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The Life, Death and Afterlife of Video Stores

In the dust of long gone video stores ghosts of film geeks past forever roam.

How many of my leisure hours -- nay, hours of gainful employment -- have been spent in video stores? It's impossible to count, but such future hours can be numbered on one hand.

Mom and Pops

My life has seen six major video stores, some of which shifted locations or belonged to franchised chains. The oldest was Universal Video, a mom and pop store -- mostly mom, owned by an Asian-American woman in Universal City, Texas. The store was staffed exclusively by women. Extant since the late '70s, the place was so old that for the longest time it still had Beta titles, and I rented some. This was the store of my high school years.

The place had a "front room" that carried all the latest stuff, from family fare to disreputable items like Faces of Death, and later acquired a locked "back room" for members only. As the chain video stores grew like kudzu, this back room began to take over and keep the store afloat through relocation and expansion until it extended like the caves of the Vatican and encompassed everything from porn to mild "adult" titles, like the Russ Meyer collection.

The handwriting had begun flaming on the wall when the owner decided to retire and sell everything off in 2002-03, after more than 20 years in business. I bought The Man Who Haunted Himself, Juan-Luis Buñuel's Leonor, and Frank Wisbar's wonderful Strangler of the Swamp. The overstuffed front room still had some bulky old '80s VHS boxes, and I was told a horror collector was buying lots of it on

In the late '80s, I patronized a store in Davis, California and, when visiting an art house in Sacramento, a store across the street where the employees played the letterboxed VHS of Suspiria until it broke. I'd walk in late at night to hear the stereo blaring "Witch!" That store had a nice foreign section. While we're on the subject, on the day I arrived in Davis in the fall of 1988, I went to the town's only theatre (a two-screener) and watched David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. By the time I left town two years later, there was a new multiplex with a big parking garage.

In the month I spent housesitting in Chico, California during the summer of 1989, the town's video store was running a special. If you returned a video by 5PM the same day, it would only cost you a dollar, and also you got a free rental after ten titles. Few things could make me set an alarm clock to get up at 9 every morning, but one of them was planning which freebie (about every two days) to keep overnight.

Get a Job

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Before my California interregnum, there were still my early college years and Blockbuster, which provided yours truly with more than a year of full-time employment in 1987-88 plus all the free movies I could cram up my eyeballs. This was during a critical period in the company's expansion and transition from private to publicly owned, and outlets multiplied like bunnies (eating kudzu?). The uniform requirements tightened so that we not only had to wear blue Oxfords but eventually strict khaki pants as well (as opposed to "nice dress pants"). That Christmas, we were screwed in the calculations of overtime.

Promotions from Customer Service Representative (CSR) to well-paid Assistant Manager and Manager were rapid, but turnover and purges were just as rapid, so that I was the grand old man of the Ancien Regime by the time I departed willingly from San Antonio, Texas to California. I'd been hired on the understanding that I would leave the following year, so I was never fired or promoted. I got chintzed on the six-month raise, too.

What mattered through all this, of course, were the videos. There was a Hitchcock section, complete with a muddy but spellbinding print of Under Capricorn and Video Yesteryear copies of The Lodger. There was something called Le Bad Cinema for unique items like Glen or Glenda, which wasn't bad at all. The company preened itself on not carrying X-rated movies, but a few unrated items slipped in, like Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion, and there was the transparent hypocrisy of the Special Interest section, which seemed to exist for videos of cheerleaders on spring break. I can’t be sure, but one might have been called Wet Bikinis.

I saw most of Preston Sturges' output in one glorious week. There were revelatory silents (in a Silents section!) such as The Docks of New York, Old Ironsides, The Covered Wagon and The Student Prince, only one of which is now available on disc. There was a nice Foreign section with several Paul Verhoevens and many crisp and lovely Ingmar Bergmans, plus a fuzzy Persona in a big red box.

Sprinkled through the store were such titles as The Honeymoon Killers, The Arousers, Cry Uncle, Something for Everyone, and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. Well, one of those titles made it to Criterion.

Ours was a pretty big store, but there was another store in town that, oddly, had Jean Rollin's Fascination and the Admit One copy of Peeping Tom. Could this have been Blockbuster or a rival outfit? The memory fades, but I recall one faraway Blockbuster that did have Rainer Werner Fassbinder's TV serial, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Hurray for Hollywood

I didn't patronize Blockbuster in California, nor did I miss it, and when I returned to Texas with a Master's Degree, I continued to forsake my former employer for the better deals of Hollywood Video, a more satisfying rival originally known for its association with a grocery chain that's still going strong. They started by renting within the grocery stores, then moved to a separate building in the same strip centers and eventually became Hollywood Video.

Hollywood Video! In the early '90s, I had its voluminous horror aisles and less spacious sci-fi inventory committed to memory, box by gaudy box. I sifted, examining the fine print of credits for clues to treasures I'd overlooked, and found many gems as well as various retitles. For example, it turned out that Death Game with Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp was also The Seducers. It was here that I stumbled on Vampyres and recommended it to a friend, who agreed with me on its merits. As an afterthought, I asked him, "What happens in that movie?" and he replied, "I have no idea."

When Hollywood Video closed store by store in the summer of 2010, coincidentally with my door-to-door wanderings for the U.S. Census Bureau, there was a two-week financial bonanza as the final two outlets nearest me dropped their stock to a dollar or 50 cents. I shuttled back and forth to a second-hand CD/DVD chain, where I made several hundred dollars while still retaining about 200 titles that I wanted to get around to watching.

I entertained thoughts of writing an article on "The Death of Hollywood Video" and capping it with capsule descriptions of these odd miscellaneous films, which remain unviewed in a box in the garage. Glancing through it now, I note such curious titles as Sleep Dealer, Klepto, The Kovac Box, Quench, The Sky Crawlers, Puzzlehead, Chrysalis, Moscow Zero and A Model Employee. When to get around to them?

The store's closing reinforced how little I'd patronized the place in the digital era, when I watch either review copies (lucky me) or public library copies (lucky all of us). Walking the horror aisles, I was baffled by plentiful unfamiliar titles and sobered to realize that less than ten or a dozen films dated from before the DVD era, for only a few lucky classics (e.g., The Exorcist) had made the trip from VHS.

In Hollywood Video's transition from VHS to DVD, it had become a store without a sense of history. The genre aisles were stocked with the most recently harvested goods, put on digital ice as their sell-by dates approached rapidly. The list of ingredients were intriguing and baffling, giving evidence of a healthy indie and direct-to-video industry supplying a dying form.

Blockbuster Bust

From there, it was only a blink until the predictable closing of Blockbuster in January 2014. In between I flirted briefly with the dollar rentals at Redbox, an abruptly ubiquitous vending machine at gas stations and fast food places. It was quickly undermined by the major studios, which provided "movie-only" discs sans extras, as they'd been doing for certain sneaky "Blockbuster exclusives" -- and as apparently happens via streaming. Movies are becoming easier to see, and you're getting less and less. The last time I surveyed a Redbox, it appeared to my eyes a spectacular crap-apalooza.

For me, Blockbuster had essentially closed years prior, and that was part of its problem. Long out of the habit of visiting, I patrolled a nearby franchise during its closing weeks. At first they tried to unload things for ten bucks; that wasn't happening. When they dropped to one, two or three dollars, I consented to give away some of my cash.

These final Blockbuster buys, possibly my last DVD purchases in any store, are a motley mix of indie and foreign horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. With their mix of charms and drawbacks, they testify to a breadth, vitality, and personal quirkiness that persist and flourish in the genre. Going on this jag has been a giddy experience, with the majority at least worth watching and a few quite rewarding. Maybe you'll be able to see them somewhere, someday.

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