There are a couple of toddlers “making breakfast” at the play kitchen near the shelves of kids’ videos. Close by, their parents are catching up over coffee at high tables near the Scorsese selection, and neighbors who regularly run into each other – there to get a little work done, return a rental, or grab their daily cappuccino – talk local politics while they wait for their orders or browse the movie selection.
This space, located on Whitney Avenue in Hamden and known formally as Best Video Film & Cultural Center (or simply “Best” to its loyal customers), means many different things to its devotees and clients. It’s tough to list everything that the nonprofit does, as there’s so much, but its important role as a meeting space and arts haven makes perfect sense to everyone who has visited, then proceeds to visit again … and again, many becoming lifelong fans and regulars.
For starters, Best Video is one of the few remaining video rental establishments in the country, making it a must-visit tribute to a time gone by. But in order to stay afloat, Best has gone through various incarnations and is currently serving myriad roles beyond its original purpose: it’s also a coffee shop, music and events venue and, most importantly, popular gathering place for the community.
It all began with the videos, however, when Hank Paper started the business in 1985.
Paper had been a screenwriter in Hollywood and an enthusiastic film buff. He’d helped a friend open a small chain of movie stores and wanted to try creating his own. So when he, his wife, and their daughter moved from California to Connecticut to be closer to family, that’s what he did, opening the business in a space just down the street from where it exists today.
He called it Best Video because he wanted his establishment to be, well, the best. When he ordered his initial stock of 500 videos, he made sure he knew nearly every title (with the exception of some of the newest movies) and could make recommendations to customers. As his customer base grew, his knowledge of their individual tastes did, too.
It was a popular, thriving, business, highlighting Paper’s love of eclectic and undiscovered films. His staff – all movie buffs themselves – helped solidify Paper’s vision. Best Video was the real deal when it came to the movie rental business, and it had to move a few more times over the years to bigger spaces in order accommodate more customers and DVDs.
Around 2013, however, with the advent of streaming video, “the writing was on the wall,” Paper says. The business tried to evolve with its own mail-in video service (like Netflix) and a website with streaming video, but it was soon clear the venture couldn’t stay afloat.
Giving up, though, wasn’t part of Paper’s plan, and although Best was losing customers, the loyalists who remained had a fervent desire for the beloved hangout to remain open. “When you’re forced to make changes, you can bemoan that fact – or you can make changes,” Paper says.
That’s when he started contemplating whether a nonprofit status could keep Best Video alive. By that point, it was more than a video store. It had become a social hub where customers ran into old and new friends, chatting among themselves and with staff. A few years prior, they’d begun bringing in music acts to perform about once a week and holding movie screenings, as well.
Hank Hoffman, who was working part-time at Best at the time, and currently serves as its executive director, remembers that period well.
“It had become a community gathering space,” says Hoffman. “It was a throwback to a time when businesses were anchors of the community.”
So, after meeting with the city, forming a board and doing the required legwork, Best Video applied for nonprofit status with the IRS as an “artistic cultural center.” It opened on November 1, 2015 in its new incarnation and in its current location, next to a travel agency (its landlord) and a barbershop.
“We didn’t know if it would work,” admits Hoffman. But the new entity eventually paid Hank Paper off for the business and began to successfully navigate its existence as a nonprofit. Needless to say, customers from the neighborhood and beyond were elated that they could still grab a movie, breakfast or a show at their favorite spot.
There have been challenges, of course. A couple of cash-flow crises have caused leadership to question Best’s future, Hoffman says. But fundraisers, including New Haven’s annual “Great Give,” have proved that supporters will rally with a serious influx of donations when needed, allowing Best to keep kicking.
And, yes, Best Video’s lifeblood still includes the video rentals that marked its beginnings, with more than 40,000 titles organized in various ways – from directors, to countries to staff picks – geared to pique the curiosity of the movie-lovers who carefully scan the shelves. There are more than 450 households maintaining memberships (Best offers one, two, three and four-movie plans) and the collection includes many titles you can’t find via streaming or other methods, says Paper, who now teaches film at nearby Quinnipiac University and counts himself as a regular, coming in nearly every morning to get some work done or chat with friends.
“The spot goes on, despite the online life we are called to nowadays,” he says of the space.
The staff is still made up of film buffs, too, so customers still ask for recommendations. Best’s cultural lineup includes “Secret Cinema” nights twice a month, organized by staffer Rob Harmon (Paper claims Harmon knows more about movies than anyone, anywhere).
Beyond the film, Best Video’s lineup has grown considerably, with frequent concerts featuring local and national acts, as well as bluegrass and Irish music jams on the weekends. Regular Saturday morning cartoon events, complete with cereal and Pop Tarts, are popular with kids and their parents, who can wax nostalgic watching series popular from the 1960s to the 1990s.
The space houses art shows, poetry slams, and monthly open mic nights. It’s an afterschool hangout for kids, who can walk over before heading home, raid the 25-cent candy section, order vanilla steamers and gab with their friends, while honing their independence skills. Some strike up a chord at the upright piano in the corner.
“It’s a nostalgic throwback,” says Hoffman. “Kids can hang out without their parents.”
The coffee shop offers local favorites, including Willoughby’s coffee, Foxon Park soda, doughnuts from nearby Whitney Donut, and pastries from Hamden’s Bread & Chocolate Bakery Cafe. At night, beer and wine are on offer, too, meaning concertgoers can relax with a craft brew while they enjoy the music.
The truth is that Best Video, with its breadth of events, personalities, and offerings, is somewhat undefinable. But its unique mix of features works seamlessly to create something truly one-of-a-kind, where friends meet and are made; its brick-and-mortar sense of warmth serves an undeniable need in modern society.
“’Community gathering place’ is the phrase I’d use to describe it,” says Karen Ponzio, who runs the open mic events on the second Wednesday of each month. The events bring performers of all ages and experience levels together, from seasoned musicians to newly minted poets. “Best Video provides a space that is comfortable enough for anyone to participate. It’s 100 percent a welcoming, comforting spot.”
Says Hoffman, “What kept us around is the community aspect. By evolving with the times, we were able to build on that solid foundation. We appealed to a need for people to have places to gather in the real world.”