In today's world of mail-order DVD rentals, going to a video store still has its charms: browsing the aisles, reading the boxes, chatting with clerks. And the popular online service Netflix can't deliver on a last-minute craving.
We tested five highly recommended video stores to see which offered the best selection and experience. Our goal: to find 25 slightly obscure titles, including classics, horror, documentaries, and foreign films.
Video Vault (113 S. Columbus St., Alexandria; 800-VAULT-66; videovault.com) has won Washingtonian praise in the past. With a new location and a flourishing mail-rental service, does its store still stand up? You bet. The Vault had 23 of our 25 titles, nearly all on DVD. It was one of only two stores to have both David Lynch's Eraserhead and Barbara Kopple's 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA. Its microlevel organizational system can be puzzling at first but is easy to navigate once deciphered. Looking for gory Japanese suspense? Don't search in Asian or Horror–try Asian Horror. The Oscar-worthy staff was the friendliest and most helpful in our test. One downside: 9 o'clock closing Monday through Thursday. Tapes $2, DVDs $3.
Known until recently as Video Americain, 18th Street Video (2104 18th St., NW; 202-588-0117; videoamericain.com) had an impressive 21 of our 25 titles, most only on VHS. Videos are hard to find in the mazelike store, and sections are marked with handwritten labels on the edges of shelves, requiring a lot of stooping. But this place wins points for good service and delightfully odd categories: Underground Cult, Euro-Sleaze, and underrepresented foreign sections like Eastern European and African. Older titles $3.75, new releases $4.
With 20 of our titles, Potomac Video (7300-A Baltimore Ave., College Park; 301-699-3377; 14 other area stores; potomacvideo.com) carries a decent number of important but obscure films. Many classics and documentaries were easy to find, including Nico-Icon, the VHS-only German documentary about Velvet Underground singer Nico. Older tapes $3.14, DVDs and new-release tapes $4.
Though known for focusing on major-release DVDs, at least one Hollywood Video (1900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-3472; 14 other area stores; hollywoodvideo.com) also covers classics and foreign films with a hearty stock of tapes, though it was short on documentaries. In all, we found 14 of our titles here. And we love the midnight closing time on weeknights. Older titles $2.50, new releases $4.
Blockbuster Video (4860 Bethesda Ave.; 301-652-4603; and 14 other area stores) had only 9 of our 25 titles–not even 1939 Academy Award-winner Goodbye Mr. Chips. But Blockbuster offers mail rentals with a wealth of selections via its Web site, blockbuster.com ($9.99 to $17.99 a month). Nice, but not very useful when you have a Friday-night yearning to see David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Washingtonian staffers contributing to this section were Cristina Abello, Susan Baer, Susan Davidson, Ken DeCell, Rebecca Dreilinger, Kim Isaac Eisler, Mary Clare Fleury, Kimberly Forrest, Brooke Lea Foster, Garrett M. Graff, Cynthia Hacinli, Thomas Head, Todd Kliman, Ann Limpert, Chad Lorenz, Leslie Milk, Aparna Nancherla, William O'Sullivan, Cindy Rich, and Chris Wilson. Also contributing were Cathy Alter, Ann Cochran, and Matthew Graham.