With all due respect to the rest of the Hanfords, if Kensington Video was a Vegas showroom, Winnie would be the headline attraction. Who would have thought this saintly, white-haired grandmother — who gives Mrs. Santa Claus a run for the money in the adorable department — speaks fluent Charles Bronson?
“Mom seriously thinks he’s a great actor,” Guy says, doing his best to stifle a chuckle. When I ask the name of the first VHS tape purchased for the store, Guy says, “There were two. The Sound of Music and Death Wish — because Mom is a big Bronson fan.” The hills are alive!
The side-by-side placement of two cultural institutions, Kensington Video and the Ken Cinema, elevate the status of this little patch of land on Adams just east of the 15 to something akin to a movie lover’s answer to Balboa Park. What does it mean to be anchored next to Landmark’s single-screen landmark? “The Ken brings a lot of foot traffic to the avenue,” Guy says, “and that means more customers to discover us for the first time. It’s a perfect place to hang out before the movie.”
One of the more frustrating aspects of this business is the unavailability of a number of films that have never made it to DVD. “Don’t throw away your VHS machine,” Guy jokes. “We have somewhere around 5000 videos that have never been put on DVD.”
How is it that the proprietor of a top-flight video store, a woman who has every Charles Bronson picture committed to memory, has never set aside the time to watch such teeth-cutting classics as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, or Citizen Kane? This is the only time during our conversation that the otherwise boisterous Winnie lowers her voice. “I shouldn’t have told you that,” she says. But the remorseful tone doesn’t last long. “This is a business, Scott,” Winnie says, as if that particular nugget of information had somehow leaked from my memory and run out my ear. “I’m a promoter, and you know that. Certain films sell themselves and don’t need my help. That’s the main reason I’ve never watched them.”
Kensington Video has never offered adult movies, a choice that Guy admits “paid the bills for every other mom and pop. We have the ‘titty-teasers,’ like Russ Meyer, but by today’s standards his films would be rated R, and in some cases PG-13. It was a conscious decision. Mom and dad’s roots are firmly planted in the Midwest. If we had to make money off of that, there’d have been no video store. They would not take a step in that direction, and I respected their wishes.”
Guy tells the story of a woman who recently came into the store with a list of questions on opening up a video boutique in Escondido specializing in documentaries and foreign films. After learning that the location she has in mind is an old Hispanic neighborhood, Guy advised her to brush up on the films of Pedro Infante and María Félix, two iconic Mexican actors yet to cross the budding video-store owner’s radar.
Recollections of Kensington Video staff
How does one go about stocking a pond this big? Guy relies largely on “the trades” when selecting titles to line the video cupboards. Upon reflection, Guy concedes that box-office sales are a prime influence. “You would think that if a film did huge numbers, everyone would have seen it, but no. If it’s number one at the box office, chances are it’s going to be number one on DVD.” He avails himself of several film-related websites and trusts “the input from reviewers on Amazon, particularly on secondary films and art films. You can’t be an expert in every field of cinema. There are certain genres you’re just not interested in, so why pursue it?”
Guy never subscribed to the Blockbuster philosophy of “deep and narrow” purchasing. Instead of bringing in 50 copies of ten different titles, he broadens the variety by picking up one copy of 50 different pictures. He knows the store has several advantages over Netflix. “People don’t know what they want to watch today, let alone three days from now. Some people still like to browse the stacks and hold the boxes in their hands.” Guy laughs off a mention of Red Box. Though their rental fee is one-third of what Kensington Video charges, Red Box will never pose a threat. Try finding Sacha Guitry’s The Pearls of the Crown or Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain in the colorful tin canister to the left of a 7-Eleven entranceway.
Generally slow to embrace new formats, Kensington’s “customer base is also slow to react,” Guy says. The store doesn’t stock digital copies of every film that’s made the jump from VHS to DVD, or DVD to Blu-ray. A large percentage of their customer base does not own a Blu-ray player. (“We love the Blu-ray combo packs,” Guy is quick to add.)
“You have to be selective,” he says. “There are a lot of dogs out there. You have to know the film’s history, and whether you can recall anybody asking for it or renting it. Are we going to shell out $15 for every replacement video? No. You have to know your customer base and the right call to make.” And don’t expect to find a 3D copy of Hugo beaming from a point-of-purchase display. “If we were to bring in 3D, we’d be lucky if we rented one a week. The demand just isn’t there.”
It’s not all about the video rentals. The Hanfords are also a community-minded lot eager to offer their services to neighborhood organizations. Pam is on the board of the Adams Avenue Business Association, while her brother holds a similar position on the board of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group.
There’s a different world going on inside the doors of Kensington Video, one worth visiting. Just don’t get too chummy with the counter staff.
Reflections on Kensington:
Rich: “Kensington has transitioned to a little village atmosphere. It wasn’t that way when we first got here. Restaurants, bars, a movie theater; there are now so many things you can find here.”