Couch Critics: A last unicorn in the forest

Cody Lakin
Couch Critics owner James Cannon in the store with his dog, Crash, who greets customers when he's there. By Cody Lakin

James Cannon now refers to the Mount Shasta movie store he started in 2005 as “the last unicorn in the forest.”

The movie business has changed drastically over the years with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services and the closing of businesses such as Blockbuster, but Couch Critics Movies and Games remains one of the last independent movie stores in California.

Before Couch Critics, James worked at Debut Video, next to Say Cheese Pizza, along with Elijah Sullivan. James began Couch Critics with a family investment, buying out The Video Store in Eureka and trucking everything over in a U-Haul. Paj Kane at JEDI helped by providing a business plan.

“We got a ton of great advice and mentoring from the community,” says James, crediting local business owners and people from all over Mount Shasta with having helped make Couch Critics possible not only at its beginning, but still today.

Couch Critics began on Mount Shasta Boulevard, but now sits at 316 Chestnut Street.

“We moved out of a need to expand, and to have more room. Plus the old building was kind of falling apart on us.”

When the business moved to Chestnut Street from the main boulevard, the whole move happened in just a day and a half. James recalls how, once everything had been moved to the new building, people from town came to help set everything up, which sped up the process. And although business has been slower since relocating, says James, it is an easier place for the business to be.

“Elijah and I have been working together almost 15 years, since Elijah was 17.”

James says Elijah has been an integral part of the store for years, being kept in charge of ordering films, turning Couch Critics into an eclectic and cultured collection. Not only does the store keep up to date on new releases of all kinds, but the shelves are always filled with a wide variety of films, from foreign, to independent, to obscure and even local films. Their largest and most popular section is for the TV shows they have in the store and keep up to date on, whether it’s David Lynch’s now revived Twin Peaks or Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

Elijah calls Couch Critics a “labor of love,” one that has become an important part of his life. “It isn’t common sense that makes us order so many foreign films or restored classics, because those tend to lose money. But we never wanted to provide just disposable entertainment. I never measured our success monetarily. I measured our success in how many people we turned onto an amazing cult classic like John Carpenter’s “They Live!” or being the place that has every David Lynch movie, just for that one person who will eventually consume them all in a blissful binge.”

Elijah says he owes a lot to the people who have expanded his cinematic consciousness, whether it’s filmmakers or customers with shared tastes in movies. They all are part of why it has always been important to him – and to James – to have so many unique titles in the store.

“I consider it an honor to rent somebody a Charlie Chaplin movie they’ve never seen. Or to find another person who is moved by the works of Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, or Bela Tarr,” said Elijah. “If you recommend the right movie at the right time, it can make a difference, but first you have to have that perfect title in stock.”

James and Elijah both share a vision for Couch Critics: they want it to be a cultural archive, one that provides not just entertainment, but culture and art.

James and Elijah are working to keep the store running with the help and support of the community, and they each bring their own unique tastes in movies and art to the store.

The store’s Criterion section is filled with restored classics from all over the world, and they have a section set aside for the works of great filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jim Jarmusch, Stanley Kubrick, et al.

Couch Critics always keeps a section for the staff’s featured picks, and for themed picks, to keep up on trends and introduce customers to movies they may not have heard of before. Recently, their section dedicated strictly to comic book and superhero films has been thriving, along with their Kids section, and Blu-Ray.

“It still amazes me how many great films we have here,” says James. “Even just putting movies away I find all kinds of great movies that have almost been forgotten, like the movie adaptation of 1984 I found earlier.” He estimates there are more than 5,000 movies and TV shows in the store.

Decorations add to the store’s personality. The walls are adorned with vintage and collectible action figures, statues, models, posters, and merchandise, much of which is now for sale.

Maintaining an open and interactive business model has always been important to James. He jokes that customers get free reviews and smart aleck comments with every rental, and he and Elijah are always up for discussing and recommending movies and keeping committed to their knowledge of movies and TV shows so they can answer questions and find the right movies for customers.

Couch Critics recently began to officially carry new and used books, further embracing the vision of the store being a cultural archive.

James values, more than anything, the community that Couch Critics has created. Recently he held a fundraiser for the store, which made him more aware of the community of Couch Critics than ever before, and even more grateful to everyone who has made it all possible, and continues to make it possible.

It is a place made even more special by it being, as James says, one of the last unicorns in the forest, and a last stand for analog and culture. For many places in California and elsewhere, the idea of being able to visit a physical movie rental store is no longer a reality, but thanks to Couch Critics, Mount Shasta is one of those special places.

James and Elijah both extend an open invitation to the community to give them feedback as to how they might continue to delight and serve their patrons in the way that they’d like. They will soon have a suggestion box in the store, which can be reached during business hours at 530-918-9574.

• Cody Lakin is the author of the novel "Other Endings" and a freelance journalist and movie reviewer for Mount Shasta Area Newspapers.