Walking down State Street, it is easy to become distracted by the many flashing signs, cries from the street corners or the stunning view of the Capitol in the distance. Amidst all the clutter, tucked between the Asian Kitchen and Pita Pit, is Four-Star Video Cooperative.
Perhaps the strongest pull to the store is simply the fact that, yes, there is a video rental store that still exists and yes, it is 2017.
“I think it’s the biggest video store in Wisconsin, and we have the most titles. It’s kind of a resource for people who want to delve into the history of film. We have everything going back to, well I think we even have movies from the 1890’s.” Lewis Peterson, one of the four owners of Four Star, said.
Four Star is owned and operated by Lewis Peterson, Andy Fox, Helen Bolt and Nick Propheter, all of whom had worked at the store before the change. Four Star’s mission, as stated by their website, is to make underground, art, foreign and just plain weird titles available to the public by placing them alongside more mainstream Hollywood films. With a collection of over 20,000 titles, not including duplicates, it appears that this mission is being met.
The bell on the door rings when you enter. A black-and-white film plays on a small television next to a houseplant behind the front desk. Rows of shelves line the room, titles staring back at you. A staircase leads to the basement where the bulk of the collection is stored. Welcome to Four-Star Video.
Four Star has been around since 1985, but only recently did it become a co-op. In 2014 when Lisa Brennan, the owner at the time, decided to move on to other projects, the employees at Four Star had a choice to make.
“Basically, either we were going to buy the store because you know there wasn't another prospective buyer or we were going to close, and none of us really wanted to see it close and have everything sold off piece by piece. So we had a fundraising campaign, raised about $10,000 which was the down payment for the bank, and here we are, still open three years later,” Peterson said.
How does a video store stay open in a world where it seems that every day a new streaming service pops up? Four Star says it’s the finality and the human interaction that keeps their customers coming back.
“People like the finality of it too. Once they have made their selection, that's what they are going to watch in the next couple days, as opposed to online where you can watch 500 previews and then the first quarter of like five movies and then maybe finish one,” Andy Fox said.
Customer base is important, and with redbox and micro movie-rental businesses filling the void left by true “browsing” establishments and a large portion of the population moving towards increasingly popular streaming services, a piece of the market is moving away from the physical store. With new content so readily available, it would seem a concern for businesses like Four Star as platforms like these become more prevalent.
“I mean, obviously it's a concern, all that stuff was pretty well in place [when] we bought this store. We knew what we were getting into, I mean we aren't going to be like 70-years-old and doing this, but it's just like we wanted it to be available to people,” Peterson said. “People like having it here as a physical thing and, you know, having someone to talk to who knows rather than typing into Google.”
With such a large selection to choose from, there are undoubtedly some strange titles that enter the mix. Helen Boldt said that the movie “Green Porno” is probably the strangest title Four Star has. Made by Isabella Rossellini, it’s about animal sex.
“Yeah, animal reproduction. It’s about how animals reproduce and then she acts it out. Like these costumes and stuff,” Boldt said.
So why opt for shelves, smiles and plastic cases over the convenience of your laptop?
“You can have a library of 30,000 movies for under 20 bucks a month.” Fox said.
And if that doesn't sell you, the human experience will. According to Four Star’s owners, they have a consistent stream of “regulars” that they know by name.
Four Star Video Cooperative is located at 449 State Street and is open from 10 a.m. to midnight every day of the year. For more information or to contact Four Star visit their website: http://fourstarvideocoop.com/store/contact.
UPDATE March 15, 11 p.m.: The original article incorrectly stated one of the owner's names was Adam Fox instead of Andy Fox. The article also stated the store had a collection of 32,229 titles, when in fact the number is over 20,000.