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After 33 Years, Potomac Video Presses 'Stop' Button On Business

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The owners of Potomac Video are finally waving the white flag in the fight against streaming video.
Kavitha Cardoza/WAMU
The owners of Potomac Video are finally waving the white flag in the fight against streaming video.

Tad Tharpe is gingerly balancing dozens of DVD and VHS tapes as he gets to the register at Northwest D.C.’s Potomac Video.

I’m buying them all," he says. "You can't even get these anymore on any website."

Potomac Video has been a neighborhood institution in the Chevy Chase Circle for more than 20 years. But now the store is closing down and everything is for sale. Tharpe says it’s a “huge loss."

"One of the greatest things about growing up was going to the video store with your parents to pick out a movie," he says. "It was part of the great American experience. Now young people won't be able to do that."

A tradition coming to an end

"At our peak we had 22 stores in three states and the District," says Jon Francke, who bought movies for all those stores. At one point he was spending more than $1 million a year. He says this is the last one to close.

The owner was looking at projections from last year and he did lose $3,000-$4,000 a month for March, April and May and he said he can't do that again.

This store carried approximately 60,000 titles and was considered a treasure because you could find everything from the latest blockbuster to niche foreign films to obscure documentaries.

"All our foreign titles are divided by country and language. So if someone was really interested in Israeli films they could work their way through 300 Israeli films," Francke says. "One of the last sections we added was called great plays. And it was all the film adaptations of Ibsen, we already had a Shakespeare section. Sometimes we'd have four or five versions of the same play and that was very popular."

Bill Flanders is next in line. He says he’s been coming here for what seems a lifetime and has rented lots of movies.

"Hundreds, seriously hundreds. There aren't many places like this left in the District," he says. "In fact there aren't any left in the District. So it means I can’t come and get something for my wife and I some evening to watch. I've lost something."

There is one remaining video rental store in the basement of the Woodner Apartments in Mount Pleasant. Even so, the sense of loss at Potomac Video is seemingly universal. Carrie Armstrong, another customer, says she’s sad the video store is going out of business because it’s such an important part of the neighborhood

"It’s sad. There’s nowhere to go except on your computer," she says. "Everyone’s shut in their house looking at a computer. It’s nice to go to a store and put your hands on something and get advice from people. It’s social."

Eleanor Bedford and her son Ben are regulars.

"We have our pizza movie night every Friday," Eleanor says. They have to find a new ritual now. Ben chooses among Scooby Doo titles stacked higher than him.

"I got one of the originals, 'Scooby Doo’s Creepiest Capers,'" Ben says.

"My son started hyperventilating when he heard the news that his favorite video store was going out of business," Eleanor adds.

Jon Francke looks stoic as he rings up Eleanor Bedford and other customers, and sees all the movies he’s bought over the years leave this store forever. He says it’s hard to let go of films he may never see again.

"They all have to go but every once in a while I see one that leaves and think I may never see that movie again like 'Garden of the Finzi-Continis.' It’s an extremely rare Italian post neo-realist film," he says.

But Francke understands that people like the ease of watching a movie online. He has a subscription to Amazon Prime and his girlfriend has a Netflix account.

Andrew Katz-Moses contributed to this report.

Music: "Video Killed the Radio Star" by Ben Folds from Whatever and Ever Amen


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