Le Video Serves-up 90,000 Titles and Still Growing

By Noma Faingold

It is mid-afternoon and there is a woman leisurely perusing the extensive Korean film section at Le Video, located on Ninth Avenue in the Inner Sunset District. She is a regular at one of the few surviving independent brick-and-mortar video stores in the country and she has been methodically working her way through the collection.

It started some time ago when she discovered the South Korean television series, "Dae Jang Geum." Every visit, she goes straight to the Korean section.

"I love the stories. They are so moral," said the woman. "I know all the actors now."

Le Video, which has been an Inner Sunset fixture for 32 years, feels like a library, only more fun. Customers seem very open to staff suggestions. In turn, customer requests are taken very seriously.

"If we don't have it, we will dig and dig to find a release in any country," says store manager Mark Bowen. "We are obsessive about that."

Anybody who cares about cinema - no matter the genre - can find the hard-to-find among the more than 90,000 titles.

Take the German section, for instance. It's organized by director. Of course, there's plenty by the prolific and provocative Rainer Werner Fassbinder, such as "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant" and "The Marriage of Maria Braun." There's also everything available by Wim Wenders, best known for 1987's "Wings of Desire" and "The American Friend" (1977), and Fritz Lang, who directed "M" (1931) and "Metropolis" (1927), among other influential works. Less expected are several selections by Leni Riefenstahl, pioneer and propaganda filmmaker for the Nazi's Third Reich.

Parisian-born owner Catherine Tchen, 58, gradually realized a dream with Le Video, which started modestly "with a glass showcase" of mostly French films within a specialty camera store, The Darkroom, on Irving Street. In 1980, Le Video opened its doors at that location. It outgrew the space and moved once more before settling into its current two-story space at 1231 Ninth Ave. about 15 years ago.

Tchen's love of film was cultivated by going to the Paris-based film center Cinématheque Francaise every weekend while growing up. When she moved to San Francisco in 1976, she could not find the classic and foreign films she so revered, which proved to be the inspiration for opening a video store specializing in foreign, art house and classic films, rather than stocking just main-stream new releases.

"I wanted to create my own personal Cinématheque and to give customers their own personal Cinématheque in their backyard," Tchen said.

During the video store heyday of the '80s and '90s, Le Video made a healthy profit, despite not following a traditional business model. The store was like the anti-Blockbuster Video.

"We never had a budget in 32 years," Tchen said.

Tchen searched the globe to find a wide range of silent, black-and-white, experimental, independent, cult and foreign films. Whatever money came in, Tchen would put back into the business.

"People told me that I was not going to make it," she recalls. "It was an uphill battle, but it attracted like-minded people."

Including film-loving staff members, who have further deepened the Le Video catalogue over the years, especially current manager Mark Bowen, 42, who has worked at Le Video for 16 years. He opened Tchen up to the artistry of horror and its subgenres, including one of Bowen's favorites, giallo (Italian pulp horror), of which director Dario Agento is considered among the most influential.

"The day Agento came into the store was heaven for me," Bowen says. "The store is not about just what I like, it's about cinema. I don't watch slasher movies, but I recognize it is important in the history of cinema."

Tchen said she sees Le Video as a community service, not a profit center. However, the last few years have presented serious challenges. It started when the VHS format died almost overnight nearly a decade ago. Like most stores, Le Video adapted, replacing VHS titles with DVDs as well as Blu-Rays.

Then the store had to compete with the digital revolution and the fact that people now don't have to get off the couch because of Netflix, on-demand options and Internet streaming to watch what they want, when they want it.

"We still have things you can't get on demand," says Bowen. "Our selection can't be beat."

The reality is that most eclectic video stores like Le Video have closed.

"There's a lot of people that seem shocked that we're still open," Bowen said.

According to Tchen, only a handful remain in the country, including a smaller Lost Weekend on Valencia Street. Tchen says Le Video is losing money, but she has no intention of slowing down (in purchasing titles) and is determined to complete the lengthy project of getting the catalogue online to make it more accessible to customers.

However, Le Video, which saw 14,000 customers come through its doors in the last 20 months, is looking for a little loyalty from its cinephile base.

"If those people came twice a month, we would survive," Tchen said. "There's this tendency for people to lament places after they're gone. I'm not just talking about us. Go to Green Apple Books. Come to us. Go to Lost Weekend. Get your ice cream at Humphry Slocome."

Le Video is located at 1231 Ninth Ave., between Lincoln Way and Irving Street. The telephone number is (415) 566-3606. The store is open Monday - Friday, from noon - 11 p.m.; and Saturday - Sunday, from 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.