In recent years, all of Berkeley's video rental stores have fallen to the giant of online streaming, or else been replaced by automated kiosks.
All except for one.
Figuratively, Andy Katz is the last man standing. He looked out proudly from behind the counter of on a recent weeknight as customers streamed into the the last video rental store in Berkeley.
The popularity and abundance of instant, online streaming services like Netflix and Zune, coupled with automated kiosks like Redbox, forced video rental stores to shut their doors — including Berkeley's Reel Video, and even the national Blockbuster chain.
Now, the local competition is out of the picture — save for , which only rents movies made in India — and Five Star Video is all that remains of a once thriving industry. Business is surprisingly good, said Katz, who attributes Five Star’s longevity over the years to something you can't get online — great customer service.
“Our customers seek the interaction with me and my staff," said Katz. "We can talk about all sorts of movies."
Although corporate online giants like Netflix dominate the video rental industry, Katz says people still seek the movie store experience because they want to browse and discuss movies with real people.
There is also a degree of nostalgia involved in the continued success of his business, said Katz.
"It’s like the theater in a way," said Katz. "There is some magic about coming to the video store."
Originally from New York, Katz came to the Bay Area over 30 years ago after graduating from business school to work for Chevron in San Ramon. He started visiting the to rent movies and relax, and eventually, Katz said, he became such a regular that the owner offered him a job devising an inventory database for all of the store’s titles.
Katz went on to buy the business from the previous owner, and even opened another store on University Avenue and Sacramento Street five years later.
With his business background and experience in finance, Katz has been "able to watch the nickels and dimes" during his 23 years at the helm of Five Star Video, he said, and keep the business alive. The show goes on, and Katz isn't fazed by the latest trend.
In fact, he said, long before Netflix began to cannibalize profits from independently owned video stores — there was Blockbuster. The national video rental chain scaled quickly in the late '80s and early '90s, consuming the new release market.
In response, Katz created a comfortable niche for Five Star Video by accruing older foreign and domestic films as well as independent films — the kind of movies Berkeley residents tend to rent.
“We have customers who come in and ask for some weird French movie and we have it,” said Katz.
Five Star customer, Rob, who didn’t want to give his last name for this story, likened the video store experience to going to a bookstore. Here, he can hold the DVD case, read the synopsis, and make decisions on what to watch depending on what catches his eye.
For Kilimba Alvarez of Oakland, it was her first visit to Five Star Video. She said she usually rents movies from Netflix but forgot to add a newer release to her queue. She said she didn't want to wait the two days it takes Netflix to mail the DVDs to her house.
“Its nice to have a place you can walk into... and actually pick a movie up," said Alvarez.
How do you rent movies? Do you visit a video store, stream online or use a kiosk? Which do you prefer and why? Share your thoughts in the comments.