|Renting Videos in Bay Country:
Indies Cling to Life
It's never been easy being a Mom & Pop video store.
Ever since the advent of movie rentals, store owners will tell you, the indies have had a hard time competing against the corporate might of chain stores. It's especially true now, when DVDs are gradually making local shops' tape libraries obsolete and Blockbusters, Hollywood Videos and the like have stretched out into the farthest frontiers of suburbia. Even e-tailers have gotten in on the act; Kozmo.com offers web-to-door rentals by courier for those who live or work in D. C. and eight other big cities.
If the market wasn't competitive enough, such new media as digital cable and digital satellite are cutting into even the big chains' share of the pie. In the third quarter of 2000, rental giant Blockbuster, with some 4,800 stores in the U. S. alone, posted a net loss of $19.3 million on top of losses in each of the previous quarters. Hollywood Entertainment Corporation, with 1,818 Hollywood Video franchises, managed a $716,000 profit after its two previous quarters' losses.
You don't have to look far in Chesapeake Country to see how such mounting pressures have affected Mom & Pop: In the past year, at least four independent stores closed up shop for good in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.
"I've had customers tell me, 'wow, you're really raking in the dollars now, you're the only other one in town,'" said Mark C. Hackett, 18 years the owner of Deale Video. His is the only remaining video store in South County after two others' recent exit. But suppositions of wealth he shrugs off. "It's just that we have survived," he said.
Hackett is one of only four remaining independent video rental entrepreneurs in the long stretch between Solomons and Severna Park. "I think the only way an independent video store can survive is to have some diversification," said Hackett, counting his other revenue makers: Lotto, Keno, Good Humor, digital satellite sales, copy service, fax service and newspapers. Hackett also likes the advent of DVD: They're smaller to shelve, cheaper to buy "and they don't get eaten by VCRs."
Annebeth's, in downtown Annapolis, lives on specialization. Owner Annebeth Bunker keeps a library of classic, foreign, cult and art cinema supplemented by specialty foods, beer and wine. "I haven't felt the pressure, but I see it around me," said Bunker, whose store has been open just over two years. Another relative rookie, Robyn Lemarand, has owned Solomons' six-year-old Videos N More for only one year. She says she's not been around long enough to notice any crunch.
But Peggy Langello, owner of 18-year-old Box Office Video, has. She recently boarded up her original shop in Owings and fell back to her five-year-old shop in Annapolis after chain stores ate up her business. Her shop's alive for now, she says, because of convenient location and cheap rentals. But Langello sees DVD as a death knell. Independents, she explained, can't afford to go through their libraries and re-stock old tapes in DVD format, as some chains are doing. "That's probably going to be the kiss of death there," said Langello. "Probably in another year, there won't be much more demand for VHS."
But there'll be no kissing yet. Though underdogs, each shop has its own way of staying alive. Each keeps up with new releases and holds older collections than you'll find in many Blockbusters. And each offers special good deals:
Annebeth's, 75 Maryland Ave., Annapolis: Specializes in classic, foreign, cult and art cinema. She even stocks silent films. (Tapes $3/2 nights; DVD $3.75/2 nights. Open noon-9 M-Th; noon-10 FSa; noon-8 Su: 410/990-9700)
Box Office Video, 626 Admiral Dr., Annapolis: Deep range of dates and genres; new releases on DVD. (Tapes & DVD new $3.50/2 nights; old $2.75/3 nights; $5/5 movies/5 nights. 11-9 M-Th; 11-10 FSa; 12-8 Su: 410/224-2300)
Deale Video, 5720 Deale-Churchton Rd.: All genres, titles dating back 50-plus years. Boasts "an extensive DVD selection" plus an ample supply of B movies. (Tapes & DVD $2.50/night; discounts. 11-8 M-F; 10-9 Sa; noon-6 Su: 410/867-2972)
Videos N More, 13862 S Solomons Island Rd., Solomons: Titles date as far back as 25 years. (Tapes & DVD new $2.50/night; old 99¢/night; discounts. 11-8 M-Th; 11-9 FSa; 11-7 Su: 410/326-2116)
In Annapolis, Our 'Roots' Branch Out
photo by Jennifer A. Dawicki
To diversify heritage stories, 10 more story-telling stones, like the one in front of Alex Haleys statue, will be imbedded in the seawall at City Dock in Annapolis.
It's not about being black - though an African American occupies City Dock.
It's about being here, together, the children of natives and immigrants - eager, desperate or subdued - from the four corners of the globe. It's about being Piscataway or English or African or French or Irish or Italian or Indian or Iranian.
It's about knowing our roots and drawing on them to flourish side by side.
That's a message Leonard Blackshear wants proclaimed, alongside Alex Haley, at City Dock.
Now, Annapolis' Historic District Committee has given the go-ahead to Blackshear and the Alex Haley-Kunta Kinte Foundation he heads to proclaim that message 10 times over.
The Historic District Committee approval will bring two new sizable elements - 10 story-telling stones and a compass rose - plus an array of less visible finishing touches to the Haley grouping set in place on City Dock in December, 1999.
In that grouping, Haley - the man whose Roots journey turned America into a nation of genealogists - shares heritage stories with children of diverse ethnicity. Haley was chosen because his autobiographical novel, Roots, traced his heritage to Kunta Kinte, a captured Gambian sold into slavery at this very spot in 1751.
If you've visited the popular quartet of statues in the past six months, you've seen the beginning of the changes. Inscribed on a plaque behind Haley are these words:
"Alex Haley, in his family's story, Roots, shows how the strength of the human spirit to overcome challenges comes from maintaining strong family connections and pride in one's heritage.
"Take time to share heritage stories with children so they can pass on their proud heritage and learn respect for the heritage of others."
Ten more story-telling plaques of similar size will diversify the heritage stories. Come next September 29, you'll find the plaques embedded in the Compromise Street wall, which radiates from the state grouping at City Dock. That date marks 250 years since Kunta Kinte was sold at the slave block and 20 years since the first memorial of the event, a plaque, was placed at City Dock.
Deciding whose stories they will tell is the job of a committee headed by poet and storyteller Maya Angelou, who composed and read a poem for former president Bill Clinton's first inauguration. Angelou will chair that committee that chooses writers and texts for the story wall.
"We expect passages from writers that reflect diversity, with lots of hyphenated Americans amplifying the Biblical message of Ruth, that the key to the strength of the human spirit is maintaining strong family connections and pride in heritage," Blackshear said.
Also approved by the Historic District Committee for installation on Market Square is a 13-foot-wide compass rose. Inlaid in the pavement, the granite marker will superimpose directional lines on a map of the world.
"With the compass crosshairs on Annapolis, you can stand in the center of the compass rose and face the place your ancestors came from to get a sense of direction and place," said Blackshear.
The cost of the additions is $750,000, with the state contributing $300,000 and the city $90,000. The Foundation is raising the rest.
Smaller additions include replacing Haley's broken bronze glasses with stainless steel; hanging overhead lighting above the statues and mounting Internet cameras for protection and connection.
"We're beginning to realize we have to find racial and ethnic harmony in America," said Blakcshear. "This memorial will serve as the beginning point of a journey of education, inspiration and healing for many people."
Saturday Night, The Bell Tolls for Johnnies
In the earliest hours of Sunday morn, when the sun has barely crested the horizon of Greenwich, downtown Annapolitans might stir to an awkwardly timed knell cascading from somewhere over by College Creek. Once. Twice. Ninety-five times the bell tolls, as though some daft vicar has gone swinging on the rope.
'Tis the joyful noise of Johnnies celebrating the completion of their senior essays, having handed them in to St. John's College's Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft by the midnight Saturday deadline. Now the class of 95 students is gathered at McDowell Hall, taking full advantage of an exception in the noise ordinance granted them by the mayor of Annapolis. The ringing bell shall sound a testament to their elation.
Each senior, double major or no, is allowed one peal of the bell, though it's no longer a tug of the rope. "Now it's just a button," says class of 1988's Sus3an (she spells it that way) Borden, now working in the college's public affairs office. "It has greater symbolic value, but it is definitely a very joyous occasion."
Before the ringing has had opportunity to leave the ears, Johnnies will have converged on coffeehouse for the post-bell party, thrown for seniors by the juniors. Again, tradition holds that the juniors scrounge up pages of rough drafts and put them up as decoration. "It's the most fun party of the year," says Borden, "not just one more Saturday night party at college."
Nobody's sure exactly how old the bell-ringing tradition is, though St. John's College spokesperson Beth Schulman says that even the eldest college statesmen can't remember when it began. Thus, based on the seniority of some tutors, it stands to reason that the tradition is anywhere from 70 to 301 years old.
No matter its true age, the tradition is aged, consistent and symbolic enough that it's quite venerable. After all, Borden says, it's the bell that marked the beginning and end to each day's classes for four years, and it will again toll once for each graduate at commencement. "It tears the eyes," she says.
Alas, if your eyes tear because the Johnnies' joy delays your night's rest, take heart: It was once tradition to ring the bell each time a senior finished one page of that essay.
Iced Twice: My Second Polar Plunge
photos by Bill Lambrecht
More than 1,800 people braved 35-degree Bay water for the 5th Annual Polar Bear Plunge. Among them was Bay Weeklys Christopher Heagy, below.
It's not a mistake as long as you don't do it twice.
Shivering on the beach at Sandy Point State Park Saturday morning, I wondered how I got myself stuck in the cold again.
All month long Bay Weekly general manager J. Alex Knoll asked if I would once again join him in the Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge. For most of the month I put him off with maybes and we'll sees.
Finally, the Thursday before the plunge, Alex called me into his office. "Are you going to plunge? If you're scared just tell me," he said with a smirk. "I'll understand."
With my manhood challenged, how could I step down?
"Make me a pledge sheet," I hastily replied. "If I can get $50 together, I'll hop in."
Editor Sandra Martin ponied up the first $20, and I realized a Saturday afternoon dip was on the horizon.
The day of the plunge I did some work around the house. I packed my gym bag with a towel, blanket and a change of socks and shoes. A few butterflies danced in my stomach when I thought about my jump into the Bay.
Still, I showed up. With Plunge partner Alex, I took off my shirt, stripped down to my gym shorts, and we joined the fray in the middle of the beach.
Air temperatures hovered around 45 degrees, but a 15- to 20-mile-an-hour breeze made the day quite brisk. The waters of Chesapeake Bay were 35 degrees when the starting gun ordered 1,823 plungers in.
I jogged slowly in the middle of the pack. I dropped my towel on the beach and moved to the water's edge. Just before getting wet I stopped, jogging in place. I could turn around right here, I thought. No one would ever know.
But there would be no retreat. I bravely entered the water. Cold pains, like knives, shot through my feet. The deeper I walked in, the farther the pain moved up my legs. I fought my way to mid-thigh level, buckled and dropped my head below water.
Knocked breathless, I shot back up out of the water. It's amazing how quiet 1,800 people can be.
Though my feet felt like bricks on the end of my legs, I slowly stomped out of the Bay.
In the most uncharitable moment of the day, one of my fellow plungers had taken my towel. Stunned and cold I headed to my bag; towelless, I shivered in the wind.
After ripping off my soaking shoes and socks and throwing on a sweatshirt, I felt a little better. Though my body was stiff, my swim was not as painful as I thought it would be.
All in all, I raised $86. Yes, it pales in comparison to Knoll's $505, but it's not bad for a day's work. Overall the 1,823 plungers raised $315,000 for Special Olympics Maryland, which supplies and supports 8,000 mentally challenged athletes with year-round sports training and athletic competitions.
Will I be back next year? I hope not.
But come next January, if Alex calls me into the office and questions my courage, I will again have to defend myself.
Way Downstream ...
In D.C., a new poll shows that people living in the Potomac River watershed - including Marylanders - are twice as likely as other Americans to believe that rapid growth and development are damaging their quality of life. In the Mellman Group's poll of 600, conducted for the Wilderness Society, 83 percent said they regarded rivers and streams as one of the most important features in a high-quality life ...
In Pennsylvania, people are proving that utility deregulation doesn't have to mean California-styled blackouts. Since Pennsylvania deregulated two years ago, about 100,000 people have switched to "green" power such as wind and solar, choices that Marylanders soon will have. For instance, eight giant wind turbines are humming softly southeast of Pittsburgh on top of an old coal mine ...
In South Africa, hundreds of scientists, environmentalists and entrepreneurs are meeting this week to talk about seaweed. Organizers of the 17th International Seaweed Symposium believe that some of the 9,000 species of seaweed can be turned into a host of products, among them ice cream, toothpaste, cosmetics and paint ...
Our Creature Feature comes from China, where the government last week disbanded a group we wrote about years back: the Wild Yak Brigade. The team was set up eight years ago to patrol the wilderness to save endangered Tibetan antelopes, which are coveted for their fine wool. They uncovered nearly 100 poaching operations but couldn't keep up: The antelope population has plunged to 30,000 from 200,000 in recent years, and the brigade's $30,000 debt didn't set well with hard-liners running China.