Video store with a musical mission in Hamden

Alyssa Bowers of Wallingford plays the piano at the Best Video Film & Cultural Center.

There’s nothing passive about this nonprofit video store, particularly as its cultural mission includes a symphony of live music performances featuring all styles, tastes and even abilities.

Best Video Film & Cultural Center, the unique landmark organization that combines membership DVD rentals and a stopover coffee and wine bar, has prided itself on some of the best, original live music around for seven years.

“Both Richard and I are both musicians and have long been involved in the New Haven music scene,” explained Hank Hoffman, program director for the center, referencing its executive director, Richard Brown.

Brown and Hoffman, in fact, have are longtime band mates with their rock group Happy Ending.

“We’ve been playing together off and on since the mid-1980’s,” Hoffman said.

Best Video is already a unique place in that it prides itself on its more than 30,000 DVD titles. Originated in 1985 as a standard video store by longtime resident Hank Paper, it metamorphosized into a unique nonprofit model that operates on a library-like philosophy.

In 2011, Hoffman explained, as VHS cassettes were being phased out, a large portion of the inventory was sold off, clearing out more room in the store for other activities — namely a chance for performance space.

“It’s my favorite place to play,” said Richard Neal of Sandy Hook, a singer-songwriter who performs there regularly. “I’ve appeared there so many times over the years, I’ve lost count.”

“Hank and the crew there are musicians,” he said. “They understand. That’s a big deal.”

Consequently, Neal said, they’ve taken care to create what he described as “a listening environment.”

“People go there to hear music,” he said. “It’s intimate,” and musicians are able to connect with the audience.

Hoffman described the special ingredient for the venue involving its ability to simultaneously be formal and informal.

“People are focused on the music … but it’s also set inside this space with all the DVDs on the wall, so there’s an informality,” he said. Consequently, people are sometimes comfortable engaging with the musicians during a set, while devoting their attention to the original music that is the standard offering from performers.

“It’s a nice room with a very attentive audience,” said Hamden resident Allen Lowe, a veteran saxophone player who has performed with many of the top names in the profession.

“It is to the shame of … the greater New Haven area that there are so few vital and essential performance spaces around here, where musicians are treated with respect,” Lowe said. “Best Video is one of the few.”

“They understand the experience of the musician,” he said. “They respect and value what you do and treat you accordingly because they've been there.”

Having had a long history on the New Haven area music scene enabled Best Video leaders to connect with area musicians when they initially started hosting the first acoustic Wednesday night performances.

“My booking philosophy is pretty broad,” Hoffman said — acoustic, folk, bluegrass, jazz, and even classical.

“We also are willing to have experimental and more abstract here,” he said.

“We generally favor performers who are doing their own original compositions over covers,” he said. “We’re not really looking for the cover band. It’s a perfectly fine thing to do, but that’s more of a background thing and when people come here they pay attention.”

Bret Logan of Hamden, whose band Jellyshirts has performed at the venue around 20 times, finds the audience connection an integral part of the place.

“It is a place where people listen,” he said, explaining that it motivates the performers to reach higher levels with their work.

“You feel an unspoken vibe of respect toward the artists,” he said, noting his admiration for the ownership. “This isn't going to be a grungy gig arguing at 2 a.m. with a surly club (owner) about why they put you on at 1:45 a.m., or why they're suddenly too broke to pay what they agreed.”

“We’re proud of what it’s become,” said Hoffman, noting there are also monthly bluegrass and Irish folk jam sessions to which all are invited to play, as well as an open mic night each second Wednesday.

“We have everything from seasoned musicians coming in and doing something for a lark, to young kids taking the stage for the first time,” he said.

“Best is truly one of the only places I go to see music now,” Logan said. “The experience as an audience member is very much one of participating in the evening — somewhere between the high seriousness of a classical gig at Sprague Hall infused over a let-it-all-hang-out rock-and-roll club gig.”

“That's the kind of off-beat, intelligent, expansive experience you can have in this one-of-a-kind venue,” he said.

For more information or to see upcoming shows, visit https://www.bestvideo.com/.