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Four Star Video Heaven plans to stay open and move this fall

The long-running Madison institution has started a crowdfunding campaign to help it relocate. (Photo: Four Star co-owner Lewis Peterson at the store’s front counter this past Saturday.)

After a serious brush with the possibility of closing for good, Four Star Video Heaven—a downtown Madison staple since 1985, renowned for its deep collection of more than 20,000 titles—is planning to soldier on, and will likely move to another space downtown in November or December. 

Lewis Peterson, one of the four employees who bought out previous owner Lisa Brennan in 2014 and re-organized the store as a worker-owned cooperative, will stay on board, and plans to run Four Star with a largely volunteer team of loyal customers and Madison cinephiles who have stepped in to help. Co-owners Andy Fox, Helen Boldt, and Nick Propheter are planning to part ways with the store, Peterson says. 

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Four Star launched an IndieGoGo campaign last week, hoping to raise $10,000 to cover the costs of relocating. It’s still ongoing, but got off to a slow start. After an investor—who wishes to remain anonymous—stepped in to help, Peterson decided to stick with plans to keep the store open. The non-profit Arts Wisconsin is serving as a fiscal receiver for the IndieGoGo campaign, which means donations to it are tax-deductible.

“I think we’d like to strengthen our ties with other community spaces, and just re-assert our relevance, with media companies becoming more restrictive with distribution,” Peterson says. After sorting out a way forward for the store earlier this week, Peterson also said he felt “more relaxed than I have in a few weeks.”

Four Star went up for sale in April. Peterson told Isthmus in May that the business itself was in decent financial shape, but even so, the four owners were feeling burned out from the uphill battle that is running an independent video store in the 21st century. They’ve all been holding down other jobs outside of Four Star, which is one of the reasons the store scaled back its hours earlier this year. 

No one made any serious offers to buy Four Star, but several of customers did sign up to attend meetings about the future of the store. One of the customers, Robert Doerr, says that a group of a half-dozen or so people eventually solidified from that process, some of them interested in volunteering to help with day-to-day operations and some of them getting a bit more deeply involved in the business side. They took a look at the store’s financials and began checking out other possible locations. They’ve got their eyes on one in particular, though Doerr won’t say exactly where—just that it’s near the current 449 State St. location, and that moving to the new space could possibly cut the store’s rent in half. The store’s current lease ends in November.

“Reducing rent is the best way to ensure the store stays open for years to come,” Doerr says. “Everything is very viable on paper.”

Right now both Peterson and Doerr are focused on drawing more attention to the crowdfunding campaign, and also planning a few events to help with the fundraising in August and September. With the unknown investor in the mix, the campaign isn’t the only source of funding for the move, but it’s still crucial. Rewards for donors include Four Star coffee mugs, T-shirts, and a chance to “sponsor” a movie title of a donor’s choosing from the store’s collection. 

While the short-term focus is on getting through the move and figuring out the logistics of keeping the store operating, Peterson and his nascent volunteer team are also thinking about how to evolve the store’s role. Doerr says they’ve talked about reaching out more to the public, possibly hosting screenings, and maybe even providing services to students and faculty in UW-Madison’s Communication Arts Department.

“I would hope that it would become basically something of a community and cultural hub for people interested in film,” Doerr says.

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