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Gas and food prices might be siphoning cash from Minnesotans' wallets, but thousands are saving on one of life's small pleasures by checking out free DVDs from the local library for their movie night.
The service is wildly popular: The suburban branches of the Hennepin County Library have 58,244 DVDs comprising 11,180 titles -- with 70 percent of discs for grownups being checked out at any given time. By comparison, the average Blockbuster store in the Twin Cities has 5,000 titles.
Librarians welcome the strong demand for free movies as a way to get people through the door.
"People use us as their Netflix," said Kathy Boyd, who manages the DVD department for Hennepin County's Minneapolis libraries. "It's the highest circulating part of probably any library in the country."
For example, when the Oscar-winning movie "Juno" came out on DVD Tuesday, the Hennepin County and Minneapolis libraries already had nearly 1,200 holds on their 61 copies. That means patrons at the end of that list will be waiting about five months to borrow the disc for a one-week period.
"The thing that's interesting to us is that people are willing to wait," said Gail Mueller Schultz, Boyd's counterpart at the suburban Hennepin system. "We look at how long these request lists get, and no one seems to get that upset about it."
For some Minnesotans, waiting to borrow a free movie beats paying for the convenience of renting one.
Wendy Auldrich, 39, who has checked out DVDs regularly at Minneapolis' Walker and downtown branches for the past few years, said she has been waiting to see the Oscar-winning animated film "Ratatouille" on DVD for three to four months. But she doesn't mind the wait.
"If I see it today or I see it in September, it's the same movie," she said.
Still, waiting is one of the downsides of borrowing movies from the library. Another is that since many titles are out at one time, there's not much of a selection in branches. So patrons like Auldrich must use the online catalog to place a hold on a wanted title, waiting their turn in a virtual line until a copy becomes available.
Demand always exceeds library budgets.
"The requests get so high that we want to buy more copies, but then we don't have the money to buy the next new thing we want to," Mueller Schultz said.
Libraries have responded creatively to meet the demand. The Ramsey County Library makes 5,849 of its 42,078 movies available to rent for 50 cents a day. Every rental title also is available in the free collection, spokeswoman Kristi Saksvig said, but the service allows patrons to view a movie more quickly than traditional borrowing for a fee that's lower than rental stores typically charge -- even the popular $1 Redbox kiosks at McDonald's locations.
Hennepin County Library has also added a regularly updated list of new and upcoming movies to its Bookspace website (www.startribune.com/a4273) in response to customer requests for the latest releases.
"And people wait," Mueller Schultz said. "They know exactly when that list is updated, and within minutes, there are requests for the DVDs."
Saksvig said that variety appears to be a strong attraction. Library patrons often comment that the selection is broader than at the video store, she said.
Feature films are the most popular at Twin Cities libraries, especially recent ones, but educational titles and documentaries pepper the catalog. In addition, music videos play well in Minneapolis, world languages speak to the Hennepin suburbs and Bollywood musicals see happy endings all over.
One genre you won't find in abundance, at least in the Hennepin suburbs, is network TV shows on DVD, which are readily available to viewers, Mueller Schultz said. Hennepin and Ramsey libraries also aren't carrying newer Blu-ray discs yet.
Blockbuster stores carry those discs and offer longer hours and more copies of the latest films, said Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for the Dallas-based chain. Customers can't put titles on hold, as they can at the library, but that means there is a much bigger selection in stores, he said.
Using online DVD rental services, such as Blockbuster or Netflix, opens up the selection to 85,000 to 100,000 titles. Customers get the discs by mail and can have up to three discs out at a time, for as long as they want, for $17 to $20 a month. Blockbuster even allows impatient customers to swap out an online-service disc for a store disc while they're waiting for their next mailed title to arrive, Hargrove noted.
Dave Estok, 50, who checks out the maximum five DVDs a week, said he uses the library to fill in the gaps while waiting for his Netflix discs to arrive in the mail. He doesn't bother with the online catalog.
"I just start at one end, zip down the aisles and see what catches my eye," he said while flipping through discs at the downtown Minneapolis branch.
But many people seem content to use the local library's free DVD service exclusively. They've even learned how to work the system, Mueller Schultz said -- such as signing up for an RSS feed to be notified when Hennepin's Bookspace list is updated, checking the online catalog to see the number of holds on a DVD and putting many titles on hold so that there's always something waiting for them when they visit the library.
Getting people into libraries is why Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, loves how popular DVD borrowing has become.
"With DVDs, you have a service that people want, so they go to the library and see that there are other things going on," she said.
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542