The Thrill of The Hunt: In Defense of The Video Store

by Mike Reyes

Join me in a look back to the nostalgic days of the Video Store, and how we can bring it back!

image courtesy of SubPop

image courtesy of SubPop

Growing up as a movie buff, my parents (mostly my father) would rent tons of movies for me to consume in the comfort of our living room (or sometimes, my Grandmother’s living room). I was born in the age of Home Video, where VHS tapes costs were down to the affordable price of $29.99, and 2.0 Stereo sound was just starting to catch on. They were indeed heady times, symbolized by the ultimate library of recorded entertainment: the Video Store. Every weekend, and sometimes during the week, I’d bug my Dad to take me over to Video Showplace, A-Z Video, and later to the chains of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, where we’d share our ancient ritual with my younger brothers. For us, the Video Store was more than just a place to get movies: it was a hangout, a conversation starter, and it was a weekend pastime.

Historically though, it’s also been known as a breeding ground for burgeoning talent. After all, it was in a Video Store that Kevin Smith partially bided his time while cooking up Clerks. It was in a Video Store that Quentin Tarantino wrote Natural Born Killers and True Romance. Video Stores attracted Film Geeks like moths to the proverbial flame, and gave us somewhere to seek refuge in our quest for movie knowledge. If you were lucky enough, you got to work in one and further indulge in the privileges that the other side of the counter got to enjoy. I was not so lucky, but I still got a lot out of going to these sorts of places as a patron. For instance, it was in a Video Store that I accidentally shoplifted a LaserDisc Catalog I thought was free, and as a kid would pour over for details on movies I’d never heard of, classics I’d always heard of, and films I would go on to eventually watch and love.

Not only that, but I was exposed to dying formats such as 8mm videos, and I was trained in spotting New Releases in a climate where it was kill or be killed… except instead of your body, it was your evening that was killed. There were no reservations, there were no pre-orders, there was you and the massive wall with 20 placeholders – each one another possible hiding place for the actual case with the tape (and later DVD) in it would lie. Of course that was if your store played that game. Some stores played the “take the placeholder up to the shelf and pick up your rental copy there” game, where you were greeted by either the success of an empty box to take to the counter or the defeat of an empty shelf, telling you to browse the genre sections for something you hadn’t seen before.

Of course, if your local store didn’t have it, there was a chance that the next location in town had it; or even the local grocery store, which also was in on the game – albeit in a severely limited capacity. And that’s just what the Video Store represented to me: it was a fun game to snag the latest releases, on top of the fact that I was absorbing as many movies and shows as I could get my hands on. Ask anyone who’s known me since my early years, and they’ll tell you that I was “The Kid That Kept Up With The Movies.”  What started as my gateway to The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids turned into the method I’d discover movies I’d missed at the Cinemas like  Meet Joe Black, eventually became a place to meet new friends, see new styles and sights, and to keep culturally afloat.

image courtesy of myballard.com

Image courtesy of myballard.com

Days like these weren’t meant to last forever though, and sure enough Netflix came onto the scene to provide the rental experience at the click of a mouse. Blockbuster tried to keep up with their own home rental program and promise of “Life After Late Fees,” but they turned back to charging people rental fees and failed to denote the switch with their stereotypically loud and oversized advertising. They could make a gigantic replica of Gerard Butler’s scowling face, but they couldn’t tell you they were now back to “Life During Late Fees.” Not to mention, their home rental program had MUCH fewer titles than Netflix’s ever growing library, and for the same price of three discs/limited in store trade-ins per month, you could get three discs and access to the Instant Queue with Netflix. That’s not even the saddest story when it came to Big Video chains. The CEO of Hollywood Video, according to one of our dear friends that worked in our local location, felt that this trend of “At Home” rentals was just that: a passing trend that didn’t have legs. I’m sure if someone asked them whether that was the cause of their stock’s pitiful price from 2007 until the chain’s complete liquidation in 2010, they’d probably decline to comment. However, a “Yes” would probably be as plain as the nose on their face.

So here we are: an era where Instant Queues, Kiosks, and Overpriced Video On Demand have replaced the good old days of browsing the aisles. I’m not saying I’m anti Netflix, as I absolutely love their Instant Queue and plan on signing up for their Disc service once more. I’m definitely not anti Redbox, as they offer films at a MUCH more affordable rate than Video On Demand providers. And I’m most assuredly not against Video on Demand, because they sometimes have Indie movies that I’m dying to see, but would either have to travel to another state or wait a couple months to see. I’m totally up with today’s rental methods, and I use them like a fiend. But sometimes, when I see my Dad’s VHS collection, or when I’m at the local library to browse their movie selection, I’m reminded of the video store experience and I crave its return.

Video Stores CAN co-exist with these other rental options, albeit they’d have to exist in more of an indie boutique set up. Independent video stores, the old “Mom and Pop” storefronts, could come back and rule again! Hell, in some cases, they never left! If you look hard enough, you’ll find stores that have survived all of the format wars and modern advents that have been thrown at them. They aren’t many, but they’re still there. (I can think of one in the general area by me – Bob’s Video Time in Brick, NJ.) Of course, renting out games and movies isn’t exactly a new concept, so we’re going to need something new to throw into the mix. If you’re going to bring back an old concept, you need to sometimes spruce it up and present it with a new advantage that keeps it current, and I think I have just the thing.

Image courtesy of APP.com / AMC Theaters

Image courtesy of APP.com / AMC Theaters

Now, I’m not sure if this has happened yet, so I’m laying claim to this idea as one I’ve come up with independently. (However, I’m open to it having already been executed.) Imagine, if you will, a Video Store crossed with a Bar and Restaurant. Come out for group movie nights, killer entrees, and unique alcoholic libations, stay for the movies you can take home to borrow or even buy. The video store, again, has always been a social experience; so why not enhance it with drinks and food? You could have the Bar, the Restaurant, a Screening Room, and a Lending Library… all in one building, and all for the enjoyment of movie buffs and their pals. This not only brings back the Video Store into play, but it also makes it something that can compete with the newly rising notion of a Dine In Theater, while providing the same experience for a lower price point.

Movie Theaters weren’t killed by Home Video, and they’re starting to have success with dabbling in the Food and Drink experience themselves. Why can’t we do the same with Video Stores? Why should we limit ourselves to standing in line in front of a Computer or logging onto our own “at home kiosks” and reserving a movie in such an isolated way? The convenience is nice, but the old fashioned meeting place is in need of a resurgence in this digital era.  So let’s bring back the fun and entertainment of the Video Store, before too many of today’s children forget what they even are. Times have changed, and formats have switched hands, but good movies and good conversation have never been out of style.