Monday, May 10, 2010

Requiem for A Video Store

Last week, over at Dr. Gangrene's terrific blog (which I discovered through Horrorblips...) the author wrote a heartfelt post regarding video stores, and how these rental outlets are rapidly becoming a thing of the past in the age of Redbox, Netflix and streaming video.

I know this to be true from my own personal experience: I haven't stepped inside a video store since 2005, if memory serves.

The good doctor's post got me reflecting long and hard on the golden age of the video store (say, roughly 1983 - 1999). So t
his is my eulogy for them. And like most eulogies, it's probably not terribly original, just...personal.

Simply stated, I came of age with video stores in the early 1980s.

Growing up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the video store that my family frequented was near Brookdale Park and the Shop Rite in Essex County. The store was named Currys.

Currys was your proverbial Mom & Pop operation, but with an unusually expansive and impressive collection. Of all the video stores that I have enjoyed over the years, this is the one I remember most vividly, and recall with the greatest affection.
It first time.

The small shop boasted a vast back-room library filled with videotapes, which was accessible only to employees (in most cases, the proprietor's lovely daughters.) When you bought a full membership to Currys, as my family did, you became the recipient of the establishment's huge membership notebook, a heavy brick that was bound between blue covers. Inside was a single-spaced listing of all the available films at Currys by collection number. The catalog was your key to unlocking the video library.

The Currys catalog seemed to consist of all the titles known to man and God, and went on for what seemed like hundreds of pages. I remember the first time I began reading the document in earnest, marker in hand, gazing at what seemed an entire universe of titles. Ahead of me was the great pleasure of discovering decades of great --- and not-so-great -- movies. I surely must have spent hours with that catalog.

What the hell was Boxcar Bertha?

And what was that movie with a row of disembodied arms on a wall? Oh yeah, The Frozen Dead...

Picking out a movie to rent from Curry's was a case, often, of preparation and research. As the weekend neared, I would leaf through the huge catalog and look up the titles and code-numbers of the movies I hoped to rent. Periodically, the catalog would also be updated with new release flyers you could put in the back of the catalog.

Every weekend, my Dad and I would make our pilgrimage to Currys, armed with a list of about ten-to-fifteen titles and their corresponding code-numbers. The lists were always that long in the likely event that the first or second choice was already checked out and therefore unavailable. Seeing a second choice, or a sixth choice -- as the case might be -- meant that I began to see a huge number of older, lesser-known films rather than just the new, trendy release of the week.

The Currys experience was how I first encountered This is Spinal Tap. It is how I first saw Evil Dead. This is the way I first saw Yor, Hunter from the Future and the Lou Ferrigno Hercules. It was from Curry's that I first rented The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Pawnbroker, Bonnie & Clyde, Rosemary's Baby, Dawn of the Dead and other classics.

And, I remember something else distinctly too about this experience: the movies you rented at Currys arrived in your hands not in their specially-designed VHS sleeves, but rather in these large, anonymous, clunky brown, textured clam-shell boxes.

Today, I readily admit, this whole process sounds absolutely byzantine. But I loved it. Picking out movies from Curry's was a serious, exciting endeavor, and I'll always remember the thrill of carrying home six of those brown or black boxes under one arm. It was an amazing feeling to know that right there you had a weekend's worth of entertainment and discovery.

Twenty-two years since I was last there, Curry's still looms large in my imagination. In part this is because I know that even after renting hundreds, maybe thousands of movies there, I still only scratched the surface of the collection. I don't even know if the store is still in business, but I sorta, kinda doubt it...

When I moved to Richmond to go to college, there were other video stores that I dated, but most of them didn't carry the selection that Curry's did. Instead, new releases dominated these stores, and that took some of the fun out of the "rental" experience. These gals were shallow compared to Currys.

There was just something magical about going to Curry's, plucking an odd title out of the catalog (like Sorority Babes at the Slime Ball Bowl-a-rama) and then watching a movie that, heretofore, you never imagined could exist.

I'm not complaining about the way things are now. I love Netflix, I love the easy availability of most titles in the DVD (er, Blu-Ray) age. This is good; this is the way it should be: with the majority of film history at your finger tips, just ready to be discovered.

But sometimes, I miss the anticipatory act of compiling my Curry's list, of transcribing numbers, and waiting -- with some anxiety -- for the clerk to return with my clutch of selected movies, to see which titles would be in stock.

And some days, I still miss going to Curry's with my Dad, just for the fellowship of the journey and the experience. I wonder if my son, Joel, will gaze back at his youth and remember his dad picking up red envelopes from the mailbox and ripping them open to remove the small, square DVD sleeves.

I don't know that it's the same thing at all.


  1. One wonderful remembrance of the video store era, John. I can't think about the 80's without recalling my trips to the one in Culver City I used to haunt. There, I'd walk up and down the category aisles and take in all of their (empty) VHS covers -- which you'd take to the counter and they'd hand over the tape in a plain, black hardcase. What I'd love about that local store was discovering what the clerks were playing in their overhead monitors, or getting them to say, "If you dig this one, be sure to rent X." Those recommendations really opened up new movies I hadn't even thought of. Netflix tries to emulate some of that, but it's still a digital experience [not that there's anything wrong with that ;-)]. The memories you and I bring up here still lurk in the analog (for as long as we're still around). One fine post, my friend. Thanks for this.

  2. Hello, Le0pard13:

    Thank you for your comment, my friend. It's fun to remember another time, especially one in which you could walk into a store, and just see millions of boxes, all with individual art, all promising entertainment and a new world. I really do love Netflix, but as you say, it's a digital experience. I'm sure in every measurable, concrete way, it's better than what we head growing up...except maybe emotionally. But that's what nostalgia is all about. I can imagine a time when people will be nostalgic for Netflix, or Redbox. "Remember those red boxes in the front of the supermarket where you could rent movies for a dollar?!"


  3. I also miss the video store experience. I loved discovering a movie. And I loved holding up a box and staring at, just knowing it was going to terrify me.

    We had a video store in my hometown (Las Vegas) that was 24 hours and had a room for ever genre. The action room had this display of Indiana Jones running from a giant rock and the horror room had a Nosferatu who sat up in his coffin every 10 minutes or so. Also, the outside of the room looked like a haunted house.

    I still have a piece of the spaceship from the sci-fi room.

    The store was eventually bought by Hollywood Video who kept most of the inventory for a bit and then went to their regular "top 40" selection. What a sad day, indeed.

    I still have most of my vhs, and have yet to really venture into Blu Ray, but I do love Netflix streaming. Sometimes they have great TV movies and series, so I won't complain!


  4. Wow, this IS a trip down memory lane. I remember when my folks got a Beta VCR and we used to go to a video store that was basically a converted two-story house. There was something cool about walking up creaky old stairs to get to the next floor where more video selections awaited you! You actually had to look over the box art and read the description on the back to see if said film sounded or looked any good. Ah, the memories. Of course, most of these indie stores were wiped out by big chains like Blockbuster which had a much more impersonal feel but now they are almost gone too. It's strange that we might even feel nostalgic about their extinction in a few years time.

  5. John.

    Great piece. It is indeed inspiring. I may need to write about my own experiences some day.

    Come to think of it, I think I worked in roughly 3 stores along the way.

    One of the first stores I worked in was during the early 1980s and it was the only game in town.

    We actually rented out VCRs so people could bring them home and watch movies.

    They not only had to return the videos, but they had to return the VCRs too. How about that?

    I was so addicted that my very first purchases of movies would have been Terminator and Weird Science. I loved those movies back in the day.

    Now here's the kicker. The owner ordered me the VHS of Terminator to own and my copy only cost something like 85 dollars. IS THAT INSANE! Not a DVD, but a bloody VHS tape.

    I had to have rocks in my head. Today, if I can't get a Blu Ray for under 18 I usually keep it on a watch list. Cheers for the memories.

  6. Speaking of the tangibility and wonder of the video store experience as everyone here has mentioned.... this may be why I'm still a fan of stores or getting a disc complete with its artwork in my hand over Red Box or Netflix. Just can't do it.

  7. Yeah, I hear ya. I really can't get into Red Box or Netflix either. I've been sucked into the whole On Demand thing and been checking out films that way. Plus, you can just tape 'em/burn 'em right away which is nice, alto, most are in pan and scan which is a travesty.

    I do like that they have been releasing some films the same day as in theaters. Gives you a chance to see oddities like THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD - a film that will never play the local multiplexes out in the burbs.

  8. I also worked at a video store. I think the first vhs tape I bought was from there and it was An American Werewolf in London. I also spent, gulp, 100 dollars on Just a Gigolo with David Bowie. At the time, it impressed all my Bowie friends! Now you can get it for, like, 10 dollars on Ebay! Wow...

    I remember my first vhs media bookcase, the first videos, all of it. I was in love with collecting then. It's kind of a love/hate thing now. I mean, I can get just about ANYTHING, but the thrill of the hunt is no longer...

  9. Hey everybody! Thank you for your wonderful comments here, on video stores.

    J.D.: That video store you describe sounds amazing: walking up a staircase to a room of videos; that sounds like mecca! I think you are right though, soon we may just be nostalgic for Blockbuster -- for drop boxes, membership cards, etc. We'll see...

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: Oh my goodness, your experience certainly rings bells with me. I would special order VHS tapes, (and then, later...) laserdiscs at exorbitant prices. I shudder to think about it, about the money lost. One thing we can't deny: there's certainly been a revolution in pricing home entertainment since the early 1980s.

    Amanda-By-Night: I'm so glad that you mentioned the thrill of the hunt. That's the very thing -- you put your finger on it! -- that seems missing today. It's wonderful that so much is available, but somehow the experience just isn't as thrilling, or rewarding. It's hard to explain, and it's not entirely rational, but it's true.

    Thanks everyone!


  10. I also remember the thrill of the hunt... hitting every video store in town, keeping a ridiculous amount of alternate titles in my head. I still remember my excitement at finding "Unsane" one day, as well as my shock at finding "Trap Them or Kill Them". One of the things I miss most about the VHS days are the box covers.

  11. Hey John -

    It's hard not to respond to this post with another eulogy. Last year, I paid a visit to my first video store. If memory serves, it was originally a hardware store that specialized in wood stoves... Then one day they started renting Select-a-vision discs. The rest is history. Today, that store is nothing but a burned-out husk of a building.

    I'm happy to say, however, that I've found a more-than-suitable replacement: Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood is, hands-down, the greatest video store I've ever been in. Sure, I'm a Netflix addict... and I won't pretend that I like having to press rewind after I watch a movie... but even Netflix can't compete with Eddie Brandt's inventory. So I'm happily still renting videos the "old-fashioned way," and loving it.

  12. Joe, I was a regular at Eddie Brant's and got to know Donovan fairly well. It's an incredible store that every movie fan should venture into at least once. I miss it (moved across country recently) and we're hoping to find a little mom and pop place here, but nothing compares to the awesomeness of Eddies!