When you descend into the basement of Pleasant Street Video, there's a sense of entering a lair. The floor creaks here and there, and the ceiling is oppressively low. But if a mythic being lurks somewhere in the building's bowels, it must be benign—the hoard that fills the place, upstairs and down, is a partly metaphorical treasure, a vast collection of films that brooks little in the way of mall-movie mediocrity. Instead, you'll find the weird and wonderful from all over the world, everything from the animated films of the Brothers Quay to obscure Chinese titles and schlocky Italian horror.
It's easy to lose track of time reading DVD cases in the far corners of the small Pleasant Street space. The store offers what must now, sadly, be called an old-school way of discovering great films. It's harder than seeing what Netflix' software thinks you might like, but it's an effort with different rewards.
Merely looking at the shelves yields a bounty of films that sound interesting, filed next to things in the same vein you've seen. But the cold distance of Netflix can't offer what Pleasant Street does: people whose celluloid judgment you trust. Gene Kane's wonderfully complete knowledge of monster films has steered me toward the good Gamera titles, and I've been hard pressed to find a film Bill Dwight can't fill me in on. Stopping in has, for me, long been so much about the great conversation that I nearly forget to look for a rental.
You can't replace that with an algorithm. Even so, the Achilles heel of Pleasant Street, the same one to which every brick and mortar video store is vulnerable, is the anytime, anywhere access that online movie delivery systems offer, and the ease of streaming or walking out to the mailbox for a delivery.
Maybe online movie watching made it inevitable, but it's no less a dagger to the vitals: Northampton's Pleasant Street Video, as you may well have heard already, is closing at the end of July. It's been in the air for a while. Richard Pini, former owner of Pleasant Street Theater, co-owner of Pleasant Street Video and owner of the building that houses the store, put the building up for sale some time ago, and it seems that sale was made more urgent by the decline of business at Pleasant Street Video. A sale is now pending.
Co-owner Dana Gentes, who's been behind the counter since the early days (the store opened in 1986 as a joint venture between Gentes, Pini and former co-owner John Morrison), says it's been clear for a few years that the store's decline would continue. He explains that the store has long run in the red, and the debt kept piling up even when Pini stopped charging the business rent.
"I've gone without pay sometimes," says Gentes. "But we've always made payroll, taxes, insurance, those things."
He says movie acquisition, on the other hand, took place on credit, and that debt in particular mounted. These factors mean that Pleasant Street must close, even if the building sale falls through.
Gentes explains that the fate of all those movies—around 8,000—is a good one, thanks to an idea some customers suggested. A fundraising effort is in place in which anyone can contribute $8 per movie to enable Northampton's Forbes Library to take over the entire collection (www.forbeslibrary.org/giving/PSV.shtml). That way, the films will remain available for viewing.
It's a happy conclusion to unhappy circumstance, but longtime employee Bill Dwight says the staff members are adapting a "hospice mentality," going out, yes, but out on their own terms.
It will seem sterile to one day peruse these same films in a hushed library, and know that the collection won't go on expanding at the same exuberant pace. Still, the preservation of the collection is the best case scenario in the face of the store's demise.
Dropping by Pleasant Street now is a weird experience. Gentes is a bit overwhelmed by the logistical challenge of keeping track of contributors—people can contribute online anonymously, but many are coming in or calling to donate entire sections in their names, and Gentes is, on the fly, having to come up with ways to sort it all out.
That's a mammoth task, especially in the midst of processing what is, for many, a really sad occasion. Gentes tells me he just fielded a call from someone in tears, calling to donate a bunch of old movies in memory of her husband. It's clear that the closing of Pleasant Street marks the passing of a unique, culturally and, to many, even emotionally important Northampton crossroads.
On my recent visit, Gentes was hard at work, looking a little tired, trying to juggle renting movies, taking calls, and writing down contributors' names and the sections they've donated.
After we talked for a while, I headed down the basement steps. The floor still creaks, and screwball comedy still rubs shoulders with obscure cult titles. I could use another decade to work through them all. It's still easy, down in the corner with the zombie movies and the Svankmajer, to zone out while looking at cases. Easy, even, to forget that, come July, I won't be able to stand transfixed in that basement again.