Although this is a review of a video store, it's part of an ongoing series of articles about local spaces, organizations, and staples of our community. In September, I sat down with Bret Cushman at Leather Tongue to talk about running the store, Valencia Street as it is today, and where Leather Tongue and ATA might be in 10 years.
If you've been wondering where the name comes from, it's the boots. Thirteen years ago, Lisa “Leather Tongue”, as she came to be known, first opened Leather Tongue to sell Doc Martens boots in one half and rent videos in the other. Eventually, Lisa dropped the boots since the video rentals were doing so much better, but the name stuck.
Or at least that's the story Bret’s heard. It was before his time. He's been owner of the store for almost 5 years now and he was an employee there for years before that. He sort of “inherited” the store when Lisa offered to sell it to him since he'd been there the longest. The store's only two employees are Brendan and Megan. You might have met Brendan at the Epicenter Zone, the punk collective on Valencia and 16th Street (started by members of the same group who started Maximum Rock & Roll). In 1999, after 10 years, they closed their doors, which is when Brendan came to Leather Tongue. Megan, who you may have also met at Creativity Explored on 16th Street, was hired by Lisa. She hasn’t been there quite as long as Bret, but he didn’t make it sound like he could outlast her.
Bret, owner of Leather Tongue Video
In the thirteen years that they’ve been open, Leather Tongue has achieved something of a cult status. One symptom of this is the unsolicited mail. It’s mostly video tapes, but they’re not your ordinary movies. Take for example Reflections of Evil, by Damon Packard. It's disturbing, eerie, and just appeared in the mail one day. It's on the shelf and it's a $1 rental. Bret says he watches everything that people send him, and about 50% of it ends up on the shelf! Brawlin' Broads is another “classic”, which was hand- delivered to Bret by the two radio DJs, who directed it and also star as the play by play announcers, when they drove up from LA one day.
Top Five Favorite Leather Tongue Videos:
- Red Spirit Lake
- El Topo
- Brawlin' Broads
- Chuck Berry's Golden Hits
- Kung Fu Jew
There's an aspect about Leather Tongue’s cult status which makes it more than just a video store. It's an epicenter in a way, where the customers get involved. The window is probably the most visible part of this. Any customer can ask to put something in their window. At the time of this interview there were 3 people in line on the list. Bet also wants to host more events. It would be impossible to get a band in there, but an occasional art opening or zine reading have already taken place in the past. Bret gives props to Adobe Books on 16th Street for all sorts of reasons, but mostly for being just such a community hub.
In response to my question about where Leather Tongue is heading or where it will be in 10 years Bret answered that it should just be there. Tucked in his usual spot in the corner where he can still get a look at some of the light coming in through the door and get a clear view of the video monitor, Bret ignored me for a moment, deep in thought, and looked around the store, like a king in his castle or maybe a bear in his cave, and said that it's the way he wants it right now. Althought it would be nicer to have more space and more money to stock newer DVDs, there isn't anything he needs to change.
Leather Tongue's current window installation, by Andrew Wingler
On the surface, the attitude and thinking at Leather Tongue are against the flow of Valencia Street which is bubbling with activity. New restaurants and bars keep opening up and renovating, and even sprout into local chains by inexplicably spawning newer, more renovated variations of themselves three blocks away. And don’t even try to walk down the sidewalk or ride your bike in what’s probably the widest bike lane in San Francisco after 7pm around 16th and Valencia, especially on the weekend. It’s like Spring Break Street Jerk Banana Party 2004.
On the subject of Valencia Street, Bret really just said, in a very matter-of-fact tone, that he's “waiting for it to go back to normal. There’s valet parking on Valencia Street. I never thought I'd see that. Ever. Never.”
Leather Tongue Video
714 Valencia Street @ 18th
San Francisco, CA 94110
phone: (415) 552 - 2900
hours: Sunday - Thursday (1pm - 11 pm)
Friday & Saturday (1pm - 12 midnight)