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Stump the Clerks

Warren Stern
Ken Richardson

Video Killed the Cinema Star: Warren Stern with the collection at Rudy's Video.

Putting S.F.'s independent video stores to the selection test

The popcorn is in the microwave, the wine is breathing and you're all ready for that big date tonight in front of the VCR. And, being a true San Franciscan, you wouldn't think of patronizing some big, anonymous chain rental place on the corner. Luckily, the city is teeming with independent video stores.

But how good are they, really? We decided to put a few of the independents to the test by having The Metropolitan film critic Richard von Busack pick 10 films--classic, silent, foreign and just plain good--and see how many were stocked by the local rental places. This isn't a "top 10 of all time" list, but a selection of films that a really well-stocked video store ought to have:

The Films

Sherlock, Jr. (1924) A video store without Buster Keaton doesn't deserve your disposable income.

Faster Pussycat! Kill, Kill!, Kill! (1964) Got Meyer?

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The Seven Samurai (1954) Kurosawa at his best.

New York Stories (1989) On the grounds that (a): finding Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull is too easy, (b): New York Stories wasn't a hit, and should be a little more difficult to find, and (c): it represents America's three most critically beloved directors of the time having a contest to see who could make the best movie. Of the three contestants--Scorsese, Coppola and Woody Allen--Scorsese won, with fierce competition by Allen.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Classic Ealing comedy, with a pre-Obi-Wan Alec Guiness playing multiple roles.

Double Indemnity (1944) 'Nuf said.

Henry and June (1990) For local color, and also because Shlockbuster won't carry it.

The Wages of Fear (1952) With maybe extra credit for the unpopular but really nice try William Friedkin remake Sorcerer (1977).

The Video Stores

Castro Video
525 Castro St.; 552-2448. Hours: Sun.­Thu. 11am­10pm; Fri.-Sat. 11pm­11pm.

Ambiance: Refurbished '70s school classroom complete with industrial carpet and rainbow-painted walls. Gay pride in full effect. If you can manage to ignore the old men perusing the extensive porn section, you're good to go.

Service: Unobtrusive, as it should be in a place that carries titles such as Big Black Bananas II and The Big Merger (you figure it out). Cordial, they know their subject.

Selection Gaps: No Sherlock Jr., Palm Beach Story, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Wages of Fear, or Sorcerer.

Weirdest Display: You don't even want to know.

Leather Tongue Video
714 Valencia St., 552-2900. Hours: Sun.­Thu. noon­11pm; Fri.­Sat. noon­midnight.

Ambiance: Seedy, dim and industrial, there's a lot going on inside this miniature video store. Aside from the shelves packed with disarrayed stacks of videotapes, there are old TV sets, world globes, strewn Xmas lights and rolls of film, magazine racks, fliers, stickers and local publications covering the ceilings, walls, floors and windows. A narrow, metal, spiral staircase gateways to the adult section upstairs, the collection which once was housed in the no-longer-existing Dirty Tongue down the street.

Service: Subdued and very mellow, you'd think they were on something rather than just being good-natured, but nonetheless very helpful and willing. Offers customers a computer for searches, but unfortunately its database is not as up-to-date as the clerk's computer. Also has a small selection of Leonard Maltin's movie and video guide books.

Selection Gaps: With 7,000 titles in stock, Leather Tongue makes the claim that they continue to carry the older videos that Blockbuster wouldn't keep. Doesn't have Sherlock Jr., Smiles of a Summer Night, The Palm Beach Story and Kind Hearts and Coronets, but is strong in famous directors and local filmmakers titles.

Weirdest display: Astronaut alien-like dummy reclining in a silver blow-up chair with an old Schwinn bicycle hanging above its head in the storefront window. Also, 1970s board games (most likely missing many play pieces) such as Operation, Charlie's Angels and the Six Million Dollar Man are on display, but not for rent.

Le Video
1231 Ninth Ave. and 1239 Ninth Ave.; 566-3606. Hours: 10am­11pm daily.

Ambiance: In a section of the Inner Sunset district better known for its bustling activity and scarce availability for street parking is Le Video, the granddaddy of San Francisco's video stores. Now two locations, Le Video is twice the size it use to be, yet it's still busting at the seams with a huge stock of video and laserdisc movies.

Service: Congenial most times, although when the weekend herds raid the place, it can be difficult to find good help. If you come in with a specific list, browsing the exhaustive collection and elbowing fellow customers is less overwhelming.

Selection Gaps: With some 40,000 titles in stock, Le Video could make the claim that it has about 98 percent of everything that's ever been released on tape. And although Le Video carries every single title on our list, don't ask on busy Saturday night if they carry the German film Nobody Loves Me, because they just don't.

Weirdest display: You'll have to go see for yourself.

Naked Eye
533 Haight St.; 864-2985. Hours: Mon.­Thu. 10am­10pm, Fri.­Sat. 10am­11pm.

Ambiance: Low-tech kitsch. Black painted wood with a fairly impressive collection of dust, diced rutabaga cans a la Andy Warhol, and small plastic action figures. Slightly humorless, as any good avant-garde place should be.

Service: Displays a high tolerance for street urchins, magazine browsers who are obviously not buying anything and journalists asking silly questions. Well-informed and polite.

Selection Gaps: Everything but Smiles of a Summer Night and Palm Beach Story.

Weirdest Display: nothing fancy, just some grrl zines in the window.

Rudy's Video Rentals
430 Judah St.; 753-6177. Hours: Mon.­Tue. 5pm­11pm; Wed.­Sun. 1pm­11pm.

Ambiance: What was once a bookstore in 1945 (Rudy's Book Nook) is now a minute, dim and dingy video rental store. It's the warmest, friendliest and homiest video store I've ever been in, and actually feels more like a cozy library with rows of old books interspersed throughout the stacks of videos.

Service: If you want one-on-one service with someone who knows movies and wants to help you find a rental that is right for your needs, Rudy's is the place to go. Owner Warren Stern, a film and Holocaust historian, knows his collection and wants to share, with undoubtedly with the lowest rates in the city: $1.50­$1.99.

Selection Gaps: Creating an alternative video store is as easy as stocking anything foreign. Still, with 3,000 titles in stock Rudy's carries cult, camp, classic films and new releases as well. And although Rudy's doesn't have six of the 10 movies on our list, he does have the second-largest collection of Holocaust-type films in the Bay Area.

Weirdest Display: A bunch of newspaper clippings are taped to the storefront window, which are related to topics concerning the Holocaust and Native American and African American issues. There's also a little kitty, who yawns and stretches in the corner of the storefront window on a pink rug.

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From the August 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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