The Red Envelope Held Sway Over All

Boonville Post Office (photo by Monte Williams)

Practically everyone in Boonville loathes Wal-Mart and Home Depot, and yet despite its role in the loss of two local independent businesses, Netflix has been granted a rare and elusive "Get Out of Our Smug Disapproval Free" card.

The first word in Robert Mailer Anderson's debut novel Boonville is "Boonville". The last is "Yee-haw". Somewhere between the two, at about the 70-page mark, the protagonist has this to say: "Fuck it… Fuck it all… Most of all, fuck Boonville."

Having resided for six years now in the unlikely hamlet of Boonville (population: 1,300), I sometimes feel this way myself. (It's cute that we lack a single fast food restaurant, or even a street light for that matter, but no comic book shop? Did the terrorists win?) Even so, the place is not without its strange, quaint charm, and when I reviewed Boonville in 2001, I conceded that I had only read it for "That sad little I-can-see-my-house-from-here! thrill".

But Anderson's novel is also something of a fascinating time capsule; while its setting is but a decade or two in the past, the Boonville of today would appear to be an alternate reality to its characters, like Bizarro World, perhaps, or that sexy dimension in season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Xander and Willow were bondage vamps who spent all their leisure time cheerfully torturing Angel.

Once an unremarkable apple orchard town populated with rednecks and hippies (some of whom spoke their own language… seriously), the Boonville of today is a more diverse community (an increasing majority of the populace is Latino), and while apples remain a staple, Boonville is now known more for its famed Anderson Valley Brewing Company, its wineries (Husch Vineyards, Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger Cellars, to name but a few) and its booming (and for all intents and purposes legal) marijuana industry. (The not-quite legalization of marijuana here in Mendocino County, ostensibly for medicinal uses, has made it so that one would have to toss a Molotov cocktail at a police cruiser and light a joint from the resulting flames before a cop would even think of making an arrest.)

If Robert Mailer Anderson were to write a sequel to Boonville set in the present, chronicling all that has changed in the town over the last decade or two, you might suppose that his obvious starting point would be Boonville's changing demographics, or perhaps the proliferation of wineries. There's another change that I'd suggest has had a more meaningful impact on the daily life of many citizens, however: the arrival of Netflix. In 2004, I interviewed a number of locals to gauge the town's perspective on the burgeoning online movie rental business, but while teachers and students and merchants and worker bees were enthusiastic, the proprietors of each of Boonville's three brick-and-mortar movie rental houses dismissed Netflix as having had no impact on their business.

Three years later, a small plaque above a mail slot in a nearby post office reads "Netflix Here", and two of Boonville's three movie rental businesses are gone.

One of my favorite polls "conducted" by The Onion asks, "According to intelligence officials, al-Qaeda or another terrorist group may one day attempt to carry out a suicide bombing on U.S. soil. What do you think?" The old white guy in glasses (here named Tom McEwan and listed as a Systems Analyst) had the following response:

"Did you say I can get unlimited DVD rentals from for just $19.95 a month? Oh, you said suicide bombers may attack here. Never mind."

As a queue-obsessed junkie who didn't cry when his grandfather died yet shed tears the same week because he'd reached the final disc of Freaks and Geeks via Netflix, I find this distracted poll response somewhat comforting. Fortunately, I have long prided myself on my objectivity, and as I hit the streets of Boonville on a defiantly sunny afternoon last week to study the shape of the town in the aftermath of the Netflix phenomenon, I put all fuzzy feelings for my beloved queue aside. Yes sir, it was just me and my sharply-honed journalistic instincts and my call-it-down-the-middle neutrality… and my petition to change the name of the town to Netflix, California:

We the undersigned hereby pledge our unyielding dedication to the cause of convincing the populace of the celebrated but struggling town of Boonville, California to pass a legal measure under which said bustling metropolis shall henceforth and forevermore be known instead as Netflix, California. This change will bring much needed publicity to our floundering hamlet while in no way compromising established moneymaking ventures such as our thriving marijuana and methamphetamine industries.

(If you are not swayed by the above, or even impressed, keep in mind that this is but a digital reproduction, and that the actual document features a persuasive "Official Petition" heading which I created myself… using WordArt. Classy and convincing.)

Alas, due to an insurmountable obstacle I could never have anticipated (e.g., the arrival in my post office box of Justice League Unlimited Season One which a valued Monteland correspondent from Pittsburgh burned for me… which is highly illegal and in no way condoned or endorsed by this column), I felt obligated to push the petition aside, the way you might push aside and dismiss a rude gesture from a cranky driver, or uncomfortable insights into your own cowardice or overall mediocrity as a human. My petition and I remained at home, staying up past midnight thrilling to the exploits of Batman and Superman (and Green Arrow! And Captain Marvel!)

Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on my way to my classroom the next morning that my seductive and reassuring WordArt heading deserved at least some minimal activist effort on my part, and so later, in a moment of inspiration, I halted my insipid History lesson and raised the petition aloft and glared menacingly at my seventh graders, carefully neglecting to define "petition". To my immense delight, the petition filled up in no time. A singularly precocious child for whom I've long harbored feelings of resentment and animosity owing to the fact that her writing skills, at age 13, are already considerably more advanced than my own, was kind enough (or intimidated enough, perhaps) to sign the petition twice… first as Charlie Chaplin and again as Audrey Hepburn. Meanwhile, I turn 30 in April and have at best a half-assed idea of who Chaplin and Hepburn even were. I gave the girl a detention, of course. Show off.

While I failed to share my petition with citizens who can actually vote and such, I did pay a visit to two of Anderson Valley's three post offices. These jaunts were not a part of my original agenda, for Justice League Unlimited had become more alluring than sex by this time… by which I mean to say more alluring than sex by a wider margin than usual. However, the visits were necessary, as I found myself forced to do the internet's job; Wikipedia ridiculously and inexplicably and inexcusably fails, in its Boonville, California entry, to provide such rudimentary information as our Netflix subscription statistics.

I'm reminded of Kelly Bundy's fruitless discussion with an unhelpful 411 operator in an old Married… With Children rerun, to which she responded, "Tsk… she didn't even know who I was!" (Netflix itself does offer some fascinating and relevant trivia, however; a quick scan of their "Local Favorites" section reveals that number 12 on the list of most-rented DVDs for the Boonville area is… wait for it… Weeds. Meanwhile, informs me that "Netflix" has become a verb, as in, "I want to see that movie; I'll have to Netflix it.")

Sheila Hibbs and Ann Carr of the Philo Post Office

So it was that, bitterly, begrudgingly and with much gnashing of teeth, I climbed into Rocinante (my beat-up '90 Toyota) and drove shakily to the post offices of Philo and Boonville. The population of the entire Anderson Valley (including not only Boonville but also Philo and Navarro to the north and Yorkville to the south) is estimated at only 2,000 people, and yet Sheila Hibbs and Ann Carr of the Philo post office estimate that they receive and ship 30-40 of those distinctive red Netflix envelopes a day. (I often wonder whether focus groups and the like led Netflix to adorn its envelopes and its website in this specific shade. Are there subliminal effects on the consumer that played a factor in their decision? Is this why Netflix's promotional partnership with Shrek 2, resulting in a week or so of unsightly lime green envelopes, was so brief? Is a cross-promotional collaboration with red-favoring retail giant Target the next logical step?)

Carr also noted that their higher-ups instructed them to use the "Netflix Here" sign in order to keep the discs separated from the rest of the mail, lest they be destroyed in the sorting machine. She and Hibbs then shared amusing if disturbing tales of the depths of Netflix obsession on the part of some valley residents, one of whom receives three or more discs a day, and another who calls first thing every morning to check on the status of his latest queue deliveries. Meanwhile, Boonville postmaster Alan Zischke, who reports numbers ranging from 50-100 Netflix discs a day, told me that many of his customers find that Netflix's generous shipping speed cannot accommodate their need for new discs now. One customer even sent a disc back Express, at a personal cost of $13. (I like to think that Justice League Unlimited was atop his queue at the time.)

We are an isolated people in Boonville. I joked during our move here in 2001 that I was pursuing a hermit-like existence, "Like Hunter S. Thompson!" But the (pop) cultural distance and loneliness are real; our nearest theater is 45 minutes away, our closest mall nearly double that distance. While the Anderson Valley Market still has a shelf of videos and DVDs for rent, the local selection was limited even when Boonville boasted three rental houses. You might have scored an obscure relic like a sequel to Zapped!, but your chances of renting the latest season of Sopranos or even some uninspired sitcom or reality show were (and remain) slim to none.

Even in towns with more dependable rental companies like Blockbuster, you are not likely to find a selection ranging from foreign noir to '80s cartoon series to political documentaries to Nick Cave concerts, like you find at Netflix, so it is hardly surprising that Boonville's secluded citizens are particularly fond of the service; between Netflix and satellite cable, someone watching TV during a Boonville evening needn't recognize or acknowledge that he's separated from the "outside" culture.

You could suggest that Netflix's triumph here in Boonville is just another example of our national culture's quickening homogeny. However, no one I've spoken with since the closing of Boonville's own Pearl's video store (now an antiques shop) or La Elegante Video (now a dumping ground for the proprietor's furniture and other debris, which admittedly was the case even when business was good), has expressed even a hint of sadness over the demise of these stores -- this in a valley known for its anti-corporate crusaders, stubborn hippies, and champions of all that is pure and good about small towns and independent businesses. While you can still choose from the Anderson Valley Market's small collection of videos and DVDs, and while clearly many Anderson Valley citizens must still be dedicated to what my friend Phil Wall calls "the hunter-gatherer method of movie rental," it is staggering how quickly Netflix eliminated most of its relevant competition in such a fiercely anti-corporate town, and it is perplexing that no one seems to care. Practically everyone in Boonville claims to loathe Wal-Mart and Home Depot and the like, and yet despite its role in the loss of two local independent businesses, Netflix seems to have been granted a rare and elusive "Get Out of Our Smug Disapproval Free" card.

But then, six years of rural living have taught me that most of the supposedly charming eccentricity one encounters when dealing with small town businesses quickly proves tiresome, and perhaps I am not alone in this regard. It's nice that a store clerk will indulge in some casual, lighthearted conversation while ringing up your purchases, for example, but when you're fifth in line and the conversation has already run 20 minutes and you just want to get home to your spouse, your dinner, or your queue, the charm wears thin. In the case of our departed movie rental houses, this small town eccentricity played itself out in the form of poor and unreliable business hours, movies stacked on shelves with no attempt at alphabetical or genre organization, and employees who could seldom be counted on to distinguish between Edward Scissorhands and its porno counterpart, Edward Penishands.

Furthermore, while I was considered something of a leftist hippie myself when I moved to Boonville with my wife in 2001, prolonged exposure to the real deal has shown me that while I might agree with some hippie ideals, a hippie I am not. Store clerks of the hippie variety not only keep you waiting in line, but their conversations tend to concern the earnest sermons of National Public Radio and the latest happenings in the organic food industry (I've also discovered that their insights into the thematic complexities of Justice League Unlimited leave a lot to be desired.)

Robert Mailer Anderson would appear to feel the same way I do; his Boonville introduction ends, "As for the hippies in the county who may be upset at the depiction of hippies, I say, 'Tough shit, hippie.'" Wikipedia, to its credit, notes this cheerful gag in its Boonville entry. It neglects to mention, alas, what Anderson himself confirmed is "the Reader's Digest condensed version" of his novel, the aforementioned "Boonville. Yee-haw." Nor does Wikipedia explain why Netflix refuses to stock cinema's most populist and profitable genre, and so I did the internet's job again and conducted an investigation of Dwight Schrute scale and brilliance, e-mailing the following missive to the talented and dedicated workers in Netflix's Customer Service department:

Dear Netflix,

Please add porn to your vast rental collection. In return, I will happily get your corporate logo emblazoned on a body part of your choosing.


-Monte Williams

Loyal Netflix Subscriber, School Teacher, Proud American

I received an immediate response in my inbox:


Thank you for your message. All requests, suggestions, business inquiries and offers will be forwarded to the appropriate person.

Who might "the appropriate person" be in this case, I wonder?

At any rate, while my petition to rechristen Boonville failed, owing in equal parts to my apathy and my having no idea who to give it to once it was all filled up, I hope you will nonetheless find inspiration in my efforts. I hope that, like me, you will hit the streets of your community in order to make a difference. I hope you will stand up for corporations, cruelly attacked all these years by small business zealots. And if you prove incapable of focusing your activist energy, might I suggest that you make the world a better place by paying haunting, stirring tribute to your favorite columnist in the form of his own long-delayed Wikipedia entry?

Godspeed, gentle reader.

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