SWEET HOME – Kathi Benson acknowledged that she was feeling melancholy about her upcoming retirement, largely because it means she’ll close her business in the first week of July.
And American Family Video, 1101 Main St., is one of the few remaining video rental shops in the mid-Willamette Valley, or anywhere else, really.
“It’s the end of an era,” Benson said.
Video may have killed the radio star, but streaming services and automated DVD kiosks have largely killed the video rental store.
At one time, these businesses seemed nearly as ubiquitous as fast food joints.
In 2000, a Billboard magazine article cited an industry survey that estimated there were nearly 28,000 video stores in the United States, as well as another 80,000 shops that dabbled with rentals.
Only about 2,100 shops remained in 2016, according to 24/7 Wall Street. And more have disappeared since then.
Some video rental shops survive in relatively isolated small towns such as Brownsville, and there are rental areas tucked into country stores.
Other video rental shops exist in large cities and other locales. Bend, of all places, has the last remaining Blockbuster store on the planet, though it has become something of a curiosity, a destination time warp for travelers to engage with while visiting Central Oregon.
Libraries have built large DVD collections, and sources said this free option is popular with patrons that are cutting the cord on both internet and cable.
Sweet Home's store
Benson said that people are seeking convenience and have stopped going to the video store. “People are so busy,” she said.
Over the years, she has seen the highs and lows of the video rental business.
In the early 1980s, when she started working in the industry, the format war between VHS and Beta was in full swing, and renting movies and watching them at home was a thrill and novelty for mid-Willamette Valley residents.
“People would come in and they would think nothing of having 10 movies for a couple of days,” Benson said.
She managed the Sweet Home and Lebanon locations for American Family Video, which also had a shop in Albany. The Sweet Home store would have 25 or more copies of the most popular movies. It was a “wow” factor that helped the shop gain prominence in the small town.
Competition increased, to the point where Sweet Home itself had four independent businesses where the main product was renting movies. American Family Video also had small rental stands in a handful of other shops.
And in the 1990s, Blockbuster and Hollywood Video moved into cities such as Lebanon, Albany and Corvallis, seeking to eliminate the family-owned video stores and local chains.
Benson bought American Family Video’s Sweet Home shop in 2010, fully aware the industry was changing. That was the same year Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.
In 2012, she downsized the business to its current location because rental volume had fallen. But she was able to survive, she said, thanks to customer service.
Benson said she once delivered a VHS tape, by boat, to a customer camping in the Quartzville area.
The people are what she’ll miss the most about running the video rental shop. Folks like to talk about movies. And that leads to talk about real life with customers.
“I’ve got to know some of them so well they were like my family,” Benson said.
She’s not completely riding off into the sunset, however.
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Benson said she’ll likely open up a small video rental shop in her Sodaville home, probably in the fall or spring.
She plans on keeping about 4,000 or the 16,000 remaining titles at her Sweet Home store. Besides renting videos, she hopes to become an online seller of DVDs and VHS tapes, the latter of which can be scarce. (That Strawberry Shortcake collection you’ve been hiding in your garage? Some tapes could grow serious cabbage.)
“Life changes. Technology changes. And I guess I’m ready to go with it,” Benson said.
At Brownsville Video, 136 Spaulding Ave., longtime customers could get greeted with hugs and local children still buy candy with nickels and dimes, sometimes even pennies.
The shop has more than 2,000 DVDs for rent, and also doubles as a liquor store.
Owner Debbie Larsen also has a smaller collection of DVDs available for rent at the nearby Crawfordsville Market.
Larsen said that Brownsville Video has bucked the trend of shop closures in part because of customer service that streaming services and kiosks can’t provide. If a DVD is scuffed, she can provide a remedy or refund. If there’s a snowstorm, don’t worry about late fees.
“I think smaller communities take care of themselves and support local businesses,” she added.
The City Limits Chevron service station in Lewisburg, north of Corvallis, probably is best known for its extensive collection of craft brews. But the crossroads store also does DVD rentals.
Those remain popular, said a store representative, and the collection includes older titles that can’t be found on streaming services or in kiosks.
At Brownsville Video and the City Limits Chevron, some customers have dropped their internet and cable connections for reasons both economical and philosophical, so DVDs remain a prime entertainment option.
“A lot of younger people are getting tired of technology,” Larsen said.
Video rental services haven’t survived in every small community, however. And that’s likely because internet access and quality has improved for rural residents, sources said.
John Boy’s Alsea Mercantile dropped DVD rentals a few years ago, said owner Matthew Clark. Even in relatively remote towns such as Alsea in the Coast Range, there’s apparently reliable internet service.
At the Scio Public Library, DVD checkouts have waned in recent years, most likely because of streaming services, said LaVonne Murray, librarian.
“The ones that are using us the most (for DVDs) are the older generation and the very young,” Murray added.
Jason Darling, librarian at the Carnegie library in downtown Albany, said DVD rentals have become popular for the Albany Public Library system.
The system has nearly 15,000 titles on DVDs. In the past year, there were 106,000 DVD checkouts, not including renewals.
The most popular item for children was “The Lego Batman Movie.”
The most popular item for adults was “Game of Thrones.” In the past year, collections of the fantasy HBO series were checked out 400 times. “There’s basically a season of ‘Game of Thrones’ going out the door every day,” Darling said.
Darling added that he’s also noticed a trend of people cutting the cord on both cable and the internet, though he wasn’t sure the reason why.
“If you have a DVD player and a TV and nothing else, we can keep you entertained,” he added.