But two storefronts were not enough for Winnie — today, Kensington Video, tomorrow, the Ken Club! Winnie smiles as she recalls, “I always fought so much for parking in the back. The men next door picked on me. They loved to give me a hard time because Rich wasn’t with me; he was working someplace else. There were only five spots out back, two of which were mine, and they were making my life miserable over them. I told them, ‘One day I’ll own the Kensington Club, and you won’t be able to do that to me.’ When the lease expired, they had first rights [to purchase], since they owned [the club], but they couldn’t come up with the money. Luckily, this came about at a time where we had cash and were able to buy it.”
What began with 250 tapes (200 VHS, 50 Beta) has since ballooned to a collection that boasts approximately 65,000 titles. The only comparable video-rental businesses left in the game are Chicago’s Facets Multimedia, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood, and Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, which is currently home to the largest movie-rental inventory in the country.
The erosion of theatrical exhibition began in the late ’70s, when the first wave of video-cassette recorders invaded America’s homes. The Hanfords were riding the cusp of a boom. But at the time the family swapped trinkets for tapes, only ten percent of the population owned either a VCR or Betamax player. “Some people who didn’t even have a VHS machine bought memberships,” Guy laughs. “They felt sorry for us. They thought we’d lose our shirts, that we didn’t have a clue.”
The revival house of yesteryear became the video store of tomorrow. Every film geek in the land was their own living-room booker, programmer, and publicist. Instead of curtains, balcony seating, and a 70-foot screen to get lost in, movies were distributed to home theaters in rectangular black plastic coffins for licensed exhibition on 25-inch Sony Trinitrons. Art house or outhouse, it was up to viewer to decide what direction they wanted their living room to go in.
There was a time when one could purchase a 16-mm print of a feature for almost as much as it cost to buy a prerecorded video cassette. “You and I remember when videotapes were expensive,” says Guy, as I nod in agreement. “Whatever people are paying nowadays is a bargain. They complain about having to pay $20 for a DVD, but when home video started, most VHS tapes sold for $75. Platoon was the first one to hit the $100 mark.”
Although the list of rental titles continues to evolve, much of the store stands frozen in time. “Aside from looking over the ‘new releases’ shelf,” says Guy, “you’d be hard pressed to tell what year it is by coming into the store.” Kensington continues to charge a nominal fee for new members, something most rental outlets abandoned decades ago. The Proton television set pumping out an uninterrupted flow of Turner Classic Movies dates back to 1990. Rental slips are handwritten; you need a computer to produce computer printouts. “Mom believes that computers are just a fad,” Guy deadpans. An electronic members’ inventory exists, but when it comes to keeping a database of titles in stock, it’s all in the heads of the Hanfords.
Come to think of it, in the store’s 30-year history as a video retailer, there has been only one major modification. Last year the Hanfords announced they’d all decided to close shop one day a week. At the time Pam reassured me, “We are not closing our doors on Sundays due to a lack of business. We like to have a family member present at all times. With my parents Rich and Winnie getting up in years, [the day off] gives us a little wiggle room to spend our Sundays together as a family.”
Every Saturday morning, Jan Houghton makes a weekly pilgrimage from La Jolla to Kensington Video to rent a stack of BBC programs, documentaries, and other high-end fare. “My husband and I have been doing it for ten years,” she tells me while Guy checks her out. “They have the best there is, and we’re very picky.” Jan is familiar with Netflix but finds it “so impersonal. What I love about this place is the way they welcome us, and take an interest and remember what we want. This is very family oriented, and it’s our responsibility to encourage people to support it.”
In spite of its billing as a family-run business, Winnie frowns upon any of her seven grandchildren working in the store: “They don’t want to work for Grandma. I fired one. Poor Daniel. I love him dearly, but he talked too much in the parking lot, and we needed him to move those cars. He loved to visit with patrons, and he caused a big something to happen, and I said, ‘You’re not working here anymore. Go home.’ Another grandson, Matthew, worked inside. He loves movies and could not stop watching the TV. He could take home any movie he wanted, but he could not take his eyes off the TV while he worked.”
I was almost “fired” as a customer for a similar offense. Kensington Video was one of the first places I was alerted to after moving to town 14 years ago. There was a college student I’d met at the Museum of Photographic Arts who worked the video-store counter, and we would kibitz about movies whenever I dropped in. Around the third visit, I noticed Winnie shooting me dirty looks out of the corner of her eye. “Young man,” she snapped, though I was pushing 50 at the time, “my staff is here to work, not entertain you with talk about movies.”
Winnie’s stern admonition might’ve scared some people from frequenting the establishment again. Not me. Not only did I come back for more, but with each successive visit I found myself more drawn to Winnie, frequently ignoring the rest of the staff and aiming straight for her. It took courage to recall this incident in Winnie’s presence, but she giggled in response. A twinkle in her eye, she said, “I’d yell at you again, if I thought your behavior was hurting business.”