‘[Alternative Video] is like what the barber shop used to be…’           

‘There are more opinions [at Alternative Video] than you can shake a stick at. This place is a cultural collective…’

A Bridge Too Far
Alternative Video calls it a day  
      
by Shannon Gallagher
reprinted from the Woodstock Times (3/7/07)

One of the more diverse cultural resources in the region will fall victim to the grinding pressure put on small local venues by competition from large corporate entities when, on March 27, Alternative Video on Route 28 will close its broken door for good. After more than a decade providing the greater Woodstock community with a diverse and unusual film collection, owner Barbara Salzman has made the difficult decision to move on, citing the pressures of rising gas prices and the increasing presence of online rental libraries such as Netflix. 

“It’s the natural progression of things,” Salzman said. “I’m not sad for myself, but for the community’s loss.” 

A spin-off of the original shop, opened in the late 1980’s by Scott Cranin, Alternative Video opened its Kingston location in 1995. In 2000 after the Rosendale location to which it had moved was closed, Cranin sold the business to Salzman, who had been the proprietor of a book and video store in Wilmington, Delaware.

After more than 20 years in business, Alternative Video boasts an expansive library, including thousands of foreign films, documentaries, music features and gay and lesbian cinema. “[Alternative Video] has a collection you can’t get anywhere else in the U.S., except maybe for Kim City [in Manhattan],” Salzman said; her 9,000 members would agree. 

Richard Cripe, an Alternative Video member for four years, appreciates a shop that encourages and innately facilitates the exploration of different genres outside the Hollywood blockbuster. “There’s [even] a section organized by director,” said Cripe.

It is paradise for a film buff. The organization of the shelves is as unique as their diverse and peculiar content, though still easily navigable by those with a more casual approach to film. There is a section dedicated to silent film, and foreign films are thoughtfully distributed by language; an Iranian film could be found under “Farsi.” 

There is the distinct impression that nothing is too obscure to be found on Alternative Video’s shelves, though there are also popular new releases, like Borat and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette. And should you not know where to begin, staff members like Skip Piper, who has worked at the store on and off for five years, are happy to point you in the appropriate direction. A modest movie savant, Piper appreciates that he is allowed, and encouraged, to be himself at work. “You can have opinions here,” he says, an often underrated perk in a customer service industry. And opinion is not limited to film alone for staff or any of Alternative Video’s many members, who are known to hang around the counter, talking about everything from art to politics. 

“There are more opinions [at Alternative Video] than you can shake a stick at,” said Cambiz Khosravi, a local documentary filmmaker. “This place is a cultural collective.”  Khosravi praised Salzman for her dedication to the community and her support of local filmmakers, among other things. His own documentaries, about Woodstock history and politics, have been in Alternative’s collection since the store opened; his movie poster for Food Not Drugs, about the closing of Woodstock’s Grand Union, was hung proudly above the counter, beside Martin Scorsese.

Salzman is aware of, and values her store’s role as a community hub. “[Alternative Video] is like what the barber shop used to be,” she states matter-of-factly; Khosravi once suggested that Salzman open a coffee bar in the store to accommodate her frequent guests. On September 11, 2001 Salzman remembers the tremendous response she witnessed when she decided to open the shop despite that morning’s events. “People streamed in. They wanted to touch base, make sure the community was okay. They sought solace here, they came to connect.”

It is for this reason that Salzman feels guilty to be closing the shop. When business started slipping in 2005, she looked to sell, but was met with overwhelming disinterest.  Salzman then thought to turn the store into a co-op. But the store’s viability, regardless of ownership, continued to wane and so public interest was lacking. 

Sewing up the production companies
With the ever-growing popularity of Internet-based services like Netflix, independent stores like Alternative Video are finding it increasingly difficult to hold their own in the $8 billion video rental industry. “Netflix provides customers greater convenience, selection and value,” asserts Steve Swasey, Netflix’s Director of Corporate Communication. According to Swasey, Netflix created the online DVD rental category in 1999 to offer the public an alternative to the “poor service, limited selection, and punitive late fees” of traditional stores. With over 75,000 titles available nationally via Netflix.com, the company has come to dominate one quarter of the video rental industry, boasting over four million members and growing. In response to Netflix’s success, corporate chains like Blockbuster have begun to offer their own online rental services.

Though Alternative Video does not have an online rental business, the cutthroat competition between the giants Netflix and Blockbuster has also put pressure on the store’s inventory. The two corporate rivals have reportedly begun signing exclusive distribution rights with different production houses such as Weinstein and FourBoys Films, leaving small business owners like Salzman unable to purchase certain movies for their stores.

While Netflix’s library and membership currently exceed Blockbuster, the ability for the latter’s members to use the website and store locations interchangeably, combined with the company’s impending deal to purchase Movielink’s online download business, presentes a significant threat to Netflix.

Tom (Wahid) Miller, owner of Woodstock Video in Bradley Meadows Shopping Plaza, claims, though, that he has not felt the squeeze of larger corporate forces enough to feel threatened. “I think that something is lost [to Blockbuster and Netflix], whether it’s one video a night or 20, but [online rentals] take time. If you want to rent a movie tonight, you want a store that is right there,” he says, attributing his continued success to his convenient location in the center of Woodstock; the nearest Blockbuster is in Saugerties.

Alternative Video will begin selling off its inventory to members on March 15, opening up the sale to non-members March 21. The last day of rentals is March 11, so members like Cripes are taking the opportunity to watch everything they can. Once the store closes, Cripes assumes he’ll go to the Woodstock or Port Ewen public libraries to borrow movies, where they’re old and free, and now available online. Three DVDs in one hand, Cripes waves goodbye to Khosravi and Piper. With his hand on the door, he laughs, “At least it’s cold outside, good time to watch movies.”++