Back in mid-March, a writer named Bekah McKendry posted an article on Fangoria's website entitled, "The Death of the Video Store." I'm not even sure now how I came across it, but I'm glad I did. It was a well-written, nostalgic piece that inspired me to share a few of my own thoughts and feelings on the downward spiral of brick-and-mortar video rental locations.
Bekah seems to be a few years older than me and as such certainly had a different experience with video rental stores than I did. She credits weekly trips to a local store called On Track Rental, which is no more, with her exploration of genre film and eventual desire to write for Fangoria. While I was born in the heyday of VHS, it took me 5 or 6 years to start diving head-first into film, pesky things like learning to walk and speak and play outside got in the way of my cinematic development. In fact, the first time I really remember watching a movie and being captivated by it was at the age of 6 when my dad and I went to the public library together and rented Star Wars. I know it's been that film for so many people, but that was the moment I fell in love with the movies. I've been seeking them out, watching and collecting them ever since, and that's why it pains me to discuss something that was still so integral to the cineaste's experience when I was growing up, but is fast becoming a fading memory.
When I was a kid, VHS was king. DVD hadn't even been whispered about yet. VCR's were the crack pipes through which my addiction to film grew from casual to insatiable. And continuing with that metaphor, video rental stores were the dealers who supplied my product ... pure, uncut cinema on VHS tape. The public library in the small Indiana town in which I grew up had a pretty sizeable VHS collection, available for free to anyone with a pulse and a library card. I remember they had these tall plastic sleeves and they would cut or fold the VHS box to make it fit. I loved flipping through those stacks of plastic sleeves, deciding what was interesting based on the cover art, finding films I knew my mother would never let me check out and going back to them over and over, mesmerized by the pictures on the front and the short synopsis on the back.
The library was great for catalog titles, and also because, quite frankly, my family didn't have much money growing up and free was a great price. But it wasn't the only game in town. I loved going with my mom to grocery store, because the Kroger's where she did the shopping had a small corner dedicated to renting videos. They had the actual tapes on the shelves covered by clear plastic shells. As much as I loved flipping through the sleeves at the library, it was a different experience seeing a wall of cover art in front of me. I was awe-struck and overwhelmed. The best part was that the grocery store had new releases which the library was sadly lacking for the most part. I wanted to see all of them all at once. In fact, one time I had a friend spending the night at my place one Friday night, and my mom took me to Kroger's to rent some movies. I couldn't have been more excited. I rented 3 movies, an unthinkable haul at the time. I made it through the first one but was fast asleep a few minutes in the second. My friend stayed up and watched all three. It wasn't the first time sleep got in the way of movie watching and it certainly wouldn't be the last.
We also had several local video stores and a couple more grocery stores with video rental sections. When we moved to a different part of town, I started riding my bike to the Marsh supermarket to rent VHS tapes. I am still firmly convinced that a movie and a box of doughnut holes is all you need to be happy. Eventually the Family Video and Blockbuster chains found their way to our small town as well, but the best memories I have are the ones from the small stores, the mom-and-pop places. For the most part, I was too young to really delve into smaller foreign and genre titles like Bekah did. I got my first DVD player for Christmas in 1997, and jumped into DVD collecting with both feet. I got to a point where I didn't rent much anymore, buying most of the stuff I wanted to watch. As my tastes gradually changed and I found myself gravitating towards those smaller foreign titles, I realized I didn't have much of a choice. Blockbuster didn't usually carry what I was looking for, and my only option was to blind buy the typically pretty pricey DVD's off Amazon. I did that for a bit after college, but things changed when I moved to Austin.
Austin, for those who aren't aware, is blessed with not one but two amazing video stores. As if that weren't enough, I Luv Video and Vulcan Video both have two locations in Austin. They are meccas for film lovers. The I Luv on Airport Boulevard is awe-inspiring. A two-story structure almost bursting at the seams with DVD and VHS gems from all over the world. Their collection is unbelievable. The things I would have had to buy to see in Indiana were stacked neatly on the shelf, just waiting for my to pay the paltry few dollars to take them home for 5 nights. Vulcan is no slouch either with a great selection presided over by a particularly awesome and knowledgeable staff.
With Hollywood Video liquidating stock and Blockbuster scrambling to try anything to stay afloat, it seems like the giants of video store rentals are on the ropes. Even local places aren't immune to the effects of a bad economy and profits lost to Netflix and Redbox. Stores like Bekah's beloved On Track Rental, The Video Vault outside DC, and Kim's Video in NYC have all stopped renting. But there are still places around the country, like Vulcan and I Luv here in Austin, Scarecrow in Seattle, and the one-two punch of Facets and Odd Obsession in Chicago, reminding us that Netflix doesn't have everything.