An Open Letter to Ants
Humble Beginnings and High Hopes
After seven years of patronage, I've learned to enter Dreaming Ant without any expectations. Expectations are limiting in scope; they lead to disappointments and I've never been disappointed with Dreaming Ant. From its humble beginnings (little more than a few scarce wire racks and a smile) to the incredible library that now takes up almost a third of Crazy Mocha's Bloomfield location, "The Ant" has always been about film-geek satisfaction.
Dreaming Ant is serious about film, and for me, film is about freedom. There is no other medium more democratic than movies, primarily because there are so many choices, so many voices, stories and styles to absorb and study. Taste is only as important as mood.
But let's be honest: Hollywood and the world of DVD rentals are not so interested in freedom. Its all about the bottom-line profit and control of the market. Dreaming Ant, as a business model, stands in stark contrast, offering us something more than just a small-business alternative to corporate monopoly. Dreaming Ant has a soul.
Community and Serendipity
Yes, there are other options in rental these days. It's the elephant in the room. But I'd argue that the success of Dreaming Ant and the fierce loyalty it has inspired in its members is a matter of two points: Community and Serendipity. Dreaming Ant isn't a ghost-in-the-box non-entity slinging the latest in big-studio debasement and cheap thrills (though thank god they have all that stuff too). The Ant wants you to get what you want, but it kinda wants to tell you what you want, or at least gives you the chance to find it on your own. Most importantly, Dreaming Ant doesn't pander to any audience other than the one it has cultivated. That's a revelatory business model.
In one sense, part of that Community is Bloomfield, but fans and patrons of the store are hardly all Little Italy residents. People drive, bus and bike in from the surrounding neighborhoods, and from as far as West Virginia. The "happy accident" (as Dean calls it) of existing in the back of Crazy Mocha has allowed Dreaming Ant to evolve in unique ways. New people discover the shop all the time, some by word of mouth, some by stumbling into the contagious conversation and filial atmosphere that lilts through the stacks. It's easy to saunter up to the Crazy Mocha counter, buy a coffee, and have it refilled a few times while you whittle down your mountain of choices and chat with the "Worker Ants" and patrons. Dean has cultivated an amazing staff who are complimented by an ever-shifting host of knowledgeable and friendly clientele. They're engaging, educated and approachable people, and they've flocked to Dreaming Ant as much for the conversation as for the selection. The Community is that base of people who recognize that 1) local independent businesses need to be supported and 2) everyone is directly participating in making Dreaming Ant unique and cool. If you'll forgive the metaphor, Dreaming Ant is a Colony.
Serendipity is that illusive thing that the online services have yet to figure out. So much of our culture is now based on fast and cheap information. You can get what you want anytime you want it. Convenient, yes, but we never truly own information any more, we never make those side-long connections that actually endear the information into philosophical empathy. That wonderful "eureka!" experience - just as much as research - has been replaced with quick-searches and one-stop mega-marts. Movies are treated as predetermined and disposable commerce, so much so that things like taste and contemplation are thought of as "elitist."
God Save the Queen
Browsing through precariously stacked plastic boxes at Dreaming Ant is so much more rewarding than indulging the online convenience. Dreaming Ant has always catered to my inner geek, not so much in terms of exclusion and snobbery, but because the place provides a paradoxically logical and stream-of-consciousness browsing experience very unlike the dubious "recommendations" of the automaton rentailers. You could queue it up and wait a month based on a recommendation from Hal 9000, or you can simply stroll into The Ant and talk to five real people who have already seen the movie and have five very different opinions and construct a list with twenty-five recommendations.
I like to have alternatives. With so many bookstores, music shops, and video stores being gobbled up by faceless online culture moguls, its not ridiculous to fear an impending arts-education famine, or at least the end of browsing, of serendipity. Art (and film certainly is art) is about the exploration and diversity of ideas. These services, in an effort to expand customer service, have ultimately dumbed-down the average renter by streamlining selections and cutting human contact out of the equation. The result is a vacuum of analysis, interaction, and the pleasure of watching movies. Dreaming Ant isn't anti-mainstream, anti-corporate or elitist. Instead, the Ant is freedom, the alternative for people who think that choice actually means having more than two options.
But really, if you are reading this you already know all these things. You know what Dreaming Ant has to offer you. You know the personality of the place; you recognize the quality and diversity of the inventory. And you know the consequences if the Colony collapses. The Colony needs you - and you need the Colony.
John M. Mattie