S cene from a video store: A young woman steps up to the counter. “Where can I find Cape Fear? I thought it would be in ‘Best of Best,’ but…”
“There’s two Cape Fears,” the manager responds, without a trace of the smugness or superiority which once besmirched the image of video store workers nationwide. The manager, Richard Brown, continues. “Robert DeNiro or Robert Mitchum?”
The woman has the Martin Scorsese-directed remake starring DeNiro in mind. Scorsese has his own section at Best Video, ranging from his earliest New York features to his recent documentaries. Cape Fear is there. Another satisfied customer.
Another browser (this writer, a Best Video member since the early ’90s) has an urge to revisit an obscure film he saw in a world cinema class three decades earlier: The Money Order, by South African filmmaker Ousmene Sembene. Best has it, plus several other Sembene titles, in its African section.
Other convenient categories: Soul Cinema, Film Noir (as a distinct subset of Mystery/ Suspense), Balkan, Low Budget (where you’ll find cheaply made classics such as Empire of the Ants and Cinderella 2000), HBO Series, Elvis Movies, Gonzo Reality and Godzilla.
Anglophiles are particularly well-served, with complete sets of dozens of British TV series (not just Patrick McGoohan’s classic The Prisoner series, for instance, but his earlier spy show Secret Agent) and also the appropriate snacks to watch them with. Best Video sells the imported, original British version of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bars, as well as Cadbury’s confections not easily found in the U.S., such as Flake. So Best Video is the place which enables us to eat Flake while watching Flakes (the cult 2007 comedy starring Zooey Deschanel).
Best Video is attentive to local products as well, such as the works of director Gorman Bechard, actor Bruce Altman, and Foxon Park soda pop. The store boasts a cooler full of ice cream and gelato, because movie-watching isn’t just for popcorn-eaters anymore. The neighborhood bakery which provides fresh-baked goodies to Best has a wondrously cinema-friendly name, Bread and Chocolate. (That was the title of a great 1974 French comedy/romance, which of course can be found on the Best Video shelves.)
Back when Best Video was born, several decades ago, it needed a name like “Best” to distinguish itself from the hundreds of other video stores in Connecticut. It earned that name by offering rare titles which other video stores may not even have heard of, let alone made shelf space for. Some of these finds came through obscure distributors, collectors and sources from other countries.
Nowadays, of course, Best Video might as well call itself “The Only Video Store.” Competition has dried up to the point that the entire brick-and-mortar video store industry is considered dead and gone, with most film buffs heading online for their viewing pleasures.
Yet Best endures. It is embraced as an essential component of the Spring Glen cultural community in Hamden. It’s a neighborhood treasure, as well as a day trip destination for film fanatics from throughout the state and for several states beyond.
One of the ways store owner Hank Paper and his devoted, creative staff have attained such loyalty and longevity is by flipping the conventional idea of a video store on its ear. Many traditional video stores operate on the theory that customers want to head straight home and watch a movie in isolation. The better video stores had always acknowledged that customers might want to chat with someone about great movies they’d just seen or hoped to see. This led to the rise of encyclopedically knowledgeable and opinionated video-shop employees.
But Best took that concept of community and authority to a whole new level. First, it wisely assumed that people who rent a lot of movies might also be interested in audiobooks and music CDs; the store has impressive selections of those items. It also doesn’t expect everyone to be up on the latest technology: Best has tons of Blu-Ray discs, but its main stock in trade is DVDs, and you’ll still find many old-school videotapes on the shelves (especially if those films haven’t been re-released in newer formats yet).
Best has established its own fan base, one which likes to hang out in the store for as long as possible, talking about favorite movies and a host of other common interests. A few years ago, Best added a coffee shop to its business. Last year, the store began holding live music concerts, which became so successful that there are now two or more a week, with an expanded seating area. While the bands play, movies chosen by the musicians themselves are projected behind them. For a recent show by the venerable local rock trio Jellyshirts, the film selection was a series of Andy Warhol interviews with members of his Factory entourage in 1960s New York. The black-and-white images of sullen “superstar” faces was a perfect backdrop to the Velvet Underground-influenced strains of Jellyshirts.
Nearly three decades after it first opened (it’s had several locations along the way but has been situated at 1842 Whitney Avenue since 2001), Best Video continues to unspool, spin, project, illuminate, capture, record, soundtrack and light up your life. It’s a welcome burst of cinematic splendor in Hamden. Thank the academy! “The award for Best Video goes to…”
Best Video Coffee and Wine Bar
1842 Whitney Avenue, Hamden (map)
Video Store: Sun-Thurs 9am-10pm, Fri-Sat 9am-11pm
Bar: Sun-Tues 6:30am-5pm, Wed-Thurs 6:30am-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 6:30am-6pm
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.