Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Video Rage: The Death of the Video Store

(Current Big Georges in Ann Arbor)

As I recall the first films my mother ever rented for us were the Robin Williams and Walter Matthau film Survivors and. ahhhh hell I don’t recall the other one, I used to know, but I do know that both came from the local electronics store called Big Georges where my mother had purchased a Betamax VCR, it was a great machine and lasted for years and years, it even outlasted it’s format. When it broke my mother took it to get fixed, and they sold her another beta for the same cost of fixing the original so we had two beta machines in the house for the longest time.

But this is about the video store, not about the machines. Over time the VCR became as ubiquitous as the TV in the American home, and it has now largely disappeared, replaced by the DVD and the Computer and what ever else, Tevio? Along with the vanishing of the VCR we are seeing the vanishing of the Video Store, and it strikes me that while there are those that are concerned by the passing of the bookshop and the record store, but there seems to be little interest in the passing of the era of the video store.
My earliest memories of renting videos were of going to Big Georges and picking out films. I recall seeing the box for Texas Chainsaw Massacre and being freaked out by it, I recall renting Dudes, and Moscow on the Hudson, along with a lot of the HBO Fairy Tale Theater episodes. Big Georges quit renting videos after a year of two; mostly as Mom and Pop video stores were starting to open in the area. I am under the impression that electronic stores did the same thing with records once music stores started to appear on the scene. The arrival of the Mom and Pop was the first major step in the growth of the industry. We were not sad to see Big Georges sell of their video stock, and we were able to buy several of out favorite films when they sold off their collection.

This was when videos were really expensive, a Beta or VHS tape retailed for over $30 often in the 80s, they were high quality retail grade videos and the industry was still paying for the R&D costs of home video. I don’t think the industry got the clue that people would build libraries if the tapes were cheap enough until later on. It took some time, but the price of the units did come down, and now we live in a world of $5 DVDs at Target.

The next video shop I recall was a two-store chain in the area. I don’t recall it’s name, only that it was tucked in the back of a shopping center and that the tapes where kept in locked cases. There would be a tab with the video’s name on it and you would take that to the counter and they would unlock the case and get the video for you. They had a selection that was pretty good, but video rentals were on the expensive side and so you had to be careful with your selections. I can still see some of the tape boxes that I never got to see, Yor Hunter from the Future stands out for some reason that I always looked at but never rented. There was also the two-tape set of Apocalypse Now! that I was not allowed to rent, and I had to settle for the spoof tape Hardware Wars which had an anthology of funny riffs on; Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (closet cases of the Nerd Kind) and Apocalypse Now! (A Porkalypse Now) along with the classic Bambi V Godzilla. I also had my first voluntary encounter with The Bard (I think I had seen the Tempest with Molly Ringwald at the theater) a cartoon called Rome- O and Julie 8.

The Mom and Pops rose and fell as the industry refined its practices. Video stores came and went, stores would pop up in a shopping center and last for a year or two before closing, and it wasn’t long before the chains came into the market. Only having a Beta machine the number of places that we could rent was limited to stores that carried both VHS and Beta.

I am not sure if Video Outlet was a chain, but that was the next place that I recall renting from often. They had a ok beta section, which was a big deal because as everyone knows VHS did win the format battle, in part because of the dominance of the format at video stores. Beta was better quality and the tapes were smaller, but Sony kept the format locked up and fact that VHS machines and tapes were cheaper quickly caused beta to vanish from the market. We only had beta for years, and it wasn’t until my brother saved up several months of paper route money did we have a VHS in the house.

Anyway, Video Outlet was the first place that I recall having an Adult Film section, not that I ever went in to that room, but it was there. I do recall getting to see a lot of ninja, action, horror and comedies due to Video Outlet. I also recall renting a wide variety of off the wall films, both good and bad that I would not have seen other wise. It might have been at this point that I was finding my interest going off the mainstream track and looking for films that were not part of the conversation for film fans. To this day, I wish that I had gotten around to renting Summer Camp Nightmare, which I always saw on the racks. I should add that browsing the racks was as time consuming and delightful, just like spending time in a bookshop. It’s strange to think that I would love to have the chance to wander through the aisle of Video Outlet again maybe from a year before they closed and just see what was on the shelf.

Video Watch (later Hollywood Video) was the first chain store that I recall having a membership at. It was a big deal to as a teen to have my own card that let me rent without my mother’s approval. They were main video outlet that my friends and I rented from in high school. They had a better selection than I would expect from a chain these days, it was like Best Buy and music in their early days before they refined the formula of; popular titles, constant renters and few indie, non-English language, or odd ball titles that were so perfectly lampooned in Be Kind Rewind. I recall renting a lot of films there including the 1980s after the bomb oddity America 3000 (they also had Texas Gladiator 2020 which I never rented and am sure if pure crap, but the 15year old in my still wants to see it), and the first adult films that my friends and I checked out when I was 18.
When I returned from college, I had a slightly more sophisticated taste in film, and the local Panorama Video proved to have an interesting selection of films. They tended to stock enough indies and off the radar films to make them an attractive alternative to Hollywood Video. My main memories of films I rented there was that I was always happy to see stuff like Nice Girls Don’t Explode, and The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson because it was on their shelves.

I have to give the crown for the best Ann Arbor Video Store of all time to Liberty Street Video. A little hole in the wall to start, Liberty Street started in the 80s and eventually moved to its second location across the street from the first. They had a great selection of Foreign, Cult, LBGT and Documentaries that you didn’t see other places. I have a good friend who worked there for years and used to get in trouble for shelving the J Edgar Hoover biography in the LBGT section. Over the years I rented many many films there, and when they went out of business a couple of years back I was able to pick up VHS copies of some of my favorite forgotten gems, including a couple that I plan to cover in my 26 Films series this year. Of all the stores now gone, I think I miss Liberty Street the most. It was the kind of store that had a character all it’s own, and you could always count on finding films that were not on the shelves anywhere else in town.

There have been other video stores that I have liked and used over the years, outside of Ann Arbor. Howard Huges in Moscow Idaho had Zombie and the Ghost Train from Finland, and who recalls what else that I availed myself on. Gen X in East Lansing was regular hang out for me at the end of my time at Michigan State University where I bought comics and magazines more often than rented films, but is a fond memory. There was also a place, whose name completely is lost to me where you could rent 5 for $5. 5 rentals of titles no longer on the new release shelves for 5 days for $5.

I have been a Netflix fan for years, and for the most part have been very happy with them, but they are a different experience than going to the video store. I like a lot of people haven’t been a regular video store customer for a long time, and so I am at least in part to blame for their vanishing from the landscape. At the same time, while Amazon has killed book and music stores, I do find that my local Mom and Pop record and book shops have given me something that the local video stores didn’t. A place where I can meet with people who love books, or music and that I have made a point of shopping at. I find that if they don’t have what I am looking for on their shelves I am more than willing to have them order it, and more than willing to wait for things to come in. I know that there are indie video stores out there that have built their loyal customer bases, or have diversified their stock and business to include not only rentals, but also selling used DVDs, Books, Music, and that might be the only way for many of them to survive.

As it stands it seems that we are witnessing the end of the video store era and it’s worth looking back on and remembering.

(Howard Huges Video in Moscow ID)

1 comment:

Blogorilla said...

The only video store in our town closed a couple of months ago. I was sorry to see it go but the truth is I haven't set foot in the place in years. I've got a stack of unopened DVDs at home as tall as I am and a Netflix queue with 500 titles in it.

The video store, like the brick and mortar bookstore, is sadly obsolete.