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Why We Should Still Mourn the Loss of the Video Store
In March of 2016, a small fluff piece did the rounds online. A North Carolina man, one James Meyers, was picked up by police and ordered to appear in court for failing to return a VHS copy of Tom Green’s notorious Freddy Got Fingered to a video store fourteen years earlier. The smallness of the crime—a minor transgression lodged stubbornly in a computer system somewhere like a bit of sweetcorn between teeth—gave the episode a kind of mock-Kafkaesque feel. It was a miniscule and non-threatening demonstration of how past sins return to haunt us.
But, beyond the quirkiness of the story itself, I found myself wallowing nostalgically in the infraction at its core. Just as some might fantasize about the days of stage coach heists, Great Train Robberies, or the seductive vices of a Prohibition-era Speak Easy, I romanticized the escapades of Mr. Meyers and his brazen non-return of the VHS tape. In fact, I kind of half-envy Meyers for what must surely be his place in history as the last person in America to fall foul of a video store and an overdue VHS tape.
After all, for those of a certain age, the prospect of video store late fees send a muscle-memory shudder down the spine. Recall the Sunday night realization that Saturday night’s tape was still lodged in the VHS player (or, far worse, the sudden Tuesday night comprehension that Saturday’s tape was still on the backseat of the car). The nudging phone calls from the video store that may or may not come. The quickly accruing fines that could easily outstrip the cost of dinner and a trip to the movie theater for four.
On the surface, then, we should be glad that the video store went the way of beta-max tapes in relatively quick time. I for one, however, can’t see it this way. I can’t help but think, in fact, that the death of the video store may be one of the most underrated and un-mourned cultural losses of the last decade or two.
I guess I would say that, though. After all, I experienced the video store from both sides of the counter. For a number of years, in my native U.K., I worked for the corporate big-daddy of all video stores. Before that, in the late 80s, I was an almost ever-present customer of such places. It was a small town, and for a kid with no cash in his pocket or ideas in his head, the video store was a natural draw on a Friday night.
But I wasn’t alone. There could be found others, all trying to touch the glamor of the film business that, in truth, had long evaporated before it reached the distribution end of our dirty, cigarette-butt encrusted High Street. Amongst these types were the Weekend Outcasts. The troubling ones, darkly-obsessed with the new phenomenon of ‘video nasty’ horror films, or the hopeless young lads trying to glimpse a flash of top-shelf, porno tape covers in an age when porn was hard to come by, even for the most dedicated seeker.
So maybe I’m just too close to the memory of the video store, but I think we’re worse off without them.
Let’s consider exactly what disappeared when these places shut their doors for good. First, we lost a plentiful source of valuable, trivial disappointment. In our “on demand” age we can stream the exact film we want when we want it. In the video store, things worked differently. On a Friday night—heck, maybe even on a Wednesday night—it could be expected that first, second, and third film preferences would have vanished by the time you arrived—“we just rented out our last copy of that two minutes ago!” A person of more select taste might even reasonably expect to wait weeks for the store’s lone copy of a particular art-house treat. The result was hands-on training in that vital life-skill of settling for second best or less.
The flip side of this was the sense of triumph, of ego-boosting good fortune when you actually did get hold of your first choice film. This experience reached its zenith in the rare moment when, in an act of hopeful desperation and despite the all-telling gaps on the shelves, you approached the clerk to ask if there were any copies of your film left. The inevitable and predictable response to this was, of course, “No, sorry, we are out.” But, maybe once, like something out of the far-fetched Hollywood movie you were hoping to watch that night, you might hear “Oh…Hang on…Wait…Actually, one of those has just come back.”
With such a tape—still warm from the previous owner’s VHS player—in your hands, anything was possible, and life felt like a thing not to be lived tentatively but grasped with confidence. What delights, I say—aside from convenience and easy satisfaction—can streaming offer to compete with this?
Similarly, there is the community and relationship building that took place in the video store. I wonder how many would-be couples added to the foundation of their partnership by performing the ritual of VHS tape selection. It was certainly a people-watcher’s delight to see the various couples come in the store. The long acquainted ones often had a system—“it’s your turn to pick tonight”—or an established domestic life that allowed them to indulge in two tapes, one each. But for the newbie couples, those for whom the world was still a rom-com in the making, the patterns were different.
For these couples, as anxious about each step of their courtship as love birds that might be witnessed in the slender selection of wildlife documentaries available in store, the moves were far more intricate. They tested each other out—Have you seen this already? Do you like her?—while circling from new releases, where the big picture of each other’s characters might be discerned, through the back catalogue films in which more obscure and historical elements of an individual’s past and personality might be gleaned.
Only once did I see the integrity of this ritual seriously undermined. A man, obviously of quite considerable means, plopped his American Express Gold Card on the counter and asked me to select for him a movie that might compliment his wooing of a certain young lady. He would be entertaining her this evening, he said. And with that he went to the supermarket next door to buy wine and food. I have no idea what I picked for him, but, as always, attempted to use my ‘professional knowledge’ for good. This was in the helicon days of Four Weddings and a Funeral, so perhaps that was my pick. I like to think so.
Back there in the video store, all those years ago, my opinion seemed to matter as it did nowhere else. “What do you recommend?” was the flattering question that made this clueless kid an expert for a moment. The place just felt good. Overall, it was kind of like working at a bar but with less drunkenness—though when we started opening until midnight on Fridays the distinction between the two types of establishments (and the vision of the punters) became increasingly blurred.
Like a bar, we had our regulars—even daily regulars who watched every film that came out, from Woody Allen to Arnie. And I played the role of barkeep; to compliment this little fantasy, I flung over my shoulder the dusting rag used on for the shelves, bartender style.
It was, in short, a lively place—it took a stroll or a short car journey to get there, and other human beings, good, bad, and indifferent, mingled alongside each other while choosing a film. Even the sketchy loners, the ones who rented straight-to-video ‘erotic thrillers’ and no doubt watched them solo in darkened living rooms, might enjoy the soul-warming benefits of vague human interaction. Now, of course, the interaction surrounding a movie rental simply means rating your film on Netflix after watching it.
So, yes, we’ve gained the convenience, the selection, the picture quality, the targeted recommendations of cannily conceived algorithms, and even an increasing range of films that begin streaming in tandem with their theatrical release. But, I ask you, what have we lost? The list is long, my friends, longer than the rental history of the magnificent customer, our best regular, who gave me a five pound Christmas tip in 1994. It is the unwound tapes, the character-checking due dates, the frustration of tapes that skip and tear and unspool just moments after you hit ‘play’. It’s the overpriced bags of popcorn. It’s those mysterious ‘blank’ tapes wrongly returned in rental boxes that could—but probably never did—give birth to Hitchcockian style misadventures in real life.
Yes, the video store stands as the perfect emblem of all the wonderfully inconvenient, frustrating, and imperfect things we’ve left behind while following the siren’s song (streamed by Spotify) of life ‘on demand.’ Video stores lie haphazardly and shabbily in our memories like previously-viewed copies of Jean Claude Van Damme’s Hard Target or Steven Segal’s Under Siege dumped in a dollar-ninety-nine, ex-rental bin. So while what comes to mind when we remember the video store may not match the iconic status of the drive-in, or the grandeur of the old movie palaces, the local store was an arena in which movie history—and our personal histories—partly played out for a decade or two. And, like Mr. Meyers with his copy of Freddy Got Fingered, I would not return such memories and experiences to evade all the late fees in the world.
Paul Gleed is a native of Portsmouth, England, and now lives in Pennsylvania. He holds a First Class degree in English Literature from Lancaster University, England, and a Doctorate in Renaissance Lit. from SUNY Buffalo. He teaches writing at Harrisburg Area Community College. You can find him online at paulgleed.com.