The Video Store is dead.
Yes, you may still see them hanging around your local strip mall, or taking up space on a soon to be vacant lot, but it’s only a matter of time. Blockbuster, Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, and I don’t think anyone is surprised. What’s surprising is that these empty stores are still hanging on for dear life even as I write this column.
It’s fascinating, when you think about it, akin to watching one of those old casinos in Vegas being demolished; you see the explosion at the base, hear the rumbling cacophony…
Except that in this case, the casino hasn’t fallen. A Blockbuster is still standing somewhere in your neighbourhood, the perennial Blanche Dubois of video entertainment, telling itself that the glory days are still here and even more glorious days lie ahead.
But they don’t. Why? To answer that question, it’s time to offer this writer’s personal history of his almost quarter-century old relationship with the beloved Video Store, which is now fast coming to an end. It’s a tale of an elopement, a torrid affair, a loving marriage and finally, a slow and steady estrangement followed by the inevitable divorce. Oh, and death. Can’t forget that.
It all started back in 1986. I was 13 years old, and already a film junkie. I lived with my mother in a loft downtown not far from the cinema and theater district. At least three times a week I would make the half-mile walk to the movies, purchase four to five pounds of chocolate and coke, and be swept away by the dreams of Hollywood. 1986? Let’s see… we’ll start with a few of the good: Aliens, The Color of Money, Hoosiers, Big Trouble In Little China. Then there was the celluloid offal: Cobra, Clan of the Cave Bear, King Kong Lives, Let’s Get Harry (brilliant title, though).
But I loved ’em all. I couldn’t get enough. Which is why, when I first heard about something called the video store, the drool pouring out of mouth hit the ground with an audible splash. What?? You can… what? Watch whatever movie you like AT HOME??!!! Oh, my.. I must join one… now.
The problem was, we basically lived in Chinatown. The only video store anywhere near us featured all the best new releases from Beijing. They did come with subtitles- in Cantonese. Just in case your Mandarin was a tad rusty. My hopes were sunk. My life seemed lost, hopeless; I would never be able to watch movies on my terms, fitted into my busy adolescent schedule of backyard cricket and relentless, rapid-fire bursts of desperate masturbation.
Then something strange and wondrous happened. We moved. Out of the downtown, away from the Yellow Peril, with its incomprehensible movies and delicious take-out, and into an actual suburb. Not a particularly nice one, mind you, but one featuring…. a Video Store.
Not just any Video Store. The biggest, and only, Video Store I’d ever seen. Two levels. A bathroom. And more movies than one could poke a stick at. The best part? After a brief discussion with the manager, it was made clear that I be able to rent anything I liked.
A quick disclaimer here, in defense of my mother. She knew that I loved all kinds of movies, ranging from fluffy teen stuff right through to adult drama. Back in those days, when Hollywood still made movies for adults, many of these were given the strictest- and most exciting- rating: R. No one under the age of 18 would pass through those gates. I had always managed to get in at the cinema and mum saw no reason why it should be different here. So, with one quick note left on the brand new coal-fired Apple 2c computer, the entire universe of film heaven was opened to me.
And a love affair began. New Releases was, in those days, the least exciting area of the store- I’d seen everything there was to see in the last few years, since I’d been old enough to go to the cinema by myself. It was the older movies that captivated, the really old ones, the ancient stuff- from, like, the early 80s, that I lusted after. That first night in the new house, my room consisting only of my creaky bed, a milk crate on which the beloved TV sat and, of course, our brand new Video Cassette Player, I inhaled the first three Rocky movies, having adored Rocky IV to the tune of five times at the cinema. I was shocked to discover that the first in the series was called Rocky, not Rocky One. Ah, well. Must be a misprint. Anyway, all three films went down the hatch that night, with hundreds more to follow within a few months.
Not all of which were, um… Hollywood films, in the strictest sense of the word. Having said that, many of them were probably made near Hollywood. Van Nuys, to be more specific. These European-style art films about the vagaries of love were to be found in an area at the rear end (couldn’t resist) of the store under the heading, “Erotica”. Erotica. Can you believe that? So quaint. Makes the eighties seem downright virginal. I don’t recall seeing an erotica section in a Blockbuster store. Maybe if they’d included one, they’d be faring a little better right now.
I forgot to mention the small, dilapidated Beta section that I discovered soon after joining. Later transformed into the Laser Disc section. Last I heard it had become the Movies With Good Stories For Intelligent Adults Featuring Good Actors section. But no one rents any of those.
But back to our adventure through history. Things basically remained unchanged for the better part of twenty years. Yes, VHS and, shockingly, Beta disappeared and DVDs took their place. I lived in Manhattan now and my local Video Store was, indeed, a Blockbuster. Not that I missed the Erotica section- I actually went on the occasional date now and, even more surprisingly, managed to fool a few hapless women into becoming romantically involved with me. Failing that, there was also the rise of a much larger Erotica section, an Erotica section that was infinite in size and even larger in grandeur: the Internet. Of course, it didn’t have the same allure. Nothing can match the excitement and triumph of being a thirteen year-old boy surviving the humiliation and embarrassment of renting a pornographic movie and making it home and into his bedroom, undiscovered. The Internet makes everything too easy.
Then, sometime in the mid-2000s, a perfect storm arrived, one that would forever sever my ties with the Video Store.
Three elements came into accordance.
1. I matured. Not much, but just enough to allow me to realize that most movies coming out of Hollywood were, in fact, crapola. As a result, amazingly, I stopped watching them.
2. I made the terrible life choice of getting cable, and I found to my amazement that I could rent movies whenever I damn well pleased. Without a note from my mother.
3. Sometime soon after that, Netflix arrived and, well… the rest is history, not only for me, but for most of you as well. I love getting my little red envelope in the mail. Cripes, I sound lame right now… and a little effete.
So that’s it. Enjoy these dinosaurs while they still roam the earth. Pretty soon they’ll be gone. Will we mourn them? Maybe not, but with each passing year it seems like there are less and less places where people go to browse for pieces of entertainment to take home with them. First the record store became extinct, then the small book store, after that the large-scale music store… and now this, with only the local library to follow.
There’s nothing romantic about a Blockbuster, or any other type of Video Store.
But only the coldest of us don’t sadden, even for a few moments, upon hearing of the loss of an old flame.
Goodbye, Video Store. I want to say you won’t be forgotten. But I’d be lying.
Pictures, from top: Sylvester Stallone in ROCKY IV, United Artists, 1985.
The VHS v BETA War Of The Early Eighties. VHS prevailed… for a time.
The kind of Video Store that caused me so much anguish as a kid.