Local business

Front Row Video on Solano to close after 26 years

Front Row Video on Solano

Front Row Video, a fixture on Solano Avenue for 26 years, is closing at the end of the month. Rentals are continuing until this Sunday, and the stock of DVDs and videos is being sold off.

“It’s tough to say, ‘This is the end’, but we’re at the point where social security will give me more than the business,” said a visibly saddened Harvey Whittenburg, owner of Front Row for the last 16 years. “When I work it out, I make something like $2 an hour and it just doesn’t make sense.”

While talking to Whittenburg yesterday lunchtime, a number of patrons came into the store to express their regrets at the closing. “My son almost cried,” said one woman. “You’re such a part of the neighborhood.”

Whittenburg said he and his staff had tried everything. The two managers, Dave and Ritchie, who had been with the store for 25 and 20 years respectively, took salary cuts but it wasn’t enough to make the store a sustainable business in the current climate, Whittenburg said.

The closing of Front Row comes soon after the closing of Reel Video on Shattuck and Videots on College. Blockbuster (which recently filed for bankruptcy protection) on Shattuck, and Video Maniacs and Five Star Video on University are still operating.

The steady decline of video rental stores is not a purely Berkeley phenomenon. They were first hit badly by the rise of Netflix, which currently spends $700 million annually on postage to mail DVDs to its 15 million customers. But Netflix and a host of competitors are rapidly moving into streaming movies directly into homes. Analysts estimate that Netflix’s DVD business will peak in the next two years and then steadily decline as more and more consumers switch to viewing movies online.

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  • jjohannson

    What conceivable business model could cover the rent that space commands? I ask this as an open question. The dance studio has been empty for five years, the movie theater damn near closed and may still, and we know the Post Office is trying to leave. We’re on the cusp of blight on upper Solano.

    The owner(s) of these buildings have a special, civic obligation to fill these spaces by reconfiguring them and lowering rents. The city has a pressing duty facilitate and expedite their use. And neighbors need to open their minds to a wider array of uses. Hardware stores, nightclubs, concert venues, call centers, green energy business offices, architectural firms, even residential — all uses must be considered.

    The days of battling an ice cream shop must be over for good. Chronically empty CRE threatens the entire neighborhood.

  • Roxanne

    I second this motion: “The days of battling an ice cream shop must be over for good. Chronically empty CRE threatens the entire neighborhood.”
    Some years ago Noah’s wanted to expand into the next door space and put in tables, a real cafe which believe it or not we do not have. Bitter neighbors, lost in the past and still mourning the loss of Ortman’s Ice Cream battled against this and won. Now the space next door to Noah’s has a revolving door. Please TONA (Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association) lighten up and get behind a new and revitalized neighborhood. Our children and grandchildren deserve it. Let’s all support Laurie Capitelli in helping our neighborhood to prosper in these tough times, and support the initiatives in City Council to encourage business.

  • tizzielish

    I hope Berkeley is able to revitalize the Solano Business District. I agree that the neighbors need to start chilling out, stop resisting change like that ice cream shop. It is hard to know what is the right combo.

    It’s not just Solano and it’s not even the current economic climate. Our economy is undergoing profound change, shifting from retail to online. That is not going to change, it will only continue.

    Maybe we have too much retail real estate to meet the needs of our new retail reality.

    Who reading this does not shop online?

    I needed a new robe. I want a cotton, decently-made terry cloth bathrobe. I can’t afford a high-end Egyptian cotton spa robe. I don’t want to spend more than fifty bucks for a robe that should last me many years. I am replacing a robe I around 1995. I shopped all over downtown SF — found nothing. And nothing at Target or Walmart that I wanted. 100% cotton is not that easy to find but guess what? I want to buy what I want. This robe purchase is not a big deal, I know that. .. but what what? I can get a gagillion of them online, in a wide range of price and quality.
    I have tried to find what will meet my needs by shopping the old fashioned way. I can’t afford to buy something that won’t meet my needs just to support a local business that does not carry merchandise that is right for me. This is a dull story . . but it is the story of the new economy.

    And videos? I’ve used Netflix since 2005. I loved Blockbusters for many years but that’s over. It’s just too easy to get dvd’s in my mailbox . .. and now it is just too easy to streamonline.

    All the empty retail space in Berkeley is not going to fill up with the kinds of businesses that used to thrive. The world has changed. Instead of looking for businesses to fill the space, we have to rethink community. It’s a complex issue.

    Front Row Video made a living for its staff for 25+ years. We can see that as a positive. Nothing lasts forever. We need to accept that life changes, people have to adapt and shift.

    It’s sad but it’s life.

  • tizzlelish, your points are well made and that is one of the objectives of Laurie Capitelli’s proposals for Solano Avenue. He wants to permit yoga studios, dance studios, etc to move into spots previously reserved for traditional retail stores. He argues those stores bring in significant foot traffic so they contribute to activity on the street.

  • Zelda Bronstein

    People, how about a few facts?

    First, nobody opposed the new ice cream store on Solano. The issue was whether the address would be given a use permit for seating, i.e., a restaurant. (Check out the fabulously successful Ici ice cream shop on College; it has no seating). That said, at the Zoning Adjustments Board, nobody opposed the ice cream store’s application for seating or for that matter, anything else. It sailed right through. Furthermore, the ZAB’s approval went unappealed at the council.

    Second, it’s ironic to hear someone telling the neighbors to open their minds to a wider array of uses. The whole point of the quotas on food services on Solano was to prevent such businesses from dominating the street. Given a choice, landlords prefer food service tenants because they can get higher rents from such tenants. The ice cream store owner is paying $3 a square foot–4th Street rents. Use permits run with the land, which is to say, they go to addresses, not businesses–and they are good for perpetuity. It’s unheard of for a landlord with a use permit for a food service to rent to another kind of retailer. Commercial rent control is unconstitutional, meaning that zoning is the only way cities can try to maintain a diversified, neighborhood-serving commercial strip.

    Third, last time I looked, there were 29 food service businesses on the Berkeley portion of Solano. At last night’s council meeting, Councilmembers Capitelli, Wengraf and Moore introduced proposals that, among other things, remove the quota on food services on Solano. If that recommendation is approved next year, there will be even more such businesses on the street.

    Fourth, a hardware store has been on the top of the neighborhood association’s wish list for years. If anybody out there has some good ideas about how to get one, please contact TONA.

    Fifth, the proposals put forward by Capitelli and crew could well have come from Republicans. Is the economy in trouble? We have just the solution: deregulate! Their only good recommendation was crafting incentives to get landlords to rent their long-empty spaces–and, unlike the others, it was completely abstract.

  • DC

    Restaurants are far preferable to empty storefronts. I don’t understand the rationale that says we should hold out for the perfect hand-picked business mix (and these businesses come from where?) and make do with lots of vacant space until that mix can be satisfied.

    I’m all for zoning, but quotas just delay businesses moving in, and once a neighborhood gets a reputation for not wanting businesses, they choose to go elsewhere. In this case deregulation is a very, very good thing. We’ve seen what quotas can do, and in this instance it’s frankly destructive.

  • Nick Taylor

    I hardly think that Frances, a person who co-owns this site, should speak on behalf, or against a particular point of view on this issue; let alone be defending Capitelli. Where is the journalistic standard here? I see a definite POV being expressed by the editors, and this is reflected in the article, and the editorial comments posted here by them. Capitelli is a commercial real estate owner in the City of Berkeley. He’s also a realtor and developer with offices on Solano Ave.. Of course he’s in favor of de-regulation. His amateurish poll, conducted by a high school student, was nothing more than a push-poll. And the results have not even been statistically analyzed or made available. We’re to take his word on the results and participants? He’s a politician. If the “market” were to truly work in Berkeley, as Capitelli and others propose, then landlords would be lowering their rents in droves to find tenants so they don’t lose money. Market economy, right? But they are holding out for Union Square rents. Yes, the same as Union Square, SF. Ridiculous right? How can any retail store owner pay or cover those costs? The more landlords hold out, the more desperate the City and community strives to find any way to placate the landlords and restaurant developers. Let’s deregulate so we can have 100 restaurants on upper Solano, instead of the 29+ already there in the five blocks within Berkeley’s limits. I’m all in favor of restaurants, but they can’t be the only type of business in an entire business district. (See “North End” in Boston for a look at where this is heading.) Then it becomes a destination location for dining, instead of a neighborhood community with a variety of businesses that serve residents also. There are quotas in Elmwood and Shattuck. Will they go too? Look at Emeryville. Does anyone want to live there? Zoning has a purpose. And it should be to find a balance, not cave in to every developer that sees dollar signs in an upscale dining market, at the cost of displacing any other type of business or service. Some flexibility is good, granted. And permits are confusing and hard to understand, because they’ve been so arbitrarily enforced by the City in the past twenty years. This needs to change. It should be easier for businesses to get started. Rules should be transparent. But throwing out all regulation to do this is missing the point.

  • voxhumana

    It’s clear that a strictly video rental store cannot compete in the current high-tech, high throughput internet marketplace. The writing has been on the walls on this one for over ten years. And as much as I like the owners of Front Row Video, the store is dingy, dirty, unappealing, and has failed to keep up with the marketplace needs. How about audible-book rentals? We have lots of commuters in the neighborhood. Their opportunity to diversify their store is long gone, and hopefully another more creative and ambitious business will move in, and not another Indian restaurant (no offense intended.)

  • DC

    I’m sure Frances can speak for herself, but this is just a blog. As such it has the POV of its creators and contributors. Those who think it can or should do something different than it does can start their own hyper-local blogs. There are a number of them out there, and they add to the vibrancy of the local scene. The more the merrier.

    But I don’t think its fair to start complaining that someone else’s blog doesn’t meet one’s own preferences for choice of stories. It’s what they choose to publish – that’s the way it rolls.

  • Nick, I was suggesting that Tizzleish was correct in that people are migrating to on line sites to buy more goods, and that this changing retail environment has left a number of stores vacant. I was not speaking in favor or against Capitelli’s proposals. I did write an article outlining his measure before the city council meeting, but have never expressed an opinion on it.

  • voxhumana

    This is a blog that likes to present itself as a news outlet. A news outlet associated with and serving as a feeder for “The Bay Citizen,” another local news site funded by Frances’ cousin, Warren Hellman and the Haas Foundation. Berkeley schools try to educate students to be critical thinkers. That entails understanding the difference between opinion and fact. This “blog’s” attempts at blurring that boundary only serve to confuse and obfuscate the truth, at a time when another “blog” is hardly what the world needs. No one complained about the type of story. Only the opinions mixed in with reporting. I can see Berkeley still needs another news outlet, as this “blog” is clearly not filling the bill.

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  • DC

    Go to town, voxhumana and start your own – the more hyper-local blogs the better! I think it’s a very healthy trend. Naturally they all won’t be for everyone. If this one doesn’t suit you, by all means provide another voice.

    I read about six regularly. They are all different, and I appreciate each one for its own POV and voice. It’s a great 21st century trend.

  • Well, Berkeleyside has all sorts of different articles on it, included reported news stories that do not take a side but try and present various views of the issues. What, really is the difference between a blog and a news outlet? Some people refer to Berkeleyside as a blog, which I think is in reference to its reverse chronological order. That was the early definition of a blog. But we report stories, we don’t just offer our opinion on things, so Berkeleyside is definitely a news outlet. When I write something that has my opinion in it, I usually refer to myself and am up front about what I am thinking. However, I mostly write news stories. Voxhumana, I don’t get the meaning of your mention of Warren Hellman and Bay Citizen. And I think most of our readers have the critical reasoning skills to see when a Berkeleyside post is a news story and when it is a lighter, more opinionated piece.