Last autumn, as part of a sporadic yet ongoing quest to visit what video stores remain in cities which I happen to be in, I paid a quick pilgrimage to San Francisco’s Le Video, the Bay Area insitution which is said to house a staggering 90,000+ titles in its presumably Borgesian backroom vaults. The experience, for this video shop employee, proved to be something of a dispiriting one; Le Video, as with all businesses in this ever-dwindling sector, had long been toiling under the realities of a post-Netflix marketplace, and out of financial expediency had recently been forced to rent out the lower floor of its former two-storey setup to another business (a bookshop) and squeeze itself and its sizeable stock into a considerably smaller space upstairs.
The inevitable consequence of such an upheaval was that the vast majority of the shop’s browsable stock was no longer physically on display for patrons to flak-flak-flak their way through (though happily I understand that in the time since my visit much of it has been restored to the shop floor).The experience threw into sharp focus many issues, but for me in particular it highlighted a thorny issue close to my own heart: the display and arrangement of physical media in a digital age. As an
obsessive hoarder avid collector of DVDs myself (whose own collection has long since gone from ‘impressively comprehensive’ to ‘a cry for help’) I have, out of necessity, attempted to find ways to organize them so as to make the hunt for one particular title not take as long as the duration of the film itself.
The issue for a video shop is, however, a different one, and not related to practicality but instead to how best to connect people to films which they might want to watch. Firstly, one might question the very need for physical display cases at all – Flicks’ fully searchable computer database of all its titles, coupled with the advice of one of our knowledgeable members of staff, might be all that one might need to navigate through nearly 19,000 titles to alight on a suitable candidate for that evening’s viewing. And yet – and I speak as a customer of 16 years as well as a current employee – the physical browsing aspect is central to the Flicks experience, whether that be as a means to jog the grey cells into recalling that Anthony Mann western that you read Scorsese had cited as an influence, or simply for plumping for that Miike Takashi film on the basis of its lunatic title and cover artwork. Going further, it might even be argued that the visual presence of an overabundance of choice is, psychologically, a key constituent of the appeal of a well-stocked library.
Since our move to our new premises on Christmas Steps we have, by and large, retained the same display system as before in our Richmond Terrace cavern, with New Titles and Staff Recommendations sitting alongside sections with broad genre definitions such as Comedies, Thrillers, Classics etc. Some of these are, of course, more satisfactory than others – I personally struggle with ‘Art House’ as a useful definition, though it does recall the delightful description ‘Watershed type’ which adorned some of our promotional material many moons ago – and while I for one am happy to debate ad nauseam whether (as Christopher Frayling asserts) Meek’s Cutoff is indeed a Western or a period drama, these labels tend to suffice as at least a starting point for the casual browser.
Recently, though, we have begun to assemble new sections dedicated to individual directors’ bodies of work, as a means to open up the catalogue along new lines. Where previously there were only sections devoted to Hitchcock and Woody Allen (on the basis that, yes, sometimes you might just want to watch a ‘Hitchcock’ or a ‘Woody Allen’ film), there now also sit the collected filmographies of the likes of the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Mike Leigh and Richard Linklater. One needn’t be a fully paid-up auteurist to see the benefit of such a system, and although instigating this inevitably means a little more legwork on the part of staff (not least the initial issue of *finding* said covers in the proverbial DVD haystack), I for one hope that it is proving to be useful to our patrons in connecting them to films which they may not have otherwise found their way to.
At which point, I would like to open this up to the floor – what do you all think of our new director sections? Are they useful to you, and would you like to see more of them? And if so, who? Would other types of collections (e.g. New Hollywood, French New Wave) be of even more utility in opening up our catalogue for you? Comments below are, as always, very welcome….
Jonathan Bygraves, when not working at 20th Century Flicks, can usually be found fretting about where precisely his copy of Repulsion ought to be stored.