Curtain falling on Petaluma’s last video store

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Jim Misner slowly scanned the shelves of Silver Screen Video in Petaluma searching for “True Stories,” a 1986 feature film directed by Talking Heads front man David Byrne.

He’s been a customer at the shop on 860 Petaluma Blvd. North for years. The bandwidth at his rural west Petaluma home isn’t strong enough for video streaming services like Hulu or Amazon Prime, so Misner gets DVD rentals in the mail from Netflix.

But unless he embraces the DVD rental vending machine system with Red Box, a difficult undertaking for residents outside the urban core, when Silver Screen shutters after 31 years on Aug. 25, that’s all he’ll have left.

“That’s made the video store still practical for us because we can’t stream,” Misner said. “It’s the only place in town.”

For over a month Silver Screen has been selling off an estimated inventory of 50,000 TV and movie titles, marking down prices every few weeks to attract more customers.

The Petaluma Boulevard location represents the last of eight Bay Area video stores owned by Rick and Scott Lafranchi, brothers from a family of dairy farmers that successfully ventured into the movie rental business in 1986.

Over the last five years, the Lafranchi brothers have been closing their stores one by one, a symbolic end to an era when finding something to watch at home required physically leaving it.

At its height, Silver Screen was one of nearly a dozen video stores in Petaluma, and outlasted corporate chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, which Rick Lafranchi takes pride in.

“It was a great business for many years, a great run,” he said. “It’s kind of run its course, like so many things.”

As the dairy industry was shifting in the 1980s, Lafranchi said he was eying more future-minded opportunities. In late 1985, he made a regular trip to the San Anselmo location of The Video Company, a Marin County chain that he realized was suddenly closing its stores, creating an opening in the market.

Lafranchi acted quickly, and opened the first Silver Screen in San Anselmo the next summer. Two years later, he and his brother expanded to Petaluma, and immediately it was busy, he recalled.

“It was a vibrant, exciting place to be,” Lafranchi said. “Video stores came before Starbucks — this is where people came to meet and talk. On a Friday, Saturday night, you could have 100 people running around in here. Family was a big part of our business back in the day.”

The competition was stiff, Lafranchi said. Soon, national chains began filling the market, but Silver Screen always endured, and was never afraid to embrace the changes in technology.

Eventually, however, there was no more room to adapt. Cable television had exploded from 30 channels to thousands. On Demand video was included with every TV package, offering new releases and a rotating collection of movies in a matter of seconds.

About a decade ago, the west Petaluma Silver Screen became the only video rental store in the city, creating a small monopoly as digital entertainment and streaming platforms steadily became the norm.

“We really focused on service and value as much as we could,” Lafranchi said. “Obviously, we saw the initial surge being the only game in town, but over the years it’s just steadily declined. Eight or nine years ago, I was telling people our customer base was comprised of people with either gray hair, no hair or colored hair because the kids really embraced the technology.”

Located at the Cherry Valley Shopping Center, Silver Screen is like a portal to the pre-Internet days, a nostalgic space for those that remember what it was like to walk the aisles of a store to rent a movie.

A seemingly endless array of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs line the walls and aisles, separated by genre and release date.

On each side of the aisles are endcaps curated by the staff. Some are as simple as a collection of Woody Allen movies or classic horror films. Others are niche creations like Hanna-Barbera cartoons or movies filmed in Petaluma.

Lighted marquees list the newest releases available for rent, which Silver Screen is still offering until Aug. 11.

The checkout area is stashed with an assortment of candy and snacks, and behind it, three of the company’s last four employees are laughing hard and often.

Combined, Rigo Jaime, Kelly Marsh and Dane Mendonca have been working at Silver Screen for 45 years – nearly half of those belonging to Jaime, the 19-year manager.

The store is a direct reflection of this group, Lafranchi said, a trio of movie buffs that helped make Silver Screen a cherished piece of Petaluma.

“It’s like a family to me,” Marsh said. “You see people that bump into their neighbors or teachers or people they went to school with. I think there’s a reason why the one in Petaluma outlasted the other ones, and I think it’s (because it’s) such a community-oriented town.”

They still use DVDs to watch movies and television, she said, mostly because the physical process has become imprinted in their DNA. Although, Jaime conceded he uses a friend’s password to watch “Game of Thrones.”

As for what comes next, Marsh said she’s optimistic she’ll be able to get more hours at her second job, working for a local RV dealer. Mendonca is searching for a publisher for his book, a young adult fantasy novel that he’s spent the better part of the last decade writing.

The three of them have worked long hours to keep the atmosphere of Silver Screen intact despite the decline in sales over the last few years. Jaime plans on taking a well-deserved break to travel and spend time with his family.

“Little by little, you get your mindset that it’s coming, and it’s a matter of getting ready for it,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel in a couple of weeks. But little by little it’s hitting me.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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