Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

MEMORIES: Video Rental Stores

There’s no item of movie nerd nostalgia whose loss has been bemoaned more then the video rental store. I’m not the first to write about them and I certainly won’t be the last. Whole documentaries have been made on the subject. Some are so devoted to the video store that they’ve even sought to re-create it. Yet the fact remains. Despite a few stubborn hold-outs, the video store is more-or-less extincted. They are places of the past. For many film fanatics, the video rental store is where their obsession began. Whether it be big chains or weirdo mom-and-pop places, they were temples of knowledge for burgeoning cinema fans. Here are some of my memories of the local video stores that shaped my interest in movies.

That last aspect is worth emphasizing. Once upon a time, I didn’t have the huge movie collection I do now. When I was young, we only had a few VHS tapes to our name. Though tapes weren’t as expensive as they were when the technology was new, they still weren’t something my family could afford to buy all the time. The video store democratized home media. Instead of buying a tape, which brand new were still in the twenty-to-thirty range, you could instead rent one for a few bucks. A proper video store also had a huge back catalog. In the days before the internet, we had to rely on video stores for our film viewing experiences. If your local rental places didn’t have it, odds are good you didn’t see it. But the best stores had many obscure films available for rent, as many of them rarely sold their tapes.

Growing up, my family was fairly poor. My mom had to work all week just to be able to afford two luxuries for us kids. On Fridays, we would rent a movie or two from the video store and then get a Happy Meal from McDonalds. Our video store of choice was Top 20 Video. Located within walking distance of my home, Top 20 was the center piece of a strip mall in town. Top 20 wasn’t one of those rental stores where the tapes were on shelves. Instead, you grabbed the box of your desired movie and walked up to the front desk. There, a clerk would retrieve the movie from a library in the back. I remember Top 20 used to have two-for-five-dollars deals, that I constantly took advantage of. I also recall that a friend of my mom’s worked there, who would often greet us.

Top 20 is a place I spent a lot of time as a kid and many stray details remain in my brain. Naturally, I spent a lot of time in the children’s section, which was right by the door. I repeatedly rented a series of VHS tape collecting Halloween-themed episodes of Disney cartoons. I kept coming back to these tapes not so much for the cartoons but for the spooky “Grim Grinning Ghost” sing-a-long that started each one. I also remember some scoundrel placed “Return of the Living Dead 2” in the kids’ section, where, as far as I know, it stay until Top 20 closed.

Top 20 had a lay-out similar to most video stores. The older tapes, segregated by genre, stood in cubicles along the right side wall. To the left, was a sprawling wall of new releases. In the center of the hallway where the video game rentals and a small play castle, both places I spent a lot of time. The horror section was by the front desk. At that age, I was far too timid to actually venture there. Truthfully, while walking up to the desk, I often looked away from that cubicle, so I wouldn’t be spooked by some creepy box art. Despite that, I was endlessly intrigued and would often sneak shy glances. “Terror in the Swamp” is a random tape I can recall seeing. Top 20 also kept posters for the appropriate genres on the walls above each section. I can definitely recall the poster for “Warlock” resting above the horror section for years and years.

Of course, Top 20 was far from the only video store in our local area. For that matter, at varying points in time, there were three or four others. On the main street of my small town, there was a two story brick building. I can only remember going into that business once. My dad claimed relatives of his ran the place and once, out of curiosity, we both checked it out. The tapes were kept on metal racks tightly packed next to each other. That place also had the kids’ section right next to the horror section, which meant the grinning monster face of the “Critters” poster stared me down while I browsed “Power Rangers” VHS tapes. That video place wasn’t around long and went out of business years ago. The building is still there, as a place that sells fireworks three months out of the year.

A bit of a further drive from home was Video Invasion. Video Invasion was also part of a strip mall but a larger one, that included an Italian restaurant and an auto-repair shop. As I recall it, Video Invasion was a huge, warehouse style store. Shelves ran the length of the building. Hanging above the horror section was a small promotional item for one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, showing Freddy’s claw slashing through the movie’s title. (At least, I think it was for a Freddy movie…) Aside from that, I don’t remember Video Invasion very well. It’s possible I was only actually inside the place once. More then the business itself, I remember the store’s mascot – a cartoony space man holding a ray gun – on the sign outside and on the membership card. Video Invasion lasted a little longer then Top 20 did but went out of business around the same time.

Despite the video rental business being considered a dead end, weirdly, a new store opened in my home town not long after those previously mention places shut down. Video Den may be a small, locally owned chain as there’s at least one other store with that name around here. When Video Den first opened up, it was the first time I had actually been inside a real video store in years. DVD was still not the default technology. At first, they had an extremely good VHS archive. More then once, I enjoyed just browsing through the back room where all the older titles were kept. Of course, VHS was soon entirely obsolete and Video Den sold off their archive. Disappointingly, it soon became clear that the people who owned the store weren’t huge movie fans. This put me in an unexpected situation. Every time I visited my mom’s home town, I had a chance to step inside a video store. Yet unpleasant proprietors meant I didn’t venture inside Video Den as often as I could. A brief look at their Facebook page shows that they’re closing down at the end of next month. Now I feel guilty for not shopping there more often.

For years, when traditional video stores were only a dying breed instead of totally extinct, a specific business was widely despised by weirdo movie fans. Blockbuster Video was criticized for its puritanical censorship clauses, apathetic teenage employees, and tendency to drive weirder ma-and-pop video places out of business. Yet, when the smaller businesses closed up, Blockbuster hung on. In an odd way, the disliked chain became the only way for movie fans to re-experience the unique high gained from the video store experience. We had a Blockbuster but it was in the closest city, meaning there were many closer video stores when I was younger. As a kid, I can remember going into Blockbuster once or twice. I recall thinking their video game selection was slightly better, back when Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were still the top consoles. My most pertinent memory of Blockbuster occurred when I was much older and involves an ex-girlfriend. After getting dinner at a near-by sushi joint, in the dead of winter, we zipped into Blockbuster to browse and get warm.

Like a lot of movie nerds, I eventually found employment at a video store. When I was a penniless college student, I took a brief job at that same Blockbuster. Mostly so I could have some cash to my name. All things considered, it was a fairly painless experience. It was the easiest job interview I've ever had. After telling the manager I was a huge film buff who organized my own extensive collection for fun, I was hired. I can only recall two evenings we had biggish crowds. My co-workers were all very relaxed. Customers were only occasionally rude. My favorite memories of that place were when shoppers asked for recommendations, which I was always enthusiastic to give. The manager could be bitchy and the pay was pathetic but I do not besmirch my brief time at Blockbuster Video.  

And the time was brief. When I got the job at Blockbuster, I knew I was chaining my boat to a sinking industry. I was there a little over a year when the news came down from on high that the store was closing. At the time, I was bummed out less because I was loosing a job and more because it meant one less video store in the world. It wasn’t the first time a video store had closed its doors. Top 20 Video shut down several years prior. A huge liquidation sale followed. Top 20 was filled front to back with tapes and DVDs. Apparently, this wasn’t just a liquidation for Top 20 but for many other video stores in the area. At that sale, I acquired a few tapes of oddball titles that have never gotten DVD releases. Things like “Junior,” “Splatter” and “Horrible Horror.” As much fun as I had digging through piles of old movies, it was bittersweet. Top 20 was a part of my childhood and now it was gone.

Video stores are now gone. Holdouts like Video Den are the exception, not the rule. Of course, the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu made the video store obsolete. While digging through the uncertain libraries of local shops, you never knew if they had what you were looking for. You can find almost everything on the internet. Like literature lovers bemoaning the rise of the E-book, there was something tactile about the video store experience. Greeting the workers, running your fingers through the shelves, and seeing the individual charms of the various stores were all part of the fun. As a kid, the video store was a place of escapism and discovery. Looking stuff up on Netflix isn’t the same.

As we head towards a future where most movies are watched via on-line streaming, I have concerns of my own. The central question has already shifted. No longer do prospective movie watchers ask “Will they have what I want to see?” Now the answer is “What’s streaming?” Do you really trust Netflix that much?  The choice is taken out of the customer’s hand. That makes me uncomfortable. How will future movie fans discover the obscure films that ignite their passions? Until every film ever made is available through streaming service – so, you know, never – cinephiles will mourn the death of the video store. Its equal parts nostalgia and concerns for the future that forces us to hold onto those memories.

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