Can you recall the days before Netflix when you could walk into a video store, leisurely browse through the many shelves and categories and pick out a few movies for the weekend? You can still do it at Best Video Film & Cultural Center in Hamden, one of the very few such outlets remaining in Connecticut.
How has it survived? Blockbuster and other video chains are long gone, and most folks haven’t rented a movie from a store in many years. But Best Video’s operators are dedicated and savvy enough to keep customers coming in.
Best Video boasts a mind-bombing array of categories within its 39,000 DVDs and about 1,000 more on the old VHS format. It’s operated by a half-dozen film buffs and a board of directors who also oversee a coffee bar and live music performances on a wood deck in the parking lot.
“The Godfather” of Best Video is Hank Paper, who can be found most mornings sitting on that deck, writing poetry and screenplays on his laptop, greeting old friends and customers while enjoying free cups of coffee.
He earned that coffee. He’s the man who launched this enterprise, way back when most of us had never considered the possibility of renting a film. In 1984 Paper, who had moved his family back to New England after achieving some success as a Hollywood screenwriter, got a call from his dad, living in New Jersey. “My father said, ‘I heard there are these places called video stores,’ ” Paper recalls. “He told me, ‘You should check them out.’
“My father changed my life with a phone call,” Paper says with a smile.
Realizing it might be a good way to earn some money while putting to use his love and knowledge of movies, Paper started scouting around for a store site. While driving through the Spring Glen neighborhood of Hamden, a pleasant area with small restaurants, a barber shop and a family-run hardware store, Paper said to himself: “This is where I want to plant my flag!” He opened in a tiny storefront in May 1985. “It was five blocks from here. I had 350 square feet with 500 movies — every film I could recommend.”
“From the beginning,” he says, “it was social. There was always conversation about the movies and the directors. I had so much fun.” Paper adds, “I had no expectations, no idea what the future held. I thought it was a good idea for that time.”
As word spread about this small oasis of interesting movies and Paper kept adding to his collection, he outgrew that tiny space. He moved to several nearby spots before settling in the larger building at 1842 Whitney Ave. in 2001.
Paper and the employees he assembled, all of them also with a deep knowledge and appreciation of films, kept ordering the latest movies and older gems. “This has become one of the top half-dozen film inventories in the country,” Paper says.
When you walk around inside, prepare to be awed. The dozens of director categories include Roman Polanski from The Fearless Vampire Killers to Chinatown, as well as David Lynch, the Coen brothers, Sam Peckinpah, Sofia Coppola and her father Francis Ford Coppola. The categories range from “top hits” to “best crime and gangster,” a “Godzilla” section, comedy, horror, Asian horror, TV series, silent films, Westerns, LGBT, documentaries, foreign and cult films. You get the picture.
Rob Harmon, who has worked behind the counter since 2010, says, “I’m a strong believer in movies and in a physical mode. What streaming is doing to our culture is pretty terrifying. In 2021, to have a place where you can find so many movies and TV shows, it’s just remarkable. I can’t believe it’s still here.”
But at times Best Video faced extinction. “When Netflix started wiping out video stores,’ Paper says, “I told my coworkers: ‘Let’s go ahead with that idea of going nonprofit.’ ” They did it in 2015. Paper sold Best Video to the new board and the building was bought by travel agent John Weinstein, who opened his business in a portion of the structure.
Before that, a coffee bar had been installed. And in 2011 Hank Hoffman, now Best Video’s executive director and its oldest continuous employee (he arrived in 1994) began organizing live music shows in an indoor space. They feature local musicians playing bluegrass, jazz and folk.
COVID-19 posed the most recent threat. “It hit at the heart of our nonprofit business model,” Hoffman says. “We aim to get people out of their virtual space, into a physical space, to build community through music and film.”
Best Video was forced to close completely from mid-March to May 2020. Then curbside rentals were offered. The deck was built last year, thanks to more than $60,000 in community donations, and outdoor concerts began last fall. On April 6, to the joy of customers, indoor browsing resumed.
You can rent a film for $4.50, to be returned either one or two days later, depending on whether it’s a “top hit.” There are also membership plans offering rental discounts and no late fees. There are 450 members.
Maija Jansson, who enjoys renting foreign films she can’t see anywhere else, calls Best Video “a wonderful place for neighbors to mingle.” On a Saturday evening in May, dozens of them gather in the parking lot, setting up folding chairs to take in some music and sample wine and beer from the coffee bar. Many of them bring their kids and dogs. “Let’s give a warm welcome to the Fiddleheads!” Hoffman calls out, and the sweet sounds of bluegrass fill the night air. (See bestvideo.com for show listings.)
Hoffman tells me: “What’s so moving to us is the way we’ve made a real connection to the greater New Haven community. Getting this response shows we touch people in a meaningful way. We’re immensely grateful for the support we’ve gotten. We’re like an underdog movie: the scrappy local institution that defies the odds.”
Best Video Film & Cultural Center
1842 Whitney Ave., Hamden