A movie plays softly from behind the front register, which operates off of software from the ’80s, signed posters line the walls, dozens of shelves filled with films and television shows of all varieties fill the room, and that’s just the first floor.
Four Star Video Heaven, located on 449 State Street, is one of Madison’s few remaining video rental stores. The store, which is also one of Madison’s many cooperatives, has a long history in the community and employed some of Madison’s finest creative minds such as writer Dan Savage and creators of the the Onion’s sister publication, The A.V. Club.
“This place has a long history with The Onion,” Four Star part-owner Lewis Peterson said.
Four Star was one of the first to advertise in The Onion when it still ran print editions. Four Star was also home to Onion columnist Dan Savage, who began writing his Savage Love column in the store’s back rooms.
Do or die for Four Star
Four Star first opened its doors in 1985, at which time they occupied a space on Henry Street. The store remained on Henry Street for years until its relocation to its current space on State Street. In August 2014, longtime owner Lisa Brennan decided to give up the store. It was at this point a difficult decision about the future of Four Star faced employees.
“It became obvious that the options were either that the store closes or we buy the store,” Peterson said.
The purchase of the store became a group effort.
A fundraising campaign for the cooperative began February of last year. The prospective buyers initiated an Indiegogo campaign, along with on the ground efforts which in total raised close to $10,000 of their $50,000 goal.
The total was enough for a down payment on a bank loan which would secure Four Star as a newly formed cooperative.
The owners said no one had given much thought into business ownership, but stepped up to the circumstance.
“This was a good job to have and when it came time to do or die, we did,” part-owner Nick Propheter said.
The transition between ownership into a cooperative was gradual, Peterson said. As a cooperative, the four owners make all decisions about the business as a group, Propheter said.
Also part of the cooperative function, the store offers a subscription program which allows people the become members of the cooperative after purchasing a video rental.
While none of the new owners had much business experience when first taking on ownership of the store, Propheter said it has been a learning experience and while they have faced some challenges, overall, store operations continue to run without a hitch.
“Things are going pretty smoothly now, there were some hiccups and bumps in the road but we’ve figured it out along the way,” Propheter said.
The Madison community has also contributed to the cooperative’s success over the years. Propheter said other local businesses and cooperatives have been major supports for the new business owners. He noted the support Four Star received in the past from local cooperatives such as Community Pharmacy, Union Cab and Willy Street Co-op. From general business to legal advice, Propheter said Four Star always has people who are willing to help.
Staying alive in the Netflix era
In a time where video rental stores are virtually non-existent and most people find themselves watching content from online streaming networks such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, Four Star thrives with a selection of 18,000 videos.
“We have more appeal in our selection, people get stuff that they can’t get online, that’s why they come here,” Peterson said.
Online streaming platforms such as Netflix have to renew their licensing rights to videos. If they choose not to renew that license, the video will no longer be available.
Four Star, on the other hand, does not have to worry about licensing. Once they purchase a DVD it becomes part of their permanent collection.
Their vast selection of videos, including those no longer available on the Internet, is part of what drives customers through their doors.
“We get the students as a source of new customers who are just walking down the street and come in and are like, ‘Oh yeah, we do want to get Space Jam or Ghostbusters, or something we can’t get off the Internet,'” Peterson said.
While the top videos people rent from Four Star are always changing, the owners noted some of the most rented items include Spirited Away, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Holy Mountain and the Star Trek series.
Four Star is also known for its wide selection of foreign films. All of the owners said they consider themselves experts on the matter.
Another major attraction for customers is Four Star’s annual collaboration with WORT to host filmmakers in their store, giving them a platform to talk about their films in the Wisconsin Film Festival.
Peterson said he believes many people simply like the idea of supporting local businesses.
“As far as getting local support, Madison does definitely love its co-ops,” Propheter said. “[It’s] one of these towns that a place like this can continue to thrive unlike anywhere else.”