Author J.D. Cowan wrote a post recently about video stores and the role they played in the culture of the late 70s to the early 90s, before Blockbuster rolled in and and destroyed the vibrant independent video rental store scene, and then in turn was destroyed by the advent of the Internet.
It got me right in the nostalgia center of my brain in a way only those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s will understand. But it hit me even harder because I didn’t just go to video stores–or our local supermarket which, believe it or not, had a fantastic selection of movies and video games for rental back in the day. You see, I actually got to live in a video store.
In a sense. And only temporarily during the summers. But it left some profound memories and I do feel a legitimate, palpable sense of loss when I read pieces like J.D.’s about the sudden, shocking, and sad death of independent video stores.
My uncle owned a video store. I don’t remember the exact date he opened it–it could have been 1989 or 1990 for all I know. What mattered is that my uncle–who is also my godfather–is an actor and a massive movie buff who studied filmmaking as well as theater, and was really into movies. It was the equivalent of an actual musician with 15 or 20 years serious experience opening a music store. The reason my uncle, a very entrepreneurial guy, decided to open a video store was because he loved movies. His shop was no corporate, faceless franchise–it was run exactly by the kind of person you would want running your local video store.
He carried new movies, blockbusters, and everything you’d expect, but as J.D. describes in his excellent piece, my uncle also curated a library of films he thought were excellent, and that customers would love. He’d run promos, recommending sci-fi movies he liked, for example, or thrillers, or cool new independent movies he recently watched and thought deserved more recognition. For example, he was a big proponent of the movie Dark City before it became a cult classic. He also loved vintage movies from the Golden Era of Hollywood, old comedy like The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, obscure cop movies, old TV shows, and all the great bits of culture that might have slipped through the cracks of your average teenager or twenty-something of the era.
My brother and I used to spend summers working and hanging out with my uncle. We’d help clean, restock returns, and shoot the breeze when there were no customers. Sometimes we’d watch a cool movie in his office–I distinctly recall watching It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World–but often we’d watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 back when it was on Comedy Central. And when my uncle started renting video game consoles, my brother and I were official game testers for NES and Super NES games he was contemplating ordering for the store: he’d select which games he wanted promo copies of before making the decision to order a few, so my brother and I would play for a bit and give our opinion, which he’d go for. Later, when my oldest cousin was old enough, he’d help out with this too in the N64 era. It was awesome.
And then there was the fact that my uncle could snag movies and video games for my brother, sister, and me wicked cheap through his distributors. And he’d also give us samples he didn’t end up ordering for the store, as well as these awesome gigantic movie posters he was either through with, or didn’t end up using. I remember my brother had this gigantic Cliffhanger poster that was on the door to his bedroom for years.
Business got so good that my uncle, along with my dad, ended up buying some property in a better location so the store could move to a bigger building. I helped him and my little (though not-so-little) cousin paint it the summer before I turned 16. It was also the first summer I shaved my head after having a ponytail for so long.
And then there were the adult films . . .
Oh, my brother and I never watched them. We’d yuck bout the movie titles when customers would bring them back; when we were only like 13 or 14 my uncle shielded us from them, though I remember all of us cracking up about a movie called SEXPLOSION. But yeah, back in the day, video stores were the only place you could really get pornos. And my uncle rented them! They were an income stream. He had these big black binders in the corner of the store labeled ADULT ONLY. Inside were movie covers and a little velcro tag with a number. Customers would take the tags to my uncle, and he’d go to the special shelves out back and get the disgusting pornos for the customers.
When we were older, like 17, we’d help put the tags back and holy cow, did we laugh at the titles of these movies. Maybe it was just a different time, but I don’t remember being titillated by any of these. We just found the sheer absurdity of names I will not relate here too hilarious. But anyway, it was a segment of his business despite his misgivings, and that was just how it was.
So video stores to me didn’t just mean renting three games or movies for five dollars for three days at National Video in Plymouth, New Hampshire, or from the local Shop n’ Save for the weekend. It also meant family, male-bonding time . . . and learning about great old movies, TV shows, and new video games.
When Blockbuster started reaching even the sleepy towns of New Hampshire, my uncle was not happy. He was confident his carefully curated video experience could withstand the onslaught of relentless corporate conformity as described by J.D. And he did, for a while. But things began to change. With the advent of the PlayStation, he’d get teenagers who only wanted one or two specific games. And my uncle didn’t carry PlayStation games because he didn’t want to solely rely on video games for his business. But as these new consoles came out, NES, Super NES, Genesis, and even N64 games weren’t renting. And then when Blockbuster started gobbling up the entire market, providing a million copies of the same three new movies, the end of independent video rental shops was at hand. Many customers, their tastes shaped by the new model being shoved down their throats, weren’t as interested in poking around shelves of carefully selected film history, or waiting for one of my uncle’s five copies of the hot new release to be returned when Blockbuster had 75 copies of the same film. So off to Blockbuster many people went.
The writing was on the wall, but my uncle held out for as long as he could. Eventually, he closed up shop, and rented out the property to a consignment store before starting his own contracting business (My uncle, a talented guy, is also a wizard with his hands. The guy can build houses, beautiful houses. He’s also an excellent artist. A real self-taught Renaissance Man). One of the things that was keeping him in business for a while was the pornos he rented for five bucks a pop. One of the reasons he decided to close the video store was because he didn’t want to be a smut peddler.
This all transpired around the turn of the century. It marked the end of an era both nationwide and personally for me and my brother; very bittersweet because, as we entered our twenties, this was yet another magical part of our childhood that evaporated along with so many others.
For those younger people reading this, those born in the late 90s or in the 2000s with endless entertainment options at your fingertips–hell, in your pockets–it’s hard to overstate how wonderful video stores were. For a few bucks you could get to watch a recent movie in your own home, or find some obscure piece of film lore, a classic B-movie or foreign import, and enjoy the hell out of it with your friends. You also had the opportunity to rent video games you otherwise couldn’t find for purchase, or didn’t have the money to buy, or just didn’t like enough to want to own. Most of the games I rented were ones my brother and I couldn’t find in stores; there was no Amazon back then and if your Sears or Service Merchandise or Babbage’s didn’t have a game, you were out of luck.
I remember renting River City Ransom for a week–at a cost of $11!–when my mother said she’d cover the late fees because I had almost finished it. Or Castlevania III when it first came out, and actually reserving it and picking it up on the way back from a weekend spent visiting family. Or EarthBound, which I think I renewed for two weeks. And then, of course, there were the Beatles movies my brother and I loved to rent, action movies like Universal Soldier and Under Seige and Total Recall and Terminator 2, comedies like Airplane! and The Blues Brothers which we must have rented fifty times, and so, so many other memories (like my mother renting Little Monsters for me when I was 8 without realizing how inappropriate it was–seriously, that movie is like some coked-up Hollywood weirdo’s fever dream).
But of course, the deepest, longest-lasting memories I have of video stores were those summers hanging out with my uncle and my brother, eating pizza and watching cool old movies or episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 while helping him around the video store.
Every era has to end. That’s natural. What’s a shame is that what replaced the era of the independent video store sucks so bad.