One recent evening, Fort Greene residents Brannon Ingram and Lindsay Utz stopped by their local Blockbuster to rent a movie to screen for friends. They were surprised to find the store was going out of business that day. In desperate need of a new flick, Ingram and Utz had to get creative.
Utz, who used to live in Carroll Gardens, remembered walking by Smith Street’s , one of the last-standing video stores, independent or otherwise, in the area. The pair made a visit and ended up perusing the shelves for over an hour.
“It’s always fun to go through the documentary section because I know and have worked with a lot of the people,” said Utz, who is a project-based film editor. “We were in there for so long because I started thinking about all my favorite movies, and wanted to see if they had them.”
More often than not, they did.
The tiny shop — adorned with Star Wars figurines, clippings of movie stars and a proud string of customers’ old Blockbuster cards — is also surprisingly stocked up on new releases, television hits on DVD and a wide variety of foreign films and documentaries.
The store's regulars range from people in the film industry — actors, directors and filmmakers — to young couples, teens and families from Carroll Gardens and beyond. To many customers, the store represents a now dying art — browsing for movies — that they associate with decades passed.
“If you had asked me in the 90s if I would ever be nostalgic for a neighborhood video store, I would be like, ‘You’re crazy,’” Ingram said. “But I actually get a nostalgic feeling even going into a Blockbuster these days. It’s like stepping into my childhood.”
At a time when Internet streaming, iTunes and Netflix reign supreme, video stores are few and far between. Netflix, which started its subscription service in 1999, today boasts 23.6 million subscribers and a collection of more than 100,000 titles on DVD.
But the company announced last Tuesday that it plans to raise the price of its DVD-streaming combination service. While consumers used to be able to get one DVD at a time and unlimited online streaming for $9.99 a month, starting in September, they'll have to pay $7.99 for each service.
The price hike has sent avid movie watchers like Ingram to the stores.
“I’m kind of starting to revolt against Netflix,” he said. “You would think one of the most wildly successful corporations in the world wouldn’t raise their prices. It's kind of bizarre.”
Video Free Brooklyn charges $3.25 per rental, gives one dollar discounts off all rentals on Wednesdays and offers prepaid packages for customers looking to save some cents. Just be sure to return on time — the store, which offers one-day rentals for new releases and two days for all other films, charges an additional $3.25 for every day overdue. But Video Free Brooklyn offers one blockbuster advantage over Netflix, said clerk Joseph Poulos.
“We get new releases about a week before Netflix does," he said.
This is a big draw for shop regular Bruce Bromley. Bromley is a double dipper — he uses Netflix for its convenience and wide selection, and Video Free Brooklyn for early access to new flicks and a better offering of old French films and obscure Scandinavian movies.
Josh Margolis, the executive director of Gowanus Music Club, a local music school for kids, recently dropped Netflix because he felt he wasn’t using the service enough to justify the monthly fees. He now rents once or twice a month from Video Free Brooklyn.
“It’s a nice change from the impersonal sort of relationship you have with iTunes and Netflix,” Margolis said. “I like supporting local guys and I particularly like this store. The people who run it are so fascinating and idiosyncratic and they seem to really know their stuff.
“I get the feeling they can size you up by what videos you rent, kind of like the guys from ‘High Fidelity,’” he joked.
That may be “a little true,” laughed clerk Dee Wassell. But it works both ways. With such a knowledgeable customer base, everyone’s got an opinion.
“I get a lot of good movie advice from customers as well,” said Wassell, a filmmaker and recent graduate of The Art Institute. “There are a few people whose taste I really trust.”
Wassell said the shop’s continued presence gives people a reason to get out of the house — and away from their laptops.
“I think we need to detach from the computer,” she said. “This store gives people something physical that they can hold and they can watch instead of just downloading something.”
As for the competition, Wassell said business has probably decreased a little because of Netflix, but it hasn’t dramatically slowed the flow of Video Free customers.
“We still get so many people who come in all the time,” she said. “I think we all need that tangibility — something real.”