Vidiots at 302 Pico opened in 1985 when Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber decided that they wanted to have their own business. Lifetime friends since the age of three, Tauber and Polinger are smart, lively and engaging and readily admit to talking as one person, each finishing the other’s sentences. Over a cup of coffee the Mirror’s Steve Stajich requested permission to print this interview with their tightly bonded personalities speaking as one person about Vidiots, considered to be one of the most important alternative video stores in the country.
Mirror: How do you start a video store? Did you have the capital to buy all the videos you needed?
(LAUGHS) Not really. We borrowed and scraped together barely enough to open a store and we had 800 videos. We now have, between DVD’s and VHS, maybe 40,000.
Mirror: This was pre-Blockbuster, in the day of independent video stores?
Blockbuster actually opened the same year we did, but they weren’t here in Santa Monica. They didn’t come to the west coast for a few years. There was a chain called Music Plus. But every little strip mall had a video store, and so people thought we were crazy. They said, “Just what Santa Monica needs, another video store.”
Mirror: So when you started, there was a sense that video rental was handled in this area?
Definitely. But we kept telling everybody, “You’ll see, we’ll be different.”
Mirror: It strikes me that people like to come here the way they used to love hanging out in record shops.
People are excited when they come in here. I mean, a friend of mine came in my store and he said, “I haven’t been in your store before. It reminds me of Berkeley.” [LAUGHS] And that was like the biggest compliment somebody could get.
MIRROR: You can’t buy copies of every movie that’s available, so how do you decide what movies to stock?
We don’t do the buying anymore. One of our employees does. But it’s staying in touch with our customers. Some of them are actual suggestions from customers. There are certain movies that we don’t, you know, it’s not for our type of customer. I’m trying to think of some genre that hasn’t done well here… Documentaries have done really well with us so we’ve expanded with that.
MIRROR: You might get Wedding Crashers but not have 40 copies of it.
Yes, it’s done well. But yeah, not 40 copies of it. One of our biggest sellers was Rivers and Tides, about artist Andy Goldsworthy. We’ve probably sold more of those, and What the Bleep Do We Know!? That’s the kind of thing that if you like it, you want to watch it again. And we sell a lot of the Criterion Collection. For the real film buff, they’re really pristine prints and the ancillary stuff on the disc is great.
MIRROR: What about prices? Have they stayed where you can do business?
When we first opened, the highest we might pay for a new release is maybe $73. For one videotape. Then DVD’s were less, although they’ve crept up. And they’re not as durable as videos.
MIRROR: Really? I thought it was the other way around.
They scratch and we replace a lot more DVD’s. When they first came out, the sales guys would come in our office and throw them across the room to demonstrate how durable they were. But we have videos that have run over a thousand times. They start looking old, but we still have stuff that’s never going to DVD that we keep renting. I don’t know any other stores that still have this much VHS. Sometimes there’s a rights or legal thing and [a film] is not going to go to DVD. Or they quit making it.
MIRROR: In the early days, did you guys run the store by yourselves?
We were pretty much here all the time. We had some part time employees. We started when we were single and didn’t have kids and 21 years later things are a little different.
MIRROR: Your employees are all very into the job…
We’re really lucky. We’ve had a lot of employees that have worked here over ten years. We have someone who’s been here for 16 years. A lot of our people have other lives that they do…one person writes comedy and does improv, we’ve had people who have left to sell scripts, theater people, a lot of writers. Several have come from bookstores, so there’s that independent bookstore crossover. [LAUGHS]
MIRROR: This is just interesting to me: If someone from the government asked for a printout of the films I’ve been watching, would you yield that list?
The only time we once did was, it was the FBI…
MIRROR: Whoa! No kidding?
It was a pedophile case. And we were happy to help them. That was an exceptional situation. They found a business card or one of our boxes in some stuff. The list didn’t prove any pattern of anything. I don’t know that it helped them at all. When we got a phone call that went, “Hi, this is FBI we’d like to talk to you…” we were like, “What did we do?! Did we pay our taxes?” [LAUGHS]
MIRROR: You never talk about opening another store?
We talked about it a lot, but not so much anymore. This store started off a little bit more than a quarter of the size it is now and we just kept getting bigger and bigger. And I just think, personal-wise, we both have little kids and, you know, we just didn’t have the time to open another store. Customers want us to open another store, so they don’t have to drive so far. But we’d have to drive from where we live, and Cathy lives in Topanga…just thinking about it…more driving.
Mirror: What kind of a threat, if any, are operations like Netflix to your kind of neighborhood store?
It hasn’t impacted us that much. We have a lot of customers that use Netflix and us, but what happens with a lot of Netflix users is that you have to pre-order what you want to watch and I don’t know about other people, but I don’t always know what I’m in the mood to watch. And there is something about getting out of the house and seeing and talking to another person, just browsing and seeing if you feel like maybe watching something that you hadn’t thought about. I think for some people [Netflix] becomes like a gym membership and they start getting the monthly bills and they think, “I’m not using it!” So they keep getting new subscribers, but they are also losing them as well.
There’s also a social aspect for us here. People like to come in and talk movies and our staff is all very intelligent and happy to talk movies. And [online stores] may have artificial intelligence that says, “Well, if you liked this movie then you’ll like this movie,” but we have human intelligence that allows you to ask some more questions instead of having it in a computer program.
MIRROR: Okay, three reasons somebody should come here instead of Blockbuster.
Inventory, number one. The diversity and the breath of our inventory I would say. Yeah, that’s number one, and two would be our knowledgeable staff. And three would be…atmosphere…? No, ambience. [LAUGHS] And maybe because we have events here also.