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D.C.'s last video rental store prepares to close

Saturday - 4/26/2014, 3:51am  ET

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Potomac Video will close its doors this spring. All inventory is currently on sale. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

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WASHINGTON -- There was a time, not too long ago, when people would hop in the car, drive to their local video store and peruse the aisles until a title jumped out at them.

Sometimes, in the absence of immediate inspiration, movie watchers would engage with the staff behind the counter. They would ask for recommendations and go home with something new and untried.

As Potomac Video in Chevy Chase prepares to close its doors this spring, D.C. is losing not only the last remaining brick-and-mortar video store, but also the expertise that distinguishes this neighborhood institution from big-box competitors.

Opened in 1981 by former physicist Ben Fogle, Potomac Video once boasted 22 locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Now, as its flagship location on Connecticut Avenue clears its inventory, the end of a soon-to-be lost art looms near -- the art of curating a movie collection.

Jon Francke spent the last 20 years doing just that at Potomac Video. A former film student at Syracuse University, Francke came to Potomac from Blockbuster, which closed its last store in January. The Massachusetts native helped Fogle tailor his store's collection to different demographics depending on the neighborhood.

In Chevy Chase, the customer base skewed older, wealthier and more educated than other parts of the region, he says.

"Art films would do really well in this store whereas no one is really interested in horror films here. Conversely, if we went to our Virginia store 10 years ago, horror films would sell like blockbusters and art films would just sit there."

Francke spent years poring over spreadsheets of sales information to determine the best selections for each of Fogle's 22 locations. He became friends with customers and had the opportunity to introduce old favorites to new movie watchers.

"There was pretty much no limit on what we could own and what we could rent from this location," he says. "The selection was always the best in this store."

Since announcing the store's closing, loyal customers and cinephiles have made pilgrimages to Potomac Video. One man drove down from Philadelphia on Monday and bought 150 VHS tapes, Francke says.

"We've had multiple people walking out of here with more than 100 titles," he adds.

Collectors are clamoring for hard copies of movies and TV shows, partially because limited bandwidth can make online streaming very unpredictable, Francke says. For example, HBO Go has recently come under fire for spotty service during popular shows, such as "Game of Thrones" and "True Detective."

Francke adds that the quality of DVD and Blu-Ray surpasses that of streaming, an argument similar to that made by devotees of vinyl records who say compressed digital files lose the integrity of original recordings.

But unlike sales of vinyl records, which have grown by 30 percent in recent years, hard-copy formats of movies and TV shows seem doomed to the annals of pop-culture history, a pattern Fogle accepted long ago.

In fact, when he decided to take the plunge from program director of polar atmospheric sciences for the National Science Foundation to video store owner, Fogle already knew technology was changing. He read a story in the New York Times about the boom of home entertainment and decided movie rentals would become a hot commodity. He was right.

"At first, I thought we would get three or five good years," he says. "I knew it would be worthwhile."

Eventually, Fogle resigned from the National Science Foundation to focus on Potomac Video. His best memories, he says, come from the relationships he forged with his staff and his loyal customers.

"We've been coming here since the '90s," says Joyce Fernandez, who lives nearby with her sister, Phyllis. "There is no place like it."

"We come here for all of our movies," Phyllis Fernandez says, adding that neither woman has ever streamed a movie or show online.

"I like British comedy," Joyce Fernandez says.

"I like Sandra Bullock," Phyllis Fernandez says.

"One of the great things about this business is the rapport that builds up between the customers and the staff," Fogle says. "You build up relationships with the customers. They're like family."

Potomac Video will close its doors when the store clears out most of its inventory, probably by the end of May, Francke says.

As for his upcoming retirement, Fogle is ready for a new adventure.

"Whenever life gets boring, I like to change gears and try something new," he says.

Editor's note: Do you know of a video rental store in your area that is still open? Send the name and address to alozano@wtop.com for inclusion in the list below.

Video rental stores:

Video Plus - 9721 Baltimore Ave. College Park, Md. 20740, 301-486-4548

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