Sunday, July 19, 2015

An Endangered Species Survives in the Palouse

Along the right hand wall of Howard Hughes Video in Moscow, Idaho sits a section dedicated to the Criterion Collection. In the Criterion Collection you will find "Seven Samurai," the 1954 live-action samurai film directed by Akira Kurosawa.

Marc Cramer, a regular customer of Howard Hughes Video since it opened 30 years ago, knows firsthand just what a luxury this is. Cramer briefly moved out of Moscow to Twin Falls, Idaho. In an attempt to find a comparable store in his new town he walked into the Twin Falls local video store. He asked the clerk where he could find "Seven Samurai." Um, I think you can find that in the anime section, the clerk told him.

In Howard Hughes Video, Marc Cramer can find "Seven Samurai" as well as over 30,000 different titles among the neatly organized shelves festooning the aisles and walls of the establishment.

Howard Hughes, not the subject of the Martin Scorsese film "The Aviator" as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, but a Palouse local businessman, first started Howard Hughes Video simply as a rack of VHS's offered for rental inside his other business, Howard Hughes Appliance, in the mid-1980's.

The store continued to grow as home theater systems became more accessible and affordable, and eventually moved out of Howard Hughes Appliance and into its own building.

Hughes sold off his businesses about ten years ago, and when Howard Hughes Video stopped turning in the profits it had in the past, the store was sold again. The group did well initially, but with the wave of streaming options and RedBox over the past couple years, Howard Hughes Video, like all video stores, has struggled, according to majority owner Patricia Engle.

Hundreds of stores like Howard Hughes Video have been forced to shut their doors over the last decade. Massive franchises like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have ceased to exist.  Scarecrow Video, in Seattle, who has one of the largest video collections in the country with over 117,000 titles, had to turn non-profit in order to continue operations.

So what has kept Howard Hughes Video operational when so many others have shut down? It's the community, said Jamie Hill, manager of Howard Hughes Video. The people of Moscow continue coming in to rent their new releases, the hard to find Criterion Collection movies and their British TV programs.

The community aspect is evident anywhere you look in Howard Hughes Video. One example is right next to the employee recommendation section is a customer recommendation section where two customers have their favorite films on display.

In order to have your films on display you have to first answer the trivia question posted on a whiteboard behind the counter. This week's question asks "What do Bill Bixby, Edward Norton, Eric Bana and Mark Ruffalo have in common?" When you correctly answer the question your name goes into the monthly drawing to have your taste on display.

Even so, employees like Ian Pannkuk and Ben Hardcastle worry about the fate of Howard Hughes Video. "People would rather sit on their asses and choose between a few hundred titles than come in and choose between a few thousand.," Hardcastle said.

Engle has reached out to the loyal customers of Howard Hughes Video as well as members of the Moscow community in an attempt to keep the store operational. Howard Hughes Video has not been profitable in about three years, according to Engle, and they are working desperately to try to find a solution to keep it open.

Howard Hughes Video is such a big part of the Moscow community, it would be a shame to have to close down, said Engle. A group headed by Engle and including members of the community meets every few weeks for brainstorming sessions on how to save the business.

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