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Source: The New York Times

I remember my first visit to a video store. The VCR craze was just taking off and little independent stores were popping up all over the place. Independent, yes, but each one was the same: cheap carpeting and cheaper wood panel walls lined with empty cassette boxes. This was early enough that there were separate sections for VHS and Betamax, although the latter was still much smaller. I checked out Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. The store’s policy was rentals were due back in two days which was almost enough time to watch all of Star Trek but that’s another story.

Other, bigger video stores opened, in some cases swallowing the smaller ones, and some of the people behind the counters became curators who’d comment on selections and recommend other titles, especially if they got to know you. Or not. When I was in college there was a tiny video rental place two blocks from my dorm. It was in the middle of a neighborhood and I think the couple who owned it lived upstairs—a bona fide Mom and Pop operation. They never took any notice of what I rented, and any way their collection was oddly eclectic and disorganized with Eraserhead shelved next to a Three Stooges anthology shelved next to the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. 

But then came DVDs and with it those services who’d mail selections straight to your home so you wouldn’t have to make a special trip to the video store or worry about a title you really wanted being out of stock. And no more late fees. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, but I missed handing tapes over to a person who might say, “Hey, if you like Barton Fink you might want to check out Blood Simple if you haven’t already.” Recommending one Coen Brothers film for another may not have been much of a stretch but still it was made by a person, not an algorithm. And there was the simple pleasure of browsing, reading the description of a movie on the back of the box, and thinking I’d give it a try only to wonder why no one had recommended Cinema Paradiso to me before.

So I really envy the New Yorkers who’ll get to go back to Kim’s Video & Music, a place whose collection sounds even odder than the one I used to visit in Evansville, and which, after its closing, made the journey from New York to Salemi, Sicily, and back again. Now it’s reopened, inviting customers to come in and browse again. Video rentals are free and if you got rid of your VCR a long time ago you can rent one of those too. 

There’s so much nostalgia in the idea of a place where you can go and browse, especially without your browsing being recorded. Sometimes when I’m scrolling through the seemingly limitless options available just through the few streaming services we have I wonder what I’d find if a computer program weren’t feeding me options based on my viewing history, what I might check out if one thing I came in looking for was out, even what I might find if there were still Mom and Pop places. 

Well, at least there still is the public library where I can browse and, and it has a seven-day lending period which is almost enough time to watch the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Here’s my tribute to the decline and fall of a local Tower Records store, and while music is a whole other genre that place did have a video rental section with a lot of movies and staff who knew them all and were handy with recommendations. It’s the personal touch I miss.

 

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12 Comments

  1. pinklightsabre

    Hi Christopher loved this piece

    Reply
  2. pinklightsabre

    That last comment was just a test to see if I could land one on your blog, having had issues for so long! Snuck one by…I used to work at a mom and pop video rental in downtown Pittsburgh owned by a college friend who was going through heroin/alcohol recovery at the time. A vivid and strange experience working there, sometimes walking in when there was too much snow it was unsafe to drive. But I like the nostalgia you conjure here and the honoring of another time, and very cool-sounding store indeed. Be well

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Bill, I’m so sorry you’ve had issues, and for some reason your comment, like so many others, landed in the spam folder. Fortunately I retrieved it and I keep trying to make behind-the-scenes adjustments so that your comments, and others, don’t get lost.
      Speaking of getting lost it sounds like your work in a video store must have been an interesting experience. Something I’ve often thought about is how many video stores were open during regular business hours even though they must have gotten little to no business from, say, early in the morning to the early afternoon most days. I’m sure there were menial tasks but it must have been a bit strange too.

      Reply
  3. mydangblog

    I really miss video stores. My earliest memory is a store in my town that rented laser discs–AND the players. I think I was about 10 or 11 at the time and it was such a novelty. Blockbuster was the big one around here until a few years ago, and when they closed, it was really depressing. Now I have to rely on Netflix!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Ah, you reminded me that for my sixteenth birthday my parents rented a laser disc player and two movies: 2001 and Something Wicked This Way Comes. The Kubrick film was…not great for a party, awesome as it is.
      And Netflix definitely has its advantages. Think how difficult it was to get videos in the old days.

      Reply
  4. Allison

    I miss Tower Records and Tower Books so much. And it’s not like we got anything great in return. We had the best little independent video store when I was a kid. They had a lot of great stuff, but I was all about renting and re-renting Airplane!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Oh, that’s brilliant. I guess I was lucky that Airplane! was on cable before we got our first VCR, and I remember that Showtime kept it in heavy rotation. There’s Dennis Miller’s old joke that HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!” but something similar could be said for Showtime and Airplane! But I remember it being so darn difficult to get to the video store I had to be pretty selective about what I rented.

      Reply
  5. markbialczak

    I chose Betamax as my tape format to start the revolution in my life, Chris. I don’t know what that says about me, but, there must have been some study somewhere about the Betamax crowd vs. VHS flock. I do recall that the nine out of 10 of my friends used to make fun of me when they found out. Anyway. Yes, I do still fondly browse the racks and bring home Blu-Rays from the public library where I work even with my stable of click and watch subscriptions …

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Mark, your choice of Betamax says you were very smart. The tapes were smaller and the picture quality was better. It’s a little known fact that the Vanderbilt TV News Archive originally adopted Betamax as their preferred recording format because it was the superior technology. And among some the term “getting Betamaxed” still refers to a quality product losing out to an inferior one.

      Reply
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  7. ANN J KOPLOW

    I appreciate your personal touches on this post, Chris. Tower Records was in a very interesting building in Boston which, I’m glad to say, is still standing. It’s won architecture awards and here’s the Wikipedia page about it:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/360_Newbury_Street

    I have great memories of that place including getting Pat Metheny’s autograph on my vinyl record of American Garage. Lots of changes, but some important things still remain.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s a fascinating building and I’m glad that, unlike the one in Nashville, it’s still standing. The building here that housed Tower Records wasn’t very impressive or special, but I was still sorry to see it go simply because I liked having a place where I could browse for music.

      Reply

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