When I was a young person a new video store came into my town. It was small and filled with movies I had never heard of. The owners told me that buying big name movies was too expensive. They felt it was better to have a store full of titles, than a store half full with copies of The Empire Strikes Back. This was 1985 mind you.
Back then I took for granted how awesome video stores were. Independent stores were the best. Generally, the owners were very happy people. Why? Well, it was literally their job to sit around and watch movies all day. Then, when a customer came in, they got to talk about movies and make recommendations on titles they should rent. And think about it... you didn't even need to waste your money on film school and it was like you were in the industry.
Things changed a lot when Blockbuster came along. In its day, Blockbuster was the Wal-Mart of the video industry. Sadly, it crushed the little guys and made it very hard on a lot of low budget filmmakers.
How? Well, the Blockbuster stores became so ubiquitous that they made it hard for all but the most award-winning indie titles to find shelf space. On top of this, Blockbuster had very strict guidelines for the titles they carried. When you control the marketplace it's very easy to do such a thing. So, if you wanted to see a very daring independent film, if you were able to get it from Blockbuster (remember, they were often the only game in town) the version you got was probably one specific to Blockbuster. Yes, filmmakers edited their films (or had their films edited) to meet Blockbuster's criteria.
Still, Blockbuster was awesome. Yes, their selection was limited but they did have a selection. And it wasn't like you couldn't go to an independent store, they just weren't on every street corner like big blue. Blockbuster had people to make recommendations, over time they sold popcorn, VCRS, videotapes, toys, etc. It was like living in two parallel universes. Did you visit Blockbuster or the mom and pop shops? Today, for better or worse, Netflix has done away with all of this. And while I love what they and the other streaming sites give me, I still felt the need to recount '11 Things I Miss About Video Stores'.
Entering the Unknown
Remember the size of some of those video stores? Some were no bigger than a bread box. Others, were monolithic in scope. One would walk in and literally see a mountain of boxed content in front of them. Oftentimes, you would be confronted with kids films first. This was how the store sucked in families. Then as you moved through it you started seeing new titles. The words "Just In" were like music to a videophiles ears. What was just in? Where did it come from? How did it get here? After that were the older titles. The stock titles. The titles that had been on the shelves forever. The classic films that were finding a wholly new (read: younger) audience for the first time. One never knew what they would find as they rounded the corners of these cavernous video stores. I remember having my mind blown by movies like Suburbia and Repo Man. I can recall turning off The Children nearly minutes in because it was just too scary. Sid and Nancy practically lived in my VCR. This is one of the things I love about Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. Blockbuster's strict policies essentially crushed the unknown factor. The streaming companies and their endless libraries brought it back.
Video stores looked really cool. If you were someone that spent a lot of time looking (and I did), the posters that were dangling around the stores offered a degree of comfort. Whether it was the Pretty Woman poster featuring a gorgeous Julia Roberts, or the poster for Phantasm which made that low budget horror film seem every bit as epic as it was, or the poster for Buford's Beach Bunnies featuring Tom Hanks' brother Jim. These posters spoke to us. In some cases they sparked curiosity. Maybe we had missed the film in the theater? In other cases the poster seemed so outrageous we had to see the film. Whatever the reason was the posters grabbed us. They were a perfect gateway into these stores that would become like a second home. I don't know about you but I came to depend on video stores. Just imagine how soulless, how lifeless a video store would be without posters vying for our attention just as much as the tapes did.
Exploring the Shelves
Exploring a video store was part of the experience. Remember how it felt to find a movie when it had just come out? To able to hold years worth of other people's work in the palm of your hand. Or, combing your way through the store and finding a movie you'd never heard of but it looked it good? Maybe you recognized an actor. Maybe you recognized nobody but the cover looked so good you had to give it a try. Also, in those days the ratings didn't seem to matter that much. Okay, my parents weren't going to let me rent Flesh Gordon but they didn't seem to mind if the titles I picked out fell somewhere between PG and R. As a teenager this was HUGE! For weeks on end it seemed like my parents would went 5 movies for each day of the week. I would come home, get my homework done, and then immerse myself in a movie. Unlike today where families sit in the same room, but are disconnected by their electronic devices, I actually found myself giving my parents recommendations based on all the movies I was seeing. There was no internet! The video store was the only way into this wonderful world. You HAD to explore!
The Porn Section
It isn't like I spent copious amounts of time here but the Porn section was so forbidden it had to be magical. Now, most video stores limited the porn section to a private room. Other's simply made it a separate section that was away from the rest of the store. You had to be 18 or older to go inside it. However, it wasn't like video stores could afford to post somebody outside it. If you were a curious kid or teen, to get inside it you had to be stealth. You had to walk into the section like you were meant to be there. Then once you got in, holy moly, the things you saw were like nothing else. With titles that often riffed on popular movies of the day (JurANAL Park, anyone?), it was hard not to be in this section and be immature. Oftentimes there were other people in the section with you. However, unlike the traditional video store, the porn section was fairly quiet. It is if there was some unwritten rule: Don't Bother Me and I Won't Bother You. I never rented a porno films. I never had that much moxie. By the time I was old enough to rent movies on my own, Blockbuster had virtually monopolized the market. They didn't have a porn spot. As the local video shops died, sadly, so did the porn section. Sure, you could go to a real place of pornography where that was all they sold, but it wasn't as much fun as the small nook it inhabited in the video store.
The Checkout Clerk
We all here the oft told tale about how a young Quentin Tarantino soaked his cinematic brain while under the employ of a video store. Anybody who has ever heard Mr. Tarantino talk about movies can immediately tell that he is a treasure trove of grand movie information. Well, imagine having this living, breathing, Google machine on every street corner. Video stores didn't start off this way. For many, opening up a video store was simply a good way of capitalizing on a piece of technology that was gracing everybody's home. Over time, as stores did better and could actually have employees, the people they hired ultimately proved to know more about the titles they were renting than their employers. Imagine walking into a rental place, seeing a movie playing you had never heard of, and suddenly being told why it was good? Then imagine asking questions regarding just about any title and getting a verbal response. Suddenly, you have a friendship with this person who is providing you with cinematic goodness. They know your tastes. They know what you like. And they can provide it every time you come into the store. Come to think of it, it kinda sounds like meta-data before there was a word for it!
Stock piling for the Weekend
The best thing about stocking up was the potential. If you rented 5 movies over the course of the week, some were destined to be turkeys. However, in all my time as somebody renting movies, I don't believe that all 5 movies I'd get over a week were bad. It wasn't like I was getting Lawrence of Arabia every time out, or even on a monthly basis, but within those weekly rentals I found that the odds of renting something good was clearly in my favor. Yes, I would ultimately find myself with a Treasure of the Four Crowns here and there, but I also found myself with a Summer Camp Nightmare on occasion or even The New Kids. Which brings us to...
The Hidden Gems
Man oh man, being a video renter was a lot like being in a relationship. There was good, there was bad, but when things were good... they were fantastic. When I think of my time as somebody renting movies, I really don't recall any bad times. Sure, I would sometimes not get to rent all the titles I wanted. Other times I was charged a late fee because I misjudged the date of return (if only I had been as mad as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was about that!), but overall when I think about renting movies from a brick and mortar store what I think the most about are the gems. Those films like Barfly, My Life as A Dog, Eddie and the Cruisers, etc. These were movies that didn't have a much of a life in the theater, but truly benefitted from their slow burn in home video. This says nothing of films like Blown Away, Fast Getaway and Maniac Cop! In fact, without video stores, how in the world would the careers of Leo Rossi, James Russo and Michael Pare have flourished like they did? These actors and others of their ilk took part in films that would ultimately more than stand the test of time.
A standee is described as a big, self standing display that was used to promote movies. They still use them in theaters. However, how cool was it to walk into a video store and see the same life size cardboard cut-out for a movie that you had seen in the movie theater? I don't know about you but for me that was pretty darn cool. Imagine if us VHS renters had had cellphones back then? We would have flooded whatever social media there was with standee photos much like people do today. Truthfully, standees were best for horror movies. Who didn't want a picture with a near life-size image of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers? No offense, but it wasn't like you needed one for a movie like The Lake House. Standees were awesome and they made walking into the a video store that much better of a shopping experience.
A One-Stop Shopping Experience
Initially, video stores were just that. You walked in and all you saw were tapes, shelves and movie posters. However, over time all of this changed. In addition to tapes you could buy popcorn or candy to enhance your at home viewing experience. Towards the end I recall video stores even selling toys related to some of the really popular titles they were renting. They even sold blank VHS tapes. I am assuming that the thinking behind that was that one would record shows from television not dub the tapes they were renting. Lets be honest, who really used them for that? Sadly, most video stores are gone now and in the this world of streaming it is sort of like you're on your own regarding making your viewing experience the best thing it can be.
Man oh man, was there ever a stigma attached to this world!! Remember wondering what happened to Sean Young, Tom Berenger, and Eric Stoltz? Well no further than this section. Straight-To-Video titles looked like movies we should know. Their posters and artwork showed familiar faces. There was only one problem... aside from seeing them on the shelves of a video store, we had never seen them before! Sure, some of these titles might have had a cursory (read: two week) release, but this was mainly a big commercial to maximize the video prospects. These movies weren't bad either. They were just a little less big than most of the content we had been treated to. The best part was when a title we had never heard of suddenly had 2 or 3 sequels. Body Chemistry anyone? Which brings us to...
Isles of Soft Core Porn
Ignore the title of this entry. Ignore the fact that aside from bare, shaved chests there was really nothing here for the ladies. If you were a guy in the golden age of video stores (and cable tv) then women like Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Shauna O'Brien, Nikki Fritz, Kara Styler, Randi Ingerman and all the other lovely ladies of the soft core porn video hold a special place in your heart. Their performances were revered, their movies turned into numerous sequels, and their physical prowess was second to none. Sure, the internet and the ability to obtain porn is much easier than it used to be. Yes, we now have more a variety. However, there was a time when this was all we had, this was all needed, and it was great. Yes, renting these titles from the store could give one pause and a few awkward moments. I say this because the people behind the counter, even if it wasn't straight up porn, certainly knew what you were renting. However, all of that shaming was worth it because what one got in return was literally life changing. The internet has certainly squashed that feeling but it is yet the final reminder of why I miss video stores.