As the sun sets over Takoma Park, the customers start to arrive — a mother and son looking for early “Seinfeld” episodes, an illustrator hoping to find a cult horror film on VHS, a writer searching for a movie about someone who overcomes a physical or emotional challenge.
“Oh, I have this beautiful documentary about a rebirth through art called ‘Marwencol,’ ” says Annie Solan, who, with her husband, Barry, has owned Takoma Park’s Video Americain for the past 18 years.
She rushes to find the DVD amid haphazard stacks of movies. “Yes, here it is!” she calls out. “You see, it’s about this broken man with no will to live. He creates these amazing replicas of an imaginary French community during World War II. It’s just so moving.”
A small group of customers and young clerks — cineastes, all — swarms around Annie, who, at 60, has long, wizardly gray hair, pink cheeks and a gentle, motherly manner. She starts to brainstorm a possible double feature.
“Maybe ‘Crumb,’ about the cartoonist,” she suggests. “They’re both about taking your issues and working through them with art.”
This sort of film-school moment is a regular occurrence at Video Americain, which stocks everything from “La Dolce Vita” to “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Here, the movies are organized by director, and sections are devoted to everything from “Silent” to “Film Noir” to “British Kitchen Sink” (in which, explains Barry Solan, “the main character — a working-class antihero — usually gets sick in the sink at some point”).
But this is Video Americain, and it’s 2012. Last week, to no one’s surprise, the Solans announced that they will close their doors at the end of next month. The store recently rented its final video and is now focused on selling off inventory. A committee of longtime customers is organizing a party Jan. 11 in the store’s honor. Takoma Park TV will be on hand to record customers’ memories.
In the heyday of video rental — the 1990s — the video store was one of six owned by the Solans. There is a surviving store in Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood, but it, too, will soon have to move or close, Barry, 61, says. “I’ve run a lot of businesses that have failed spectacularly, and I’ve always been a buy-high-and-sell-low guy who’s never had an interest in making a lot of money,” he says.
On a recent afternoon, the couple collapse onto the lumpy sofa in the middle of the store for a chat. Beneath their feet is a worn carpet sprinkled with stray pistachio shells and crumbs from the mini-pretzels that Barry offers to customers. In front of them is a chipped coffee table piled high with movie catalogues, and above them is an aging flat-screen TV playing an episode of the 2003 BBC drama “The Lost Prince.” They commute to the store from their home in Newark, Del.; a local couple often lets them sleep over in Takoma Park to save them the commute. And there’s always that lumpy sofa.
Annie says the first movie she saw by herself was Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1968). She was 16, and she loved the film so much that she called her mother from a pay phone to ask if she could see it again. Barry says that he saw that same movie on one of his first dates.
The two met in 1975 at the State Theater in Newark, which Barry says was “a raggedy old vaudeville theater.”
“I liked the cut of her jib,” says Barry, who was running a small fleet of ice cream trucks that sold, among other treats, “Barry’s Jewish-Italian water ice.” She was a waitress at the local greasy spoon.
In 1979, after the ice cream truck business failed, Barry became a co-owner of the State Theater, where he proceeded to screen films such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Our Hitler,” an eight-hour meditation on Nazi Germany.
“I didn’t have looks. I didn’t have prospects. I was living with my mother. So I thought I better be able to talk to girls about movies and life,” says Barry, who is part self-deprecating stand-up comedian, part disheveled film professor.
Annie and Barry’s first two dates were . . . movies. “ ‘The Passenger’ and ‘Woman Under the Influence,’ perhaps a precursor to our married life,” Barry laughs as Annie rolls her eyes.
They were married in 1981. Soon after, Barry bought several other theaters, including the Roxy in Philadelphia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with repertory movie theaters being overtaken by video, the couple began opening video stores. During that time, they also had three children — none of whom, Barry notes with a chuckle, works in the film industry.
Barry says he sees his parents’ marriage duplicated in his own. “I’m the babbling frontman, and my wife’s in the back doing all the work,” he says as Annie, right on cue, jumps up to answer a customer’s questions.
She doesn’t mind.
“My great pleasure in life is creating double features,” she says, adding that the combo of 1966 French comedy-drama “King of Hearts” and the 1971 black comedy “Harold and Maude” is one of her favorite suggestions to customers. “Or when people come in for two movies and they are looking for that third — there’s something special about helping them find it.”
Many of the Solans’ past employees are self-described movie freaks who went on to become filmmakers. Sean Williams, 35, now a cinematographer, was dropped off by his mom every Saturday and spent hours amid the titles. “My entire high school experience was devoted to consuming high-quality cinema,” he wrote in an e-mail from Cuba, where he is filming a movie. “I still have a hard time distinguishing the benefit of doing things rather than watching a movie.”
Soon after he started to work for the Solans, Williams says, he realized that discussing movie plots with them was a great way to talk about life.
These days, Barry and Annie are the sort of counterculture parental figures whom everyone wants to hang out with, the kind of people who believe that life should always be about doing something that’s intellectually and creatively fulfilling, even if it fails economically almost every time.
“Barry always offered his flaws upfront,” Williams said. “But his attributes were so strong that the imperfections were simply a way for me to find the human element.”
Part of the reason Video Americain endured was Takoma Park itself, the sort of progressive, offbeat town that’s home to such customers as Pierre Perolle, who recently embarked on “a retirement project to view every French-language video that the store has.” He made it through 462 and had about 100 to go when he heard about the closing.
“I knew it was coming, but I was devastated when it happened,” Perolle said.
Denny May, 66, a Northern Virginia Community College English professor who lives two blocks from the store, made the very last video rental: “the very-food-conscious-Takoma-Park documentary ‘King Corn.’ ” May says he always entered the store knowing “it was entirely possible we would never be able to find anything because of their system of shelving things by director or theme — but it was also so charming.”
Neither Barry nor Annie is sure what the future holds. “If I’m really lucky, I’ll work in film programming at some place like AFI,” Barry says with as much hope as a Hollywood ending. “But,” he adds with a dose of stark art-house realism, “I’ll likely just end up working at Costco.”