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Trilogy closure hits close to home

Many customers feel a loss as video stores tumble to competition
by: Christopher Onstott Carol Sherman browses the aisles of Trilogy, a family-owned video store on Northwest Thurman Street, for movies and audio books as the store sells its remaining stock before closing.

Maybe what surprised Jo Ann Panayiotou most was how many of her customers never fully understood that she was a businesswoman.

In the weeks after Panayiotou announced she was closing her 13-year-old Northwest Portland video store, Trilogy, there was the expected outpouring of regret and a few tears. One longtime customer brought flowers, another brought Panayiotou a bottle of wine.

But unexpected were the customers who Panayiotou says were angry and confrontational.

'They were just rude,' she says. ' 'How dare you close this store.' They seemed to think I was taking something from them.'

She was. With the closing of Trilogy two weeks ago, Northwest Portland lost a neighborhood institution and one of the few spots left where strangers could anticipate talking to other strangers, even if only for a moment.

'Have you seen this one?' was a common exchange between strangers at Trilogy. Conversations between staff and customers about what to watch were also an expected part of the deal.

Panayiotou says Trilogy was a gathering place for people in the neighborhood more than a meeting place. She's unaware of friendships or romances that developed there.

'It's not a place you would linger, like over a cup of coffee,' she says.

And yet, it was a store that had a relationship with the people in its neighborhood, and there seem to be fewer and fewer such places these days.

'One man walked in and strutted around the store and looked all around and we said, 'Can we help you, sir?' (He said), 'I'm just coming to Trilogy to get one last feel of the store.' And then he stormed out. And I didn't recognize the guy,' Panayiotou says.

But even neighborhood institutions have bottom lines.

'Some people said they were absolutely shocked because they never saw it coming. Do you know how hard I had to work so they never saw it coming?' Panayiotou asks.

That may have been a mistake. Right up until a week before closing Panayiotou was ordering the latest new video releases and making sure there were no signs of decay - unless customers noticed that during the past three years Panayiotou had begun working 65 to 70 hours a week, having been forced to reduce hours for employees she could no longer afford.

'The numbers hadn't added up for a long time,' she says.

At its closing Trilogy had about 3,000 regular customers and several hundred who came in every week, Panayiotou says. It wasn't close to enough. She'd lost money for three years.

Dinosaur stores

Count Mike Clark among those shocked by Trilogy's closure. Wright owns Movie Madness, the city's largest video store. He always figured that Trilogy and Movie Madness would be the last two video stores standing as Netflix and Red Box put most of the city's smaller independents out of business.

When Clark opened Movie Madness in 1990, he made a count of the video stores within a five-mile radius of his Southeast Belmont Street store and found there were four Blockbuster Videos, five Hollywood Videos and 42 independent stores. Of those 51 shops, he says, Movie Madness is the only one left.

Clark says Netflix and Red Box haven't significantly hurt his business. He's getting 600 to 700 new accounts each month at the shop he has turned into a museum of Hollywood artifacts, where customers can find obscure films they might not be able to locate on Netflix. But, he says, he thought Trilogy, with its niche inventory of foreign films, had the same advantage.

Clark knows that Netflix, which allows customers to order movies online and wait for their delivery in the mail, is only a step along the way in the evolution of movie watching. That evolution seems hell bent on placing convenience above all other considerations.

Jack Plunkett, entertainment industry analyst and chief executive officer of Houston's Plunkett Research LTD, says even niche video stores such as Trilogy and Movie Madness will soon find that Netflix will have those hard-to-find titles, and thousands more.

Plunkett says that Netflix has gone from $900 million in sales in 2006 to $2.1 billion last year.

Red Box, which he calls 'another nail in the coffin of video stores' with its dollar-a-day rentals, has placed kiosks in locations other than McDonald's restaurants since 2006, and already has more than $1 billion in annual sales. Plunkett is certain that 10 years from now brick-and-mortar video stores will be mere memories.

Not that Plunkett greets the news joyously. He likes to browse shelves himself. He bemoans the loss of neighborhood bookstores, and yet he estimates he buys 200 books a year online at Amazon. But bookstores and video stores are both fighting a rising technological tide.

'The bookstore is a dinosaur,' Plunkett says. 'The video store is dead.'

There's an irony in all this. First there were movie theaters, communal gathering places where neighbors would share an experience. Then came videos and video stores, with fears that they were diminishing a neighborhood's sense of community by allowing people to select a film and watch it in the privacy of their own home. Now Netflix is turning video stores into the face of fading community because people don't need to leave their homes at all.

'There's certainly a continuing evolution as to how people are watching movies,' Plunkett says. 'It is becoming a more individual and isolated process.'

That evolution proceeds inexorably, Plunkett says.

'To a growing audience movies are being downloaded and watched individually on tablets and cell phones, which are hardly devices that encourage you to share them with friends and family,' Plunkett says.

Tina O'Neil, co-owner of Clinton Street Video in Southeast Portland, says her store is holding its own, but she can't deny what appears to be an irresistible economic force, even here in neighborhood friendly Portland.

'When people started using Netflix,' O'Neil says, 'you would see people in the store, they'd be elbowing their partner and saying, 'Don't talk about Netflix here.' As if they were embarrassed. But now it's a whole different game.'

It might be the recession and the need to economize, or it might be that people eventually fall prey to the seduction of technology. Maybe, O'Neil says, people just forget how important it is to get out of their houses and shop locally.

'Many people come in and say, 'I do both. I do Netflix.' As if that is going to somehow keep the video stores going. But that's a lot of money taken out of your community.'

O'Neil says she recently heard somebody walk by her store and remark to a companion, as if they were looking at some ancient artifact, 'Look at that - a video store.'

'And they walked by,' O'Neil says. 'They didn't come in. I thought, 'That's probably indicative of what a lot of people think.' '