GREAT AMERICAN VIDEO STORE HUNT They’ve got breadth, depth and popcorn, too; best of all, there’s probably one in your neighborhood

By Vera H-C Chan, Randy Myers and Laura Orella

TWENTY SCREENS and no place to go. You have hit the dull, winter void in the schizophrenic schedule of movie releases. Plus, you desperately adhere to your lonely stance of refusing to watch for the 18th time a certain bloated epic in which the lovers bond over hawking up a loogie.

Still, you dread the thought of staring at infinite rows stacked with the shrink-wrapped mugs of a presidential, terrorist derriere-kicking Harrison Ford or a back-stabbing, nuptials-deprived Julia Roberts.

How easily we forget in these Blockbuster Video days the thrill of serendipity. A good video store is a universe in which time and space have no relevance. A rousing “King Kong” from 1933 spellbinds as much as “Jurassic Park” and the antics of “The Wedding Banquet” charms as much as “Shall We Dance?” Here customers can broaden their cinematic horizons or gratify their guilty Jerry Lewis/Jim Carrey indulgences. Most of all, a good video store trusts your judgment and doesn’t assume censorship and creative control by offering films that have been specially recut to obtain an R rating.

We’ve wandered the aisles of just a few neighborhood (and independent) stores to check out their selection and services. If you have a recommendation, send us the details at Video Store Recommendations,c/o the Times, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94598-8099 and we’ll do occasional listings on the video page in Friday TimeOut.

By the way, don’t forget your local lending library. You know the place with the books.

East County

Action Video, 1185-A Second St., Brentwood, 634-1158: It seems that no matter what movie mood you’re in, Action Video’s got plenty of choices to suit your needs. The full-service store houses about 11,000 new releases, as well as a good portion of classics and foreign films. (No adult films.) Movie posters dot the place, so if you’re interested in one, chances are when the store is finished with it, you can buy it. Amenities: Laser discs, DVDs, audio books, video games, camcorders, VCRs and DVD players, popcorn, candy. Fees: Older classics, $2.49/five nights; new releases, $3.99/two nights.

Video Cinema, 3100 Main St., Oakley, 625-0088: You feel like you’re in the lobby of a movie house as soon as you walk through the door. The smell of fresh-popped popcorn permeates, and you can’t help but snack as you look through the more than 20,000 new releases, classics, foreign and adult films. And just like a theater, there’s soda right up front and candy enclosed in glass cases to give consumers the ultimate video experience. Amenities: Nintendo, Sony Playstation and Genesis consoles, VCRs. VCR repair. Fees: Classic videos, $1.50/two days; new releases, $3.50/one day. You can also reserve films Mondays-Thursdays. VCR and other equipment rentals are $6-$9.98.

The Video Station, 2748 W. Tregallas Road, Antioch, 757-0620: What could be more convenient than being able to rent a movie and shop for things like soap, milk and potato chips at the same time? This one-stop shopping store houses more than 1,000 new releases, classics and adult films. (No foreign films.) The emphasis is more on classics that date back to the 1940s with films such as “Fort Apache” with John Wayne and Henry Fonda and “Murder, My Sweet” with Dick Powell. Memory lane never looked so good. Amenities: Groceries. Fees: all rentals, $3/two days.

Central County

Cinemart, 1533 Palos Verdes Mall, Walnut Creek, 947-4863: A deceptively small storefront on the shopping grounds at Geary Road and Camino Verde opens to a cornucopia of genres from comedy to suspense. Its 9,000 titles emphasize classics and foreign films, although adrenaline seekers can wander amid the formidable action titles, further subdivided into adventure and Western. A lit “coming soon” display titillates with videos to come, plus hand-outs listing release dates and monthly summaries of title, cast, box-office grosses and plot. Amenities: Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, Sony Playstation, Sega Genesis games. Nintendo 64 console, $10/two nights; VCR, $6/two nights; laser disc player, $8/two nights. Fees: video and DVD, $1.50-$3; select children’s videos, $1-$2/seven nights; games, $3/two nights. Multiday packages.

Einstein Entertainment, 1928 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill, 939-9939: One of the best, if not the best, all-around video stores in the East Bay. The word here is quality as well as quantity. If you’re a fan of mainstream movies, this is your store. If you’re a fan of independent movies, this is your store as well. Einstein goes beyond what the standard store carries, including a large Hong Kong film collection, a well-rounded foreign film section, and a strong Japanese animation section. There’s also a surefire and eclectic manager’s favorite section. And if you’re a BBC fan, this is the store for you. Many Masterpiece Theatre features are available, dating back to the early ’70s. Best of all is the helpful attitude of the staff. They’ll offer smart suggestions and will take the time to help you find a video. Amenities: Some snacks, Nintendo 64 ($3.93/three days), Sony Play Station ($3.70/three days), VCR rentals ($7/three days) and camcorders ($29.95/a day). Coming: DVD players. Fees: new releases, $3.23/one day; older releases, $3/three days.

MovieLand, 2244 Oak Grove Road, Walnut Creek, 945-1803: Massive selection in an attractively designed store. Chances are if you’ve had trouble finding a video, it’s here. All genres are well-covered, including family films, dramas and, especially, classic movies. An added plus is the store’s well-stocked travel category an area generally ignored by most other stores. And if you happen to be a video collector, numerous previously viewed tapes are on sale for bargain prices of $4.95 and up. Also features a large adult section. Amenities: Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sega, Sony Playstation (new releases, $3.25/ one day; older games, $3.25/three days. Some snacks. Fees: New releases, $3.23/ one day; older releases, $3.23/three days, $2.75/five days.

National Video, 1155-D Arnold Drive, Martinez, 228-9378: Friendly neighborhood video store offers more than just the latest hot titles, including used paperbacks and Beanie Babies. But the shelves, stocked with 13,000-15,000 titles, are the main attraction. All genres are fully represented, from classics to foreign films to horror flicks. Customers are attracted to this family-run store not only because of the vast selection, but the charm of its owners. A nicely run and operated independent store. No adult section. Amenities: Beanie Babies, used paperbacks, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation ($3/two days) and VCR rentals ($9.95 a day). Fees: new releases, $3/two days; older films, $2.50/two nights.

Videos Etc., 9000 Crow Canyon Road, Danville, 736-4222: Along with a killer selection, this is one of the most attractive video stores you’ll encounter. Nicely designed sectioning (they’re still renovating in the back) includes a children’s viewing area where a bank of TVs hooked up to VCRs keeps the wee ones entertained while you’re looking. The store has a solid selection of hard-to-find or lesser-known films along with the blockbusters. Includes an adult section. Amenities: Sega, Super Nintendo and Super Nintendo 64 rentals, laser discs. Special bonus packages. Fees: All videos and games are divided into red, white and blue tag designations, $1.97-$3.23.

West County

Pinole Family Video, 2860 Pinole Valley Road, Pinole, 758-6456; PDQ Family Video, 5341 Valley View Road, El Sobrante, 222-6089: Dick and Terri Ishmael own both West Contra Costa County stores. A separate room of kid-approved, kid-appropriate films gives children their own place and guards against Junior’s eye wandering to those NC-17 covers. The main room features Japanese anim and a 3D filmography of favorite performers in its “parade of stars” section. Look for the thumbs-up sticker for cultural socialism in action it highlights customer recommendations. Amenities: Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games. Fees: videos, $1.85-$3.51; two-day game rentals, $1.85-$2.49. Multiday packages.

1st Choice Video, 12592 San Pablo Ave., Richmond, 232-0152, www.majorvideo.com/1stchoice: Formerly a chain store called Video City (the chain went broke), this store was purchased by vice president Jeffrey Perl five years back. The 12,000-title selection encompasses the juicy gamut from kids to foreign to adult to classics. Indecisive parents can set their restless children in the pint-sized play area, or if they want to squat down themselves, are welcome to do so. Amenities: Movie reservations. Monthly/weekly drawings for cruises, fishing trips and so on. Fees: 99 cents-$3/one-five days. Multiday packages.

Cult Videos, a k a Berserkley.com, 2361 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 704-8993, Berserkley.com: Special mention goes to the owner, who calls himself Professor Curtis, even though he now sells only videos. The poster and video labels alone warrant enraptured window gazing, although “Harem Keepers of the Oil Sheiks” might now be an elusive title. The prof (although his highest degree is in graphic design and film from San Jose State) specializes in “first class sex and violence, ” but the Berkeley native really dabbles in warped, campy esoterica that will bring flashbacks baby boomers never even knew they harbored. If you want to unload your library, “recycle your funk” here as well.

Reel, 2655 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 548-1118, www.reel.com: Yes, it’s corporate, but this corporeal presence of the Internet retailer deserves a visit, if not worship. Founded by Stuart Skorman, who sold his successful New England chain Empire Video Superstores to Blockbuster Video back in 1994, the high-ceilinged, 8,100-foot store seems Berkeley-tailored: popcorn flowering from organic kernels, rain forest candies and employees prowling the aisles, loudly asking positively soliciting “does anyone need any help?” The categories alone entertain, from “women bonding” to “Gene Hackman” to “vampires.” If you can’t find anything on the well-stocked shelves, computers key into its Web site’s 35,000-title database. It also links to Cinema U., a virtual film school with $24.95 classes like “Sci-Fi Films of the 1950s, ” “The Czech New Wave” and “Movies About Movies.” Amenities: Free popcorn for kids, video players. Fees: $3.25/one-five days.

Tri-Valley

Holiday Video, 2889 Hopyard Road, Pleasanton, 484-1878: This store is small, but Holiday Video crams a lot in its spare space. The helpful and knowledgeable young staff is willing to help you find a movie or offer up recommendations. The new release section includes blockbuster entertainment as well as direct-to-video titles. Overall, an impressive alternative to the chain stores. Includes an adult section and select but choice video games. Fees: Rentals range from $1.62 for children films to $3.25 for new releases.

Video Street, 3050 Pacific Ave., Livermore, 455-5151: As in the case of Holiday Video, looks can be deceiving. Initially, the store located near a Nob Hill Foods seems small and the selection scrappy. But on closer inspection you’ll discover that the selection surpasses its space limitations. The only down side is the store lacks a foreign film section, although there are some foreign titles intermingled throughout the store. Includes an adult movie section and a smattering of video games. Fees: new releases, $3; older videos, $2.50/three days. If you become a member ($30), rentals are cheaper and some free rentals are thrown in.

Adult

If you still cling to the hope that adult entertainment can have some semblance of plot, bring your fantasies to Good Vibrations (2504 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 841-8987, www.goodvibes.com, $2.99/night); and Passion Flower (4 Yosemite Ave., Oakland, 601-7750, $3.50/three nights). The stores have already made sure the videos have no violence or derogatory portrayals. Customers also record their impressions in a notebook or binder. The reassuring environments make the transaction positively nurturing.

International

Confess. If an acquaintance recommended a Chinese or Peruvian or German restaurant but didn’t happen to grow up eating the cuisine, you’d be willing to try but couldn’t quite vouch for its authenticity, unless of course the other diners plowing through their dishes happened to be of the appropriate heritage. If you want unadulterated cinema from a country, whether its purest or its schlockiest, visit the specialty video stores. There may be a language barrier, but, hey, sometimes that happens in the American video stores, too.

Speaking of food, ethnic grocery stores often rent videos on the side for that one-stop shopping, so check out the nearest market. Otherwise, visit the specialty video stores below:

Hong Kong: Albany Hong Kong Video (919 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 524-7438); Best Video (10777 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 526-8094); and Cindy’s Unique Gifts and Laser Disc Rentals (10148 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 525-3698). Filipino: Oriental Food Center (1500 Sycamore Center, Hercules, 799-7808); and Fil-Am Video Rental, Etc. (1573 Olivina Ave., Livermore, 371-0864). Indian: India Spice, 6715 Dublin Blvd., Dublin, 551-5332. Spanish: Musica Alegre (186 Atlantic Ave., Pittsburg, 427-9626); Pancho’s Market (5500 Main St., Oakley, 625-0066); Casa Gonzalez (1500 Monument Blvd. E-9, Concord, 798-4535). Wide selection of subtitled American films as well as Spanish films.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features.

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