store needs is association with celebrity, thereby earning a ton of free marketing.
Is that the answer for stores like Arcana or Vidiots? I'm not sure. But certainly both places do try and build customers by holding screenings or book signings featuring notable directors, photographers, artists. And one thing is for sure: word of mouth has to continually remind people why these stores matter. As Stein, a fanatical and old-school consumer of analog culture, points out, "These stores help you discover what you didn't know you wanted. They are the cultural equivalent of supporting your local farmers market; the product may be pricier but the returns for the community and for the mind are higher."
Another option that comes to mind is going non-profit. Supporters of both Arcana and Vidiots have suggested this, and it turns out Vidiots has created a nonprofit foundation that has an educational arm. "Vidiots Foundation is a social enterprise that grew out of Vidiots' history of providing tangible benefits to the community," say Tauber and Pollinger, "we want to provide as many community events as possible without compromising the business." As far as Matana is concerned, nonprofit sounds like a plausible route. "I wish that a progressive city like Santa Monica would have nonprofit book stores and music stores, something that would make the business work, because I think they are such a service to the community. It seems so bizarre to live in LA and not be able to get a book or a video or a CD."
One thing that is for sure, at Arcana Kaplan is not going to emulate the Barnes & Noble model: "Maybe after nearly forty years in retail I've become some old curmudgeon," he says, "but I don't feel compelled to provide coffee and scones to enhance the experience of our book store. I'd prefer not to cater to people camping out here working on their screenplay on their laptop for five hours with no tangible appreciation of what we have to offer other than a beautiful space with Wi-Fi."
But he adds, "I don't know what the answer is, it's like you are the polar bear and your patch of ice is no longer attached to the continent; it's not that the polar bear did anything wrong, but you have to react quickly and think creatively about what to do or you are going to ride the ice flow."
What do you think is the answer? Leave us a comment about your favorite Southern California specialty stores that build community or other local treasures you don't want to lose!
Top image: Handwritten signs are a charm in both Arcana and Vidiots | Photo: Johnston Marklee.
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