Scarecrow Video is Seattle’s last video rental store, with over 138,000 titles ranging from new releases to extremely rare films that can only be found in their collection.
Scarecrow Video founder George Latsios was passionate about film. He had been collecting movies ever since he was a teenager. After a few years renting out his collection in a record shop, he opened Scarecrow in 1988 with his wife Rebecca. Latsios tried to get as many rare and eclectic titles as possible. He went to countries across the world to build up his collection, found films not available in America and even bought Japanese animated films on laserdisc. (It played higher quality video than VHS.)
Scarecrow soon grew in popularity, with some fans even coming to the store from different cities. For some years it had a separate store for laserdiscs and opened a small cinema on the second floor of the main shop.
After getting diagnosed with brain cancer, Latsios started buying more films at an even faster rate. The price of his treatment and the escalating cost of the collection made an already precarious financial situation worse. He didn’t pay his taxes and was declared bankrupt. In 1999 he was forced to sell.
Customers Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough movied in and bought the store. They had the necessary financial capital from working at Microsoft and quickly expanded the collection. It grew from 60,000 titles in 1999 to 125,000 titles in 2014.
But by that time the video record industry was in decline: more and more people preferred the convenience of streaming. Sales at Scarecrow had fallen by 40%. Tostevin and McDonough were using their own money to keep the store running. They decided to sell but wanted to make sure that the cultural resources of the store were still available to the public, so they suggested that the staff put forward a proposal to run the store as a non-profit. The staff, led by Kate Barr, formed a group called the Scarecrow Project.
They started a Kickstarter campaign to finance the transition, the initial operating costs and the funds needed to expand the collection. Community support exceeded their expectations. Within a day they reached a third of their $100,000 goal. In the end, they raised $130,697. Despite profitable offers from universities and other organisations Tostevin and McDonough donated the entire collection to the Scarecrow Project. In 2014 Scarecrow officially became a non-profit backed by the donations from hundreds of movie lovers.
Executive director Kate Barr spoke to In Their Own League about the importance of community support. “To me, the success of that [first] Kickstarter signalled that this collection really belonged to the community. This is still true to this day. Our existence relies on a whole bunch of people who may only have the bandwidth to give us a small amount…We are owned by the community. Everyone who donates, everyone who has a membership are stakeholders.”
Today, Scarecrow holds thousands of films that aren’t available anywhere else. Some are so rare that can only be viewed in the store itself. In total, Scarecrow has over 138,000 titles which means that it’s the world’s largest independent video rental store. In comparison, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu only offer around 36,000 titles combined and don’t hold the rights to many of their movies.
Scarecrow also gives their customers access to the vintage films that streaming services rarely offer. Over the years, half of films from before 1950 have been lost. Scarecrow is trying to preserve as many movies as possible, especially little-known classics from the past. Its oldest film is from 1895 and it holds movies from 129 countries in around 126 languages.
Scarecrow has many celebrity fans too. The late film critic Roger Ebert often visited the store and recommended films to customers. Quentin Tarantino spent hours browsing their extensive collection and Courtney Love was rumoured to have spent more money on its movies than any other customer.
In 2019 Scarecrow introduced a rent by mail service to enable even more people to have access to their films. The staff host weekly screenings and lectures and offer educational programming including a children’s hour for families with young children. It incorporates clips from their collection with story time and art activities. Scarecrow also delivers films to care homes and community centres, and hosts discussions, as part of its Silver Screeners Programme. The store even has a YouTube channel which introduces viewers to little known films. During the pandemic they offered many in-person activities online.
This year they’re planning more events both online and in person. They want to keep expanding the collection through the support of the community and various fundraising events. The ultimate goal is to continue to preserve movie history for future generations.
If only more cities had a Scarecrow Video…
Image: Scarecrow Video
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