130,000 Films and Counting
A Seattle institution since the mid-80s, Scarecrow Video was founded by ardent cinephiles who made it a point to collect as many films in as many formats as possible -- laser disc, anyone?
With over 130,000 films on their shelves, the labyrinthine store is one you can easily get lost in; thankfully, their knowledgeable staff make excellent sherpas and are more than happy to guide you in the right direction.
For the past couple of years, we've been offering film classes in partnership with SIFF and Scarecrow Video; SIFF hosts the class at their Film Center and Scarecrow provides the hard-to-find films that we've been featuring. Instructor Dr. Richie Meyer also works with Scarecrow to identify a list of complementary films that students can rent from the video store to expand their learning and understanding of the topic at hand.
We asked this one-of-a-kind organization to share more about their history, mission, how they've changed over the years and more.
When and how was Scarecrow originally founded?
George and Rebecca Latsios founded Scarecrow Video in 1986, when George rented about 200 of his personal VHS tapes out of the back of a record store.
A couple of years later, in 1988, they opened a store of their own on Latona Avenue, with about 600 titles. Five customers signed up on opening day (four of whom are still members), and the store's first $36 was made.
By 1994, the collection had outgrown the space on Latona, and Scarecrow moved to its current location on Roosevelt Way in the U District. At the time, they had about 18,000 titles in their library, and the new location afforded them the space to have a small cinema, called the Sanctuary Cinema, on site.
Over the years Scarecrow Video has faced a lot of ups and downs, including changes of ownership and a transformation from a for-profit video store to the Scarecrow Project, a non-profit organization.
Throughout all the changes, however, the Latsios' original vision of uniting people with film continues to guide the Scarecrow Video of today.
Why did Scarecrow transition to a non-profit?
With the advent of online streaming and changing viewing preferences, revenues declined steadily during the 2000s at video stores everywhere -- and Scarecrow was no exception.
However, we are not like other video stores: Our unique collection represents the deep wells of our cultural history spanning over 125 years, and it continues to expand every week, as we bring in approximately 3,600 new titles annually.
We are proud to hold films not just about marginalized storytellers, but by them as well, and we hold these works to be of equal importance as Hollywood blockbusters.
Our collection is curated in a specialized way that works to draw attention to areas that may be overlooked by common outlets, including LBGT and local filmmakers; a robust documentary room that includes Native American history, social justice issues, and women and civil rights; and an expansive foreign section which represents 129 countries and over 126 languages other than English.
There's nowhere else in Seattle, the Northwest, or the United States that the public can access the diversity of voices and stories that can be experienced and discovered -- from around the world and across cultures.
Allowing a collection like this to disappear for good was not an option, and those that knew this best were the staff of Scarecrow Video.
A group of long-time employees came together to form the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that would take over the stewardship of the collection.
With the extremely generous donation of the entire collection from the prior owner, Carl Tostevin, Scarecrow Video left the world of video store behind and re-opened its doors as a non-profit in October of 2014.
As a mission-driven organization, we can now engage with the community in new ways, such as creating new ways for the community to support us through volunteering, donations, and memberships; and for us to explore new and innovative ways to utilize the cultural assets we hold with the community, like free screenings and events in our Screening Room, and outreach programs.
What has been the impact on the organization after it transitioned to a non-profit?
While online streaming has brought convenience, it has done so at the great cost of narrowing the voices that are heard by favoring homogenized, mainstream content.
It is imperative that we are able to hear the full range of diverse and creative voices, and it is through the vastness of our collection, and the fact that it is all fully accessible to the public, that Scarecrow ensures this great need is met.
Since becoming a nonprofit, Scarecrow has been able to connect and serve its community more than ever before.
Beyond being able to accept donations, volunteers, and grants, Scarecrow offers the following community programs free and open to all: Screening Room programming, Children's Hour educational series, and Silver Screeners Cinema program.
What are a few films your staff recommends everyone should see?
This is absolutely the hardest question to answer. We don't believe that there good or bad films as that's very much a matter for taste –- and we are not interested in being tastemakers, but in ensuring that all tastes are represented within our collection.
We do have a collection of a variety of top ten lists on our site, though, if you want to see what some people dig.
We also have a monthly feature called "Crosscuts," where our staff picks a theme, selects movies related to that theme, and then selects ten of those titles to showcase in our newsletter.
For example, our December 2017 theme was Special Features -- the bonus content often included with the original film. The staff selected the following for this theme:
- Batman (1989) - Prince Music Videos
- Blade Runner - All Five Cuts
- Charles Laughton Directs Night of the Hunter
- Fantastic Mr. Fox - Behind the Scenes
- Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas - Commentary
- Pharos in Chaos from The Asphalt Jungle
- Purple Rain - MTV Premiere Special
- Repo Man - The TV Edit
- The Battle Over Citizen Cane
- Twin Peaks - The Missing Pieces
How many other stores like Scarecrow exist?
No other place like Scarecrow Video exists on earth. With over 130,000 titles and counting –- that's over three times what is available on the leading streaming services catalogs, combined –- you can find films from all over the world, and ones that are so rare that not even the Library of Congress holds them. In addition to its magnitude, the collection is unprecedented in its accessibility and diversity.
Scarecrow was one of the first for-profit video stores to successfully transition to a non-profit, paving the way for the likes of Hollywood Theatre in Portland, OR. In Seattle, Reckless Video and Video Isle are the only remaining video stores other than Scarecrow.
What are a couple of your favorite Scarecrow stories?
The most famous story about Scarecrow is when Quentin Tarantino was in town for a SIFF event and he walked all the way from his hotel room downtown to visit Scarecrow Video.
As a director who learned his trade by working in a video store and watching everything, he knew about Scarecrow through its reputation. Even though this was during the heyday of video stores, Scarecrow had a reputation amongst cinephiles as the place to go as it had everything.
In Tarantino's words, Scarecrow was the Mecca of the video world and, in keeping with the reverence for such a place, he decided to make a pilgrimage to us from his downtown hotel room on one of the hottest days of that year.
Another great vignette is about a man who walked into the store with a boy who was about nine years old. They got right inside the door and the boy stopped dead in his tracks.
As he looked at the rows and rows of shelves from the first floor up to the rooms and rooms of movies on the mezzanine level, his eyes got bigger and bigger.
Finally, in an awe-filled whisper, he exclaimed, "It's a movie castle!"
Why would someone want to visit the store?
Scarecrow is a pillar in the Seattle community and for film arts communities across the country. There is simply no other archive of its kind in existence.
As Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Kate Becker, Director of the Seattle Office of Film and Music, recently said in a published editorial, "They are truly caretakers of our shared culture, history and film arts, and undeniably a Seattle institution."
When we're out in the community talking to folks about Scarecrow, we always encourage them to come in at least once. There is no other place on the planet where a person can see such a huge collection all in one place, let alone browse through the stacks.
It's also a great place to bring visitors to Seattle, because like the Space Needle, you won't find such a unique place anywhere else.
Or, if you're easily impressed by name-dropping famous people, Monte Hellman, John Woo, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Kids in the Hall, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino have all traveled to visit Scarecrow Video over the years. You can even find some autographed DVD and VHS cases, and posters throughout our shelves and walls.
How many people visit the store each year?
Annually, we served 10,529 patrons in 2016, with 140,042 rental transactions.
Our patron base covers 97% of King County, 99% of Snohomish County and beyond, and includes constituents from a broad range of income, age, and cultures.
We are a community-supported, community-driven organization, and as a former Scarecrow manager reflects, "Scarecrow is the everything store for everybody, and everybody owns it together."