After 33 years, Washington’s last video store closes its doors


Beverly Fletcher leaves Potomac Video, the last video store in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

Anne Marie Haynes walked into Potomac Video on a recent afternoon, just as she has done nearly every week for the past 20 years.

But this time, “going out of business” signs were taped to the front door. All of the store’s 60,000 DVDs had been marked for final sale.

“Oh my God, this is so bad, ” the Cleveland Park resident said. “I’ve been coming here ever since they opened, every Friday night. Why did it have to close?”

The closing of Potomac Video, the last-standing video store in Washington, after 33 years marks the end of an industry that for many local residents fizzled years ago. The rise of Netflix, the popularity of streaming video and the ubiquitous presence of on-demand television channels have slowly eroded the movie rental industry, analysts say.

Nationally, the number of video stores has dropped drastically, to 6,650 in 2011 from 17,828 in 2006, according to the Census Bureau.

In its heyday, Potomac Video had 24 stores, and its flagship in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood brought in $1 million a year. But recently, there were times when monthly sales barely covered the store’s overhead costs of $25,000.

For regulars of Potomac Video, many of whom have been frequenting the shop since it opened in the 1980s, the news has dealt a particularly brutal blow.

On a recent Saturday, a couple dozen customers browsed the shelves. Video cassettes were marked down to 25 cents, while DVDs ranged from $3 to $10. Movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa had already sold out.

One customer spent $1,000 buying the store’s entire German film section. Another bought every war movie in sight.

Laura Silvers, 69, scooped up $240 worth of movies — at least 60 DVDs, she says — that are now scattered on the bed and floor of her one-bedroom Chevy Chase apartment.

If she rations them out, three or four movies per week, they might just last until September, she said.

“I didn’t have many movies before,” Silver said. “I mean, why would I need to? I always had the video store.”

From joke to expansion

The area’s last pure movie rental shop was also one of its first. When Benson Fogle founded Potomac Video in 1981, he says he knew of only one competitor: An electronics store on Rockville Pike that dabbled in video rentals.

Fogle, a geophysicist, got the idea for the shop during a research trip to Antarctica. He had read a story in the New York Times about a coming revolution in home entertainment, he said. Movie rental shops had begun cropping up in Los Angeles, and Fogle thought it would be a good way to catch up on films he had missed during his trips to the South Pole.

When he returned to Potomac in the spring, Fogle rented a small storefront and ordered 4,000 movies. He invested $75,000 into the company — money he’d made buying, and then selling, defunct gold mines in Colorado — and got started.

He opened on April 1. It was an April Fool’s joke of sorts, Fogle says: He made a bet with his employees that the store would last five years, tops.

The business was an instant hit.

“Immediately, it took off,” said Fogle, 78. “I never would’ve thought it could be so easy to open a business.”

Within 18 months, the company’s first store doubled in size, expanding to 1,650 square feet and 8,000 movies.

“People were buying [VCR] machines at a rapid pace in those days,” Fogle said. “That was the Christmas present everyone wanted.”

A few years later, Fogle quit his job at the National Science Foundation and opened his second shop, on MacArthur Boulevard. Erol’s, a regional chain, and Blockbuster had also begun cropping up in the area, but Fogle said demand was so steady that it didn’t matter.

Potomac Video kept expanding: To Chevy Chase and Georgetown, and into Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia until there were two dozen stores. Fogle took the profits from his business and invested in local real estate.

But in 2004, that growth began to slow as Netflix’s DVD-in-the-mail and Red Box’s vending-machine kiosks gained ground. All of a sudden, Fogle says, instead of opening new locations, the company pivoted. By the summer of 2010, Potomac Video was down to a handful of stores.

Blockbuster, founded in Dallas in 1985, filed for bankruptcy that same year. In 2011, the national chain sold off all remaining stores.

“Once Internet-based distribution hit, that’s when the steady hemorrhaging began,” said Joshua M. Greenberg, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and who has written a book about the video rental industry.

Greenberg added that the rising popularity of television shows hasn’t helped matters.

“It is a lot easier to binge-watch something when you can stream 12 hours in a row,” he said. “There’s no need to watch just one DVD at a time anymore.”

Experts on movies

It takes about six weeks to sell off a storeful of movies. Fogle knows this well because he’s done it 23 times in the past 10 years.

Now as he prepares to close his last store, he also knows what comes next: One week of disassembling metal racks, another week of boxing up leftover DVDs and shipping them off to wholesalers.

And then employees will take turns breaking down the counters with a sledgehammer. They’ll patch holes in the wall, vacuum the floors and turn the property over to the landlord.

And just like that, Fogle’s 33-year business will be gone.

“It was inevitable this would happen,” he said. “Sooner or later, I knew the train ride would have to end.”

For his part, Fogle plans to spend his time restoring the Shenandoah Hotel, which he bought in 2001, and a handful of other historical buildings he’s purchased over the years.

Mostly though, he says he worries about the eight remaining employees who will be out of jobs. Store Manager Jon Francke, who has a film degree from Syracuse University, has been working for the company 20 years. General Manager Matt McNevin, a 15-year veteran, teaches screenwriting at American University and makes films on the side.

“The staff is a walking encyclopedia,” said Aviva Kempner, a documentary filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood. “I’d come in and say, ‘I need footage of young Abe Lincoln’ or ‘I need a scene that shows the Great Migration,’ and there it is. Jon and Matt knew films inside and out.”

The staff special-ordered movies, too, tailoring each store’s collection to match its clientele. The Chevy Chase store, for example, leaned heavily toward British comedies and foreign films. In the early 2000s, when business was booming, Francke bought $1 million worth of new DVDs every year.

“To me, the biggest tragedy is that there are a lot of great movies in that store,” said McNevin, 38. “And when we’re gone, they’ll be gone.”

Last-ditch effort

About a year ago, when it became clear Potomac Video wouldn’t last, Fogle and his team came up with a number of ways to keep the company afloat.

They began selling out-of-print movies and other rare finds on Amazon.com. It helped bring in extra money and kept the store open for an extra year, McNevin said. (Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and Capital Business.)

“We had some movies sitting on the shelf for 10 years,” Mc Nevin said. “If we could sell them online for $100, why not?”

They toyed with other ideas, too — a subscription service, for example, or offering delivery. But none of those seemed like practical undertakings for a mom-and-pop shop that was losing between $3,000 and $4,000 every month.

They decided to close in the spring. April 2013 had been the worst month in decades, McNevin said, and he expected this year to be worse. On April 9, 33 years after it opened, Potomac Video began selling off the last of its inventory.

The irony, McNevin said, was that business was quite brisk this winter. The big February snowstorm was one of the busiest times in recent history.

“We’d do really well during snowstorms, or if it was raining, we’d do okay,” Nevin said. “It became way too contingent on what was happening outside. By the end of the year, it would’ve been a losing proposition.”

Final sale

Anna Lake stopped by Potomac Video for what would likely be the last of dozens of visits. She had come looking for one DVD in particular: “The Unfinished Song,” a 2012 film starring Vanessa Redgrave.

But it was already gone.

“I hope I can get it on Amazon,” the 83-year-old said. “That’s what the guys up front recommended.”

Across the store, Henry Carr, 22, said he hadn’t been to Potomac Video in years. As a kid, he had come almost every week.

“I’m literally working my way through the aisles,” he said as he combed through the drama section. “I’m looking for anything with Tom Hanks.”

About 15 minutes into his visit, he’d picked up a stack of eight movies. They included “The Soloist,” “Road to Perdition,” “Pacific Rim” (which, on second thought, he might put back) and “The Sting” — none of which were available for streaming on Netflix.

“To be honest, I have shifted over mostly to Netflix,” Carr said. “I’m not very surprised this store is closing.”

“But,” he added, “it is a bummer.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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