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Seattle's Scarecrow Video transforms from rental shop into cultural institution

Gabriel Spitzer
Executive Director Kate Barr, in Scarecrow Video/s Action/Adventure section.

Matt Lynch is showing off a few of the more obscure titles in Scarecrow Video’s collection.

“We have European horror, Italian horror, Japanese horror, Chinese horror, Thai horror, Korean horror, Mexican horror, Turkish horror, Indonesian and Malaysian horror …”

Scarecrow, located in Seattle’s University District, has accumulated more than 130,000 titles over its three decades of existence -- that’s DVDs, Blu-Ray, laser discs and, yes, VHS tapes.

It’s extensive enough that they subdivide categories such as Action/Adventure by type: Jungle, Peplum (gladiator movies), knights, swashbucklers and pirates, rednecks truckers and bikers, and on and on.

Scarecrow is one of just three video rental stores still kicking in Seattle. They opened in 1988. But, in the last decade or so, online streaming has wiped out a huge chunk of the industry.

“That when you begin to see the death of our neighborhood video store as we knew it,” says executive director Kate Barr.

She says the previous owners eventually concluded that, with the competition from technology, they couldn’t sustain the business anymore. But they also didn’t want to close or sell off most of the collection.

“This collection is so large, that it now has cultural significance.”

Barr says they have dozens of films that even the Library of Congress doesn’t have. So breaking it up was out of the question.

So the owners put out a call for proposals to take Scarecrow non-profit. Barr says they had three requirements: “The collection needs to stay together, it needs to remain open to the public, and ideally it would remain in Seattle.”

The winning proposal came mainly from Scarecrow’s own employees.

Now, they still rent videos of course, but they also take as their mission to build community through film. The screen movies at senior centers and host a children’s hour in partnership with the Seattle Public Library. They built up a membership program and host free outdoor movies in summertime.

In short, Scarecrow has embraced its role as not just a store, but a cultural resource.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.