Standing behind the counter of the last remaining movie-rental store in Tacoma, Fred Davie doesn’t pull any punches.
The “glory days” of video rental, as Davie fondly recalls them, are long gone.
“It’s a tough business,” says the owner of Backstage Video in Proctor.
Davie has been in the movie-rental business for nearly 33 years — almost half his life — but you don’t need more than three decades worth of experience to know what he says is true.
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When is the last time you rented a movie from a brick-and-mortar store, after all?
Still, in Proctor, Backstage Video lives on — amidst a local and national landscape where businesses like Davie’s have all but disappeared.
Stadium Video? Gone. Blockbuster? History. The list goes.
Davie is not alone in this neck of Tacoma. Proctor is now home to a handful of businesses that seem to be defying the market trends experienced in the rest of the city.
Around the corner, Teaching Toys and Books will effectively become Tacoma’s last children’s toy store when Toys R Us closes its doors for good.
Across the street, the Blue Mouse Theater, which dates back to 1923, is one of Tacoma’s last independent movie houses. The theater, where kids’ flicks and the twice-monthly Rocky Horror Picture Show night regularly pack the seats, has survived through the rise, fall and potential resurgence of multiplexes in the city.
Down the street, Chalet Bowl bills itself as “the longest continually operating bowling alley” in the state. On the other side of North 26th Street, Proctor Shoe Repair can still sometimes be found with its lights on, even if the cobbling service has become hit-or-miss over the years.
Sure, perhaps a deep exploration of why these businesses have survived in Proctor wouldn’t uncover much besides the obvious — it’s one of the oldest, most well-off areas in the city. That’s clearly a big part of it.
At the same time, as the face of Tacoma changes all around us, there’s something endearing about a piece of the city that can feel like a time warp, at least to those who spend their days doing business there.
“Just overall, I think the experience that you have is very unique here in Proctor,” says Kelly Hale, president of the Proctor Business District Association. “I think we cater to individual needs here in the district that draw people in. We have the support of the neighborhood, and I think we have unique merchants and merchandise here within our footprint. It’s not the big- box mentality.”
Hale is not alone in her assessment.
“I don’t think Proctor is unique in that it’s the only place a video store or a shoe store or a toy store could survive,” Davie says between phone calls from customers. “But … it does provide a lot of the pluses that businesses like. It’s a destination. People like to come to this neighborhood, park their car, walk all around and look at everything.”
Sue Evans has also seen the neighborhood evolve —while at the same time staying the same. Having managed the Blue Mouse Theater for the last 23 years, she’s watched the theater stand the test of time despite ebbs and flows in competition and the inevitable cultural and economic shifts.
“People moved to this area because they wanted that small-town appeal,” Evans says. “I think that’s why some people were angry with these apartment buildings going up.”
If there’s a rub here, the towering Proctor Station apartments and the similar development now taking shape a block away might provide it. For as much as this neighborhood loves its history and old-time feel, the pressure of change leaves no neighborhood untouched. The popularity of the new Top Pot Doughnuts, Rudy’s Barbershop and Waffle Stop suggests there’s a way to meld old with new.
While that pressure might feel uncomfortable for those who want Proctor to stay exactly as it is — even though such a desire isn’t just selfish, it’s unrealistic — there’s also a lesson to be learned in the businesses here that have found a way to thrive despite the changes all around.
“I think it’s the uniqueness of what we have to offer to people, families and individuals,” Hale says of what makes the Proctor District and some of its old-school businesses continue to work.
“I think as we move forward, in today’s time, we have to be able to be adaptable and flexible to opportunities of change, while still holding onto the traditional entities,” she says.
For Davie, what the future holds is anyone’s guess. He’s already spent longer than he ever imagined renting movies to the masses, and he seems to know it won’t last forever.
In the next breath, however, he also acknowledges that when he does eventually decide to call it quits, he'll leave some faithful customers very disappointed.
“I have people who are every week, two or three times a week even,” Davie says.
“A lot of people like the experience of a video store. There’s sort of an ambiance, like a lot of community businesses. It’s fun to run into your neighbors and friends.”