Scott Marks scripts Kensington Video’s story

Movie lover's paradise

Guy Hanford amidst the stacks.

Kensington Video

4067 Adams Avenue, Kensington

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

A placard tacked to the top of one of Kensington Video’s shelving units reads: “Winnie’s Picks.” Named for Winnie Hanford — store owner, matriarch, and all around Queen of Kensington — regulars recognize it as the ultimate stamp of approval.

Not all of the films sanctioned by Winnie undergo a rigorous screening process. Such was the case several years ago, when, while scrambling to fill a few empty slots, Winnie ran across a copy of the Gillian Anderson thriller Closure.

Winnie’s son Guy’s eyes bulged like the Wolf’s peepers in a Tex Avery cartoon. “You sure about that one, Mom?” he asked. “It’s about the violent assault of a woman and the brutal revenge she enacts against her assailants. It’s fairly rough stuff.”

“Good heavens, no,” Winnie gasped, fingertips pressed to her lips. After plucking the objectionable title from the stacks, she took it home for a private screening. The next day, she returned the box to its rightful place among the elite.

Sometimes the show in the store is better than the one onscreen.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kensington Video, the little gift shop on Adams Avenue that evolved into a world-class movie-lover’s paradise. The thriving family-run business has had enough mom-and-pop (and brother-and-sister) snap and crackle in it to live on long after clamshell cases and box art were supplanted by hard drives and mirrored discs, titles scrawled in Sharpie across the top.

Meanwhile, Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have shuttered their local outlets. Owner and buyer Guy Hanford understands why. “When you went into a Blockbuster or Hollywood to rent a film, you never engaged in personal conversation with the employees. The owners were never there. Here, there’s always an owner, and a staff with a wide-ranging knowledge of movies. We have people who come in here and share their lives with us.”

Winnie and Rich Hanford, both 85, closed their family business in St. Louis — an old-school general store where, Rich says, Winnie “sold everything from Levi’s to bologna that I sliced by hand” — and moved to San Diego in February 1963. The couple had gotten their first taste of San Diego while on vacation, and like so many, fell in love with the weather and decided to return and set down roots.

Brother/sister team Guy and Pam continue to keep Kensington Video all in the family.

Brother/sister team Guy and Pam continue to keep Kensington Video all in the family.

Guy was 14 and his sister Pam 11 when the family took ownership of Guddy’s Gift Shop on Adams Avenue and changed the name to the generic Kensington Gift Shop. (Well, anything was better than Guddy’s.) Winnie minded the store, while Rich found employment at Montgomery Ward. A born salesman, he’d been hired as a display manager but was soon promoted to head of hardware. He didn’t make a lot of money, but as Winnie is quick to point out, “We didn’t come from a lot of money. We didn’t need any more income, because we’re very frugal. We were raised in the Depression, and we’re not frivolous people. We live very simple: our business is our life, and I live for this business. It has always been that way.”

Former high-school sweethearts Rich and Winnie have spent the past 67 years in happily-ever-after-land. Rich describes their relationship as “a give and take. You’re not always right, and you’re not always wrong, and sometimes you have to stand up for what’s right and the other person respects that.” He credits his wife’s business acumen for keeping them in the building. “She took over a business that was poorly run. While I was at Ward’s, Winnie was building this place up.”

Guy was working as an assistant principal at a Ramona Intermediate School when the prospect of opening a video store presented itself. It was the early 1980s, and he recalls feeling a lot of job-related stress. Maintaining balance in his life was a constant struggle. “My secretary at the time also worked in a video store in Poway, and she suggested that I open up one of my own.”

Guy broached the subject with Rich, never dreaming that Winnie would offer up the card shop as a home base. “Guy is the one who had the idea,” says Rich. “He thought that home video might be the coming thing. Nobody really knew.” Winnie gave the go-ahead to start the business, but as Rich remembers, there was one stipulation. “It had to be in this building, because she would not allow Guy to take me out of the store.”

Winnie scoffs: “Guy thought that he and Rich would go up the coast. [But] we owned the building. It’s air-conditioned. We’ve got registers and counters, everything is here. Let’s try it here.”

In 1983, a sign reading “Half-Off Sale” was taped to the front window of the Kensington Gift Shop. Collectors, seizing the opportunity, cleared the shelves of their Gorham crystal and Hummels. Empty video-display boxes replaced the pricey tchotchkes.


CUT TO:

1 EXT. KENSINGTON GIFT SHOP — MIDNIGHT — 1983

We hold for a beat before slowly fading to black.

FADE IN:

2 EXT. KENSINGTON VIDEO — DAWN — 1983

“Dad and I broke all the rules of business,” Guy remembers. “I was a partner right from the very beginning. We had long hours; initially I worked nights and on weekends. We were open until 8:30 every night, seven days a week. We did not pull one dollar in salary for the first year. The rent was free, so everything went right back into the business.”

There was one piece missing from the equation: Guy’s sister, Pam. She and her future husband, Willie Cisneros, had moved to Colorado in 1975, where the couple made it legal in 1977. Three children later, they were living in Denver when Kensington Video opened its doors. “My husband and I moved back here from Denver in 1988,” Pam says, “and I became part of the team.”

Rich and Winnie’s one-time tchotchke shop is now a movie-lover’s paradise.

Rich and Winnie’s one-time tchotchke shop is now a movie-lover’s paradise.

The Kensington Gift Shop measured approximately 3000 square feet. A temporary divider was built at the front of the store to separate the cards from the cassettes. If you look closely where the wall changes color, about ten paces from the entrance, you can see where the burgeoning video store was once separated from the dying gift shop. In 1990, Winnie convinced the owner of the adjacent property — at the time a refrigeration outlet — to sell. She made an offer $4000 shy of what the owner had in mind, but the two came to a meeting of the minds once Winnie agreed to pay the difference.

But two storefronts were not enough for Winnie — today, Kensington Video, tomorrow, the Ken Club! Winnie smiles as she recalls, “I always fought so much for parking in the back. The men next door picked on me. They loved to give me a hard time because Rich wasn’t with me; he was working someplace else. There were only five spots out back, two of which were mine, and they were making my life miserable over them. I told them, ‘One day I’ll own the Kensington Club, and you won’t be able to do that to me.’ When the lease expired, they had first rights [to purchase], since they owned [the club], but they couldn’t come up with the money. Luckily, this came about at a time where we had cash and were able to buy it.”


What began with 250 tapes (200 VHS, 50 Beta) has since ballooned to a collection that boasts approximately 65,000 titles. The only comparable video-rental businesses left in the game are Chicago’s Facets Multimedia, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood, and Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, which is currently home to the largest movie-rental inventory in the country.

The erosion of theatrical exhibition began in the late ’70s, when the first wave of video-cassette recorders invaded America’s homes. The Hanfords were riding the cusp of a boom. But at the time the family swapped trinkets for tapes, only ten percent of the population owned either a VCR or Betamax player. “Some people who didn’t even have a VHS machine bought memberships,” Guy laughs. “They felt sorry for us. They thought we’d lose our shirts, that we didn’t have a clue.”

The revival house of yesteryear became the video store of tomorrow. Every film geek in the land was their own living-room booker, programmer, and publicist. Instead of curtains, balcony seating, and a 70-foot screen to get lost in, movies were distributed to home theaters in rectangular black plastic coffins for licensed exhibition on 25-inch Sony Trinitrons. Art house or outhouse, it was up to viewer to decide what direction they wanted their living room to go in.

There was a time when one could purchase a 16-mm print of a feature for almost as much as it cost to buy a prerecorded video cassette. “You and I remember when videotapes were expensive,” says Guy, as I nod in agreement. “Whatever people are paying nowadays is a bargain. They complain about having to pay $20 for a DVD, but when home video started, most VHS tapes sold for $75. Platoon was the first one to hit the $100 mark.”

Although the list of rental titles continues to evolve, much of the store stands frozen in time. “Aside from looking over the ‘new releases’ shelf,” says Guy, “you’d be hard pressed to tell what year it is by coming into the store.” Kensington continues to charge a nominal fee for new members, something most rental outlets abandoned decades ago. The Proton television set pumping out an uninterrupted flow of Turner Classic Movies dates back to 1990. Rental slips are handwritten; you need a computer to produce computer printouts. “Mom believes that computers are just a fad,” Guy deadpans. An electronic members’ inventory exists, but when it comes to keeping a database of titles in stock, it’s all in the heads of the Hanfords.

Come to think of it, in the store’s 30-year history as a video retailer, there has been only one major modification. Last year the Hanfords announced they’d all decided to close shop one day a week. At the time Pam reassured me, “We are not closing our doors on Sundays due to a lack of business. We like to have a family member present at all times. With my parents Rich and Winnie getting up in years, [the day off] gives us a little wiggle room to spend our Sundays together as a family.”


Every Saturday morning, Jan Houghton makes a weekly pilgrimage from La Jolla to Kensington Video to rent a stack of BBC programs, documentaries, and other high-end fare. “My husband and I have been doing it for ten years,” she tells me while Guy checks her out. “They have the best there is, and we’re very picky.” Jan is familiar with Netflix but finds it “so impersonal. What I love about this place is the way they welcome us, and take an interest and remember what we want. This is very family oriented, and it’s our responsibility to encourage people to support it.”

In spite of its billing as a family-run business, Winnie frowns upon any of her seven grandchildren working in the store: “They don’t want to work for Grandma. I fired one. Poor Daniel. I love him dearly, but he talked too much in the parking lot, and we needed him to move those cars. He loved to visit with patrons, and he caused a big something to happen, and I said, ‘You’re not working here anymore. Go home.’ Another grandson, Matthew, worked inside. He loves movies and could not stop watching the TV. He could take home any movie he wanted, but he could not take his eyes off the TV while he worked.”

I was almost “fired” as a customer for a similar offense. Kensington Video was one of the first places I was alerted to after moving to town 14 years ago. There was a college student I’d met at the Museum of Photographic Arts who worked the video-store counter, and we would kibitz about movies whenever I dropped in. Around the third visit, I noticed Winnie shooting me dirty looks out of the corner of her eye. “Young man,” she snapped, though I was pushing 50 at the time, “my staff is here to work, not entertain you with talk about movies.”

Winnie’s stern admonition might’ve scared some people from frequenting the establishment again. Not me. Not only did I come back for more, but with each successive visit I found myself more drawn to Winnie, frequently ignoring the rest of the staff and aiming straight for her. It took courage to recall this incident in Winnie’s presence, but she giggled in response. A twinkle in her eye, she said, “I’d yell at you again, if I thought your behavior was hurting business.”

With all due respect to the rest of the Hanfords, if Kensington Video was a Vegas showroom, Winnie would be the headline attraction. Who would have thought this saintly, white-haired grandmother — who gives Mrs. Santa Claus a run for the money in the adorable department — speaks fluent Charles Bronson?

“Mom seriously thinks he’s a great actor,” Guy says, doing his best to stifle a chuckle. When I ask the name of the first VHS tape purchased for the store, Guy says, “There were two. The Sound of Music and Death Wish — because Mom is a big Bronson fan.” The hills are alive!

The side-by-side placement of two cultural institutions, Kensington Video and the Ken Cinema, elevate the status of this little patch of land on Adams just east of the 15 to something akin to a movie lover’s answer to Balboa Park. What does it mean to be anchored next to Landmark’s single-screen landmark? “The Ken brings a lot of foot traffic to the avenue,” Guy says, “and that means more customers to discover us for the first time. It’s a perfect place to hang out before the movie.”

One of the more frustrating aspects of this business is the unavailability of a number of films that have never made it to DVD. “Don’t throw away your VHS machine,” Guy jokes. “We have somewhere around 5000 videos that have never been put on DVD.”

How is it that the proprietor of a top-flight video store, a woman who has every Charles Bronson picture committed to memory, has never set aside the time to watch such teeth-cutting classics as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, or Citizen Kane? This is the only time during our conversation that the otherwise boisterous Winnie lowers her voice. “I shouldn’t have told you that,” she says. But the remorseful tone doesn’t last long. “This is a business, Scott,” Winnie says, as if that particular nugget of information had somehow leaked from my memory and run out my ear. “I’m a promoter, and you know that. Certain films sell themselves and don’t need my help. That’s the main reason I’ve never watched them.”

Kensington Video has never offered adult movies, a choice that Guy admits “paid the bills for every other mom and pop. We have the ‘titty-teasers,’ like Russ Meyer, but by today’s standards his films would be rated R, and in some cases PG-13. It was a conscious decision. Mom and dad’s roots are firmly planted in the Midwest. If we had to make money off of that, there’d have been no video store. They would not take a step in that direction, and I respected their wishes.”


Guy tells the story of a woman who recently came into the store with a list of questions on opening up a video boutique in Escondido specializing in documentaries and foreign films. After learning that the location she has in mind is an old Hispanic neighborhood, Guy advised her to brush up on the films of Pedro Infante and María Félix, two iconic Mexican actors yet to cross the budding video-store owner’s radar.


Recollections of Kensington Video staff

How does one go about stocking a pond this big? Guy relies largely on “the trades” when selecting titles to line the video cupboards. Upon reflection, Guy concedes that box-office sales are a prime influence. “You would think that if a film did huge numbers, everyone would have seen it, but no. If it’s number one at the box office, chances are it’s going to be number one on DVD.” He avails himself of several film-related websites and trusts “the input from reviewers on Amazon, particularly on secondary films and art films. You can’t be an expert in every field of cinema. There are certain genres you’re just not interested in, so why pursue it?”

Guy never subscribed to the Blockbuster philosophy of “deep and narrow” purchasing. Instead of bringing in 50 copies of ten different titles, he broadens the variety by picking up one copy of 50 different pictures. He knows the store has several advantages over Netflix. “People don’t know what they want to watch today, let alone three days from now. Some people still like to browse the stacks and hold the boxes in their hands.” Guy laughs off a mention of Red Box. Though their rental fee is one-third of what Kensington Video charges, Red Box will never pose a threat. Try finding Sacha Guitry’s The Pearls of the Crown or Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain in the colorful tin canister to the left of a 7-Eleven entranceway.

Generally slow to embrace new formats, Kensington’s “customer base is also slow to react,” Guy says. The store doesn’t stock digital copies of every film that’s made the jump from VHS to DVD, or DVD to Blu-ray. A large percentage of their customer base does not own a Blu-ray player. (“We love the Blu-ray combo packs,” Guy is quick to add.)

“You have to be selective,” he says. “There are a lot of dogs out there. You have to know the film’s history, and whether you can recall anybody asking for it or renting it. Are we going to shell out $15 for every replacement video? No. You have to know your customer base and the right call to make.” And don’t expect to find a 3D copy of Hugo beaming from a point-of-purchase display. “If we were to bring in 3D, we’d be lucky if we rented one a week. The demand just isn’t there.”

It’s not all about the video rentals. The Hanfords are also a community-minded lot eager to offer their services to neighborhood organizations. Pam is on the board of the Adams Avenue Business Association, while her brother holds a similar position on the board of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group.

There’s a different world going on inside the doors of Kensington Video, one worth visiting. Just don’t get too chummy with the counter staff.


Reflections on Kensington:

Rich: “Kensington has transitioned to a little village atmosphere. It wasn’t that way when we first got here. Restaurants, bars, a movie theater; there are now so many things you can find here.”

Winnie: “[At one time] you could have played football out on Adams Avenue. Today, you have to run for your life to get across the street. I can’t say that it’s changed as far as the warmth of the people go. The only thing that has significantly changed is the age of the residents. When I first opened the gift shop, our clientele was in their 40s and 50s. Now we’ve got 20s and 30s and a lot of kids. I [can] tell by my Hallmark Cards. I was selling cards to grandparents. It was years before I had to stock mommy and daddy cards, and I didn’t sell much in the way of children’s birthday cards, either. Our biggest seller was sympathy cards.”


Tour of Ken Video

Guy: “The density and traffic has also changed. The sidewalks used to roll up in this town at 8:00 p.m. Today the area is vibrant until 10:00 or 11:00. The Ken Club used to be the only place to get a social drink, and now we’ve got probably 12 to 15 places. The neighborhood is starting to become a restaurant row. Parking is always going to be a premium.”


Kensington Video Trivia:

Their current member’s database lists close to 60,000 active and non-active members.

The store opened its doors in 1983 with a stock of 250 tapes (200 VHS, 50 Beta).

Cost of a one-day rental in 1983: $2.50. Cost of a one-week rental in 2013: $2.78 ($3 for new releases).

The collection currently stands at 65,000 DVDs and VHS tapes. If they don’t rent it, chances are you don’t need to see it.

The collection is housed, floor-to-ceiling, in a 1200-square-foot space not open to the public.

First acquisitions: Death Wish and The Sound of Music (best viewed as a double bill).

The one title that’s never left the store: Joe E. Brown in The Tender Years.

Winnie and Guy Hanford took control of the lease at 4067 Adams Avenue in February 1963. Happy 50th Anniversary.

Reader poll

Where do you get movies?

  • Netflix 26%
  • Blockbuster 2%
  • Redbox 13%
  • Streaming service (Amazon, iTunes, etc) 9%
  • Local library 10%
  • Hulu 4%
  • Cable TV 14%
  • eBay 1%
  • Retail store 2%
  • Independent brick-and-mortar rental place 3%
  • The movie theater 9%
  • Other (specify in comments) 8%

222 total votes.

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Comments

I worked there twenty years ago and the folks look the same age (I don't). Best wishes to the whole gang. Keep my foreign film section straightened out.... Joel

Like Balboa Park, Kensington Video is another of San Diego's jewels. A rare treasure that elevates life here for those who love cinema. I hope they never close.

Gawd! I need to find my Kensington Video Membership card! I haven't been there for too long.

Someone called me and said I made the cover of The Reader. Thanks for the "compliment?"

Great read. Only been in the shop a few times, but always got a few things when I did. Thanks for the great story, Mr. Marks.

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