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September 20, 2013

Every year Beloit College publishes "The Mindset List", a list of things most people entering college this year grew up with that their older peers remember as significant cultural shifts. For instance, one of the items on the 2013 list is, "Disney’s Fantasia has always been available on video". It was first released on VHS in 1991. Some of them probably have vague memories of VHS being supplanted by DVD, and most also will have some memory of video rentals as something you used to have to go to a store to do. Chances are the store they remember is a major chain–Blockbuster, or Hollywood Video. They may remember wandering brightly-lit aisles of carefully categorized boxes, hoping the one they want is still on the shelf. And by the time they graduate this experience may be completely alien to their peers who are just entering college, who will have grown up in a world where renting–or just watching–a movie is something you do with a TV remote or, more likely, a few mouse clicks.

A term I heard regularly in college but didn’t fully understand at the time was "paradigm shift". When I asked what it meant I’d get an abstract definition, which was fine if I needed to define it, but, since I still didn’t fully get it, I couldn’t use it in a sentence, unless that sentence was "I wouldn’t know a paradigm shift if one kicked me in the nuts." As an English major I had the phrase "Show, don’t tell" drummed into me regularly by my writing instructors, and it’s a good rule to write by, but the answers I got when I asked for a definition of "paradigm shift" made me think my instructors worked according to a deeper, unspoken principle: "Do as I say, not as I do." What I needed was a concrete example–like, for instance, the shift from the way we, as a culture, used to regard movies as a collective event experienced in a theater to something that could be enjoyed at home by either renting or buying a physical object that contained a movie, to a fragment of digital information available via the internet.

I remember the first video store I went to. My parents had just purchased a VCR, which was pretty newfangled technology at the time, although they were still coming to the game late enough that they knew better than to buy Betamax. At the time video rental stores were springing up all over the place. Within a few years of the VCR boom you could rent a video almost anywhere. Video rentals were the dot-coms or coffee shops of the time. Most grocery stores had a selection, albeit a small one, tucked between the dog food and the magazines. For a real selection, though, you had to go to one of the standalone video rental places. They weren’t hard to find, either. There was one in every mall, one in every strip mall, sometimes two on the same block. They weren’t part of a chain. They were independent places, although they were all similar. All had composite paneled walls. All had the same thin industrial carpeting. All had movies, or at least the cardboard cassette sleeves, along the walls, and slant shelving on the main floor with more movies. Most had the standard categories: Classics, Comedy, Drama, Action, Horror, Science Fiction. In the case of really large selections there’d also be Documentaries, or even more specific categories like War, in case you were wondering why you couldn’t find, say, Catch-22 in either Comedy or Drama.

Within each category movies were sorted alphabetically, accommodating both browsing and quick looks for a specific title. Most also had a door, or maybe just a curtain, in the back that led to the Adult section. I had a religious and wealthy aunt who purchased a video store. When I asked her about the store’s back room she shrugged and said, "I don’t judge them." This was a wise business decision since I’d bet "them" included regular customers who more frequently rented from the front than the back, but that’s another story. Some places required a credit card for membership, but many didn’t, because not everyone had or regularly carried credit cards in those days. Renting was easy: take the box for the movie you wanted to the counter, and the man or woman behind the counter–probably also the store owner–would reach under the counter, or go into a room behind the register, and return with your movie in a plastic case. Due back the next day, in most cases, and be kind, rewind, or it’s a dollar extra. On my first visit I rented Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Bill Cosby: Himself. Movies with colons in the title must have been a special section. My freshman year in college I discovered a video rental place two blocks away from my dorm. I didn’t visit it much, mainly because I had other things to do besides watching movies. For most of that year I also didn’t have a television, and even in the second semester when I got a roommate who not only had a television but one that was color–believe it or not, kids, there was a time when TVs came in black and white–I still had a social life that didn’t leave much time for watching movies. And there had to be some time for studying. When someone started a petition to have cable TV in individual rooms–at that time cable channels were only available on the TV in the downstairs lounge, I wondered who was watching so much TV that they’d be willing to pay for cable. Also even when I had a roommate with a TV we didn’t have a VCR. Getting one meant a trip to the office to check out the one VCR that belonged to the entire dorm. It could be borrowed for up to one day, but only if no one else had checked it out first. I regret not visiting that video store more often. All video stores had their similarities, but this one was distinct. It had the paneled walls and slip cases, but it was in a house tucked into a midwestern neighborhood of white picket fences and oak trees. Driving by you’d never know it was a video store, unless you were quick enough to see the painted, or maybe it was black magic marker, sign that said, "VIDEO’S". I always felt I should knock before opening the solid wood door. The small front room held the counter and register, and had a few videos on the wall. The second room, also small, had no slanted shelving. The videos were all lined up around the wall. The selection was so small there were no categories. Every movie was simply placed alphabetically, so Heaven Can Wait was next to I Spit On Your Grave, and Firestarter was next to Flesh Gordon. There were no new releases–in fact most of the movies they had were at least five years old. Some, such as the Three Stooges tribute, seemed to be direct-to-video. There was also Faces of Death III. I’m pretty sure every member of my generation has at least one acquaintance, the guy who listened to Bauhaus and who we were all sure was going to be a serial killer but who really now works in accounting, who owned a copy of Faces of Death III, with its supposedly real footage of slaughterhouses and people being killed. In the front room, at the counter, sat an older couple. I never did ask their names, so I’ll just call them George and Gracie. Gracie always wore the same brown and white patterned blouse, tinted glasses, and a gold medallion. Her black hair, in a bouffant, had a single gray streak. She took the money and never moved from behind the register. George was a small, round-faced man, always wearing a cap, a flannel shirt, and overalls. He’d disappear into the back room to retrieve whatever movie was being rented. Unlike other video stores where the person checking you out might comment on your movie choices–"Raising Arizona? I’ll be takin’ these Huggies and whatever cash ya got."–neither George nor Gracie said very much. I wonder now how they’d have reacted if I’d asked all the things I wanted to know. What made them open a video store? Did they have a family? I wondered if they lived upstairs over the store. The store’s odd, unposted hours and the inventory that might have come from flea markets and remaindered inventory made it all seem less like a business than a hobby. I regret not asking, "What’s your story?" I became an English major because I wanted to write, to tell stories, and yet I also had trouble thinking of stories. I could have told George and Gracie’s story. Maybe they’d had a family, a farm. Maybe they had a son who’d been killed in an accident, a daughter who moved west and who they’d lost touch with. Maybe it had always been just them, now retired, eking out a living after they’d lost their hardware store when downtown went bust. Maybe they were drug dealers and the video store was just a front. I wondered where the guy who offered me a couple of hits off the bong he’d made from a Doctor Pepper can got his Patagonian purple, but I never asked. Maybe he’d bought it at the same place where I’d rented that Kubrick film. George and Gracie’s place was too small to have an "adult" section, but maybe there was a back room. I regret seeing George and Gracie as nothing but a couple of yokels with a lousy video store. I regret thinking all the stories were on the walls. But the shift has occurred. There’s no replay.

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