“Business ownership can be a massive pain in the ass but it sure as shit beats having a boss.”
It’s hard to bring up Four Star Video, now Madison’s only independent video store, without mentioning its having fueled the cinephilia of AV Club and Dissolve (R.I.P.) writers or served as a makeshift office for syndicated columnist Dan Savage. Despite the staffer pedigree and a move from its long-time Henry Street location to the corner of Broom and State Street, the most significant chapter in Four Star history happened just last year, when then-owner Lisa Brennan relinquished control after over a decade of ownership.
In the ensuing void, four staffers — Lewis Peterson, Andy Fox, Helen Boldt, and Nick Propheter — made plans to take over the establishment, announcing an initiative to turn the store into a cooperative last summer and an Indiegogo campaign to help raise funds. One year and nearly $10,000 later, the owner-based cooperative has survived and, depending on whom you ask, thrived even.
Ahead of Four Star Video’s anniversary celebration as a cooperative this Sunday at Genna’s Lounge, I talked with its four co-owners via email about what they’ve learned about running a business and selling physical media in the digital age.
Now that we’re a year away from you taking over the store, I’m curious: Was there a real concern that the ownership change wouldn’t happen?
Nick: Of course. It’s not like we were just buying some donuts.
Lewis: Liquidation was a genuine possibility. Our IndieGoGo campaign was kind of a feeler for how much demand from the public there was for us to stay open. The response was pretty overwhelmingly positive. Even though we didn’t meet our whole goal, having money in our pocket and visible public support made banks more willing to give us a loan. We weren’t entirely sure how it was going to turn out until about a month before we bought the store. The possibility of closing was very real. I’m sure you can find dozens of articles about independent video stores like us around the country closing or turning to crowdfunding to stay open (Scarecrow Video in Seattle comes to mind).
Helen: There was some uncertainty especially in terms of how we would structure ourselves as four business owners. It was really a matter of the four of us working together and making the commitment to each other and to the store.
Andy: It did occur on more than one occasion that we were thrown into a shark-infested pool of uncertainty as to the eventual product of our labours. Firstly, when we were raising monies and didn’t know how much we would be able to sway into our command. Secondly, when we approached banks and their bankers with the iron-fisted intention of securing a business loan. Lastly, when we sat down with now former master L. Brennan to negotiate the terms of purchase. Fortunately, we prevailed and saved the day.
Do you feel like the cooperative model has changed the way you do business?
Lewis: Absolutely, so much so that it’s hard to remember running the store any other way, even though it’s only been a year. Working for yourself makes getting motivated a lot easier and makes everyone more accountable. Having four people who are completely dedicated and have different areas of interest and different perspectives is incredibly helpful.
Andy: Well, now that we have at least four people working on any given project instead of one, we find better solutions in less time. To be clear about our model: the cooperative part of our business is solely among the ownership: Lewis, Nick, Helen, and myself. We own the business in common and every decision that gets made is the result of deliberation among the four of us. In a consumer coop, such as Willy St, the cooperation happens between the owner-members and the board of directors they elect to represent their desires. Our goal is still to operate a business that meets Madisonians’ desires for access to the entire history and all the worldly variety of film. We even sell candy to help our customers stay full while viewing films.
Nick: The Coop makes decisions based on what’s best for the store and not for individual gain, which ensures that we have the best possible selection of films rather than skipping over important, pricier items to save a few pennies. And, I think, everyone is much happier here; camaraderie, unity and whatnot.
With a number of housing and grocery cooperatives already, Madison has shown that the mutual business model can work. Have you seen any difference in support from local businesses or patrons?
Lewis: We’ve gotten a lot of support from other cooperatives — worker, consumer and housing — from all over the city. Nature’s Bakery and the Willy Street Coop donated to our fundraising campaign. The UW Center for Cooperatives was incredibly helpful with information during our transition. MadWorC wrote an article about us for their newsletter shortly after we bought the store. We have tons of customers who work at Community Pharmacy and Union Cab in addition to the coops already mentioned. One great thing about our customer base is that it’s incredibly diverse demographic-wise. We’ve got people who’ve been coming here since the 80s, college students and State Street workers, film obsessives, townies, suburbanites, people who don’t even live in the Madison area.
Video stores that have survived in the age of streaming video and mail-in disc services seem to champion the in-person interactions and personal recommendations that VOD aggregators just can’t offer.
Andy: If we do use algorithms to recommend films to our customers — and it is arguable that the human brain is a kind of organic supercomputer — they are of such a complexity, density, and versatility as the programmers at online movie services can only ever dream of attaining.
In addition to staying current on Criterion releases and bumping up your local film collection, are there any changes on the horizon?
Nick: Individually, we are always on the lookout for odd or interesting things to add to our collections. Sometimes it’s based on individual taste, often it’s some random title that a customer asks about or that we want to watch and are horrified that the previous owner sold. We are, first and foremost, concerned with the depth and breadth of the collection, whether it be a [Andrzej] Żuławski film or Maximum Overdrive.
Lewis: Personally, I am researching new and old films both that we have and that we should get all the time. Criterion is obviously the gold standard for special editions/remastering, but we are trying to expand our collections of smaller DVD/Blu-Ray labels that also do restoration work like Oscilloscope Laboratories, Drafthouse Films, Blue Underground, Cult Epics, Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow Video USA, Mondo Vision, and Kino Lorber just to name a few. We also try to get older releases that our customers are asking for that we don’t have in our collection for whatever reason. We are trying to be responsive to our customer base as much as possible and develop a web presence as much as is feasible for us. We just started a film discussion podcast and hope to do more community oriented stuff in the future.
Do you think video stores could stand to benefit from a cooperative model?
Andy: Aside from physical media being less susceptible to tracking by the surveillance state, it helps some people maintain a sense of material reality. That’s the case for me anyway. The cooperative model is really totally independent of the particular industry we’re engaged in. There is another coop video rental that incorporated a few months before we did, Jet Video in Portland, Maine. As far as I know, things are going very well for them. The worker cooperative model in particular could benefit any group of people interested in owning their place of employment and operating it in a democratic fashion. This could be especially helpful to people lacking professional business experience. It’s a model that really makes it possible for anyone to participate in the productive side of the economy.
Lewis: We chose this model because it made sense for our particular group. We are very tight knit and it would be hard to accept any one person as the boss. Four heads are better than one. I would recommend our model for any small business, particularly for people who know each other too well.
The Badger Herald‘s story from earlier this year didn’t shy away from your collective lack of ownership experience. What all have you learned in your time as owners?
Helen: How to run a business with four personalities at play.
Andy: Lots of stuff. Way too much to list. I’ve learned more about computers than I ever really wanted to know because sometimes our computers try to die and we have to experiment until we can get hold of someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Also, I feel like I know quite a bit about corporate taxes. Hopefully that’s true.
Lewis: The value of compromise and organization/not procrastinating. And all sorts of boring nitty gritty stuff like contacting distributors and press, paying business taxes, accounting/payroll and the like.
Nick: Business ownership can be a massive pain in the ass but it sure as shit beats having a boss.
- Four Star Video celebrates one year as a cooperative on Sun, Aug 9 at Genna’s Lounge with live music from DJ Carl Castle and an assortment of projected media. 9:00p.