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Criticwire Survey: The Video Store That Changed My Life

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by Sam Adams
November 11, 2013 2:46 PM
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Blockbuster

Todd Gilchrist, The Wrap, Forbes

Personally, the most important video store in my life was, ironically, a Blockbuster, because it introduced me to one of my oldest and best friends, who worked there, and shared in my budding obsession with movies as I departed for college a year behind him. But probably the most important one to me, cinematically speaking, was a little hole in the wall store in Chapel Hill called Dave's Videodrome. It closed before I might have even reached my junior year in college, but it was a dingy little space where he rented all sorts of Asian cinema, including lots of John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam long before their films were made available internationally. He also had an enormous collection of Shaw Brothers movies which I fully utilized to cultivate my now-longstanding affection for martial arts cinema, and just generally functioned as that older, more knowledgeable guy who would turn you onto the weirdest, wildest and most influential movies you never knew your life depended on you seeing. 

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

For me, the most important video store was Blockbuster. I realize that may be some kind of heretical statement, but living outside of a big city meant I didn't have a ton of video-store choices. In the small town of North Tonawanda (near Buffalo, New York), there was Blockbuster, my local library, the handful of movies to rent at the grocery store, and, eventually, a Hollywood Video. And if Blockbuster's arrival had put smaller stores out of business, they did so well before I was old enough to browse. Also, back in the early 1990s, the Blockbuster felt huge to me, with rows and rows of old and new films (my memory tells me that there were far more old films as opposed to new releases, but it could be playing a trick on me) to choose from. By the time I left Western New York for college in a warmer climate, that feeling of bigness in the Blockbuster evaporated. And when, a few years later, I signed up for Netflix because the local brand-name video stores seemed to only carry, primarily, 100 copies of 10 new releases, the feeling went away entirely. But when I was younger, and the world seemed bigger, Blockbuster's existence mattered to me.

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

The most important video store for me was Erol's Video in my hometown's local shopping center. For some reason, they'd let me rent rated-R movies even though I was barely older than eleven, and that was my gateway toward classic movies and more mature entertainment. And when they transitioned from VHS to DVD, I ended up watching their limited collection in alphabetical order. I'm pretty sure the first DVD I brought home was A Clockwork Orange.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

This may be an unpopular opinion, but the most important video store in my life was the local Blockbuster! Although the conglomerate was rightly criticized for stocking a million copies of the latest big releases in an attempt to shut down the local competition, I did find some smaller movies there that it would have been otherwise impossible for me to see - it was at a Blockbuster that I discovered Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' a few months before the release of Pulp Fiction, or Hard Boiled before John Woo made the jump to Hollywood. Today, I would probably be insulted by the dearth of independent and foreign films available at my local Blockbuster, but for a kid in Topeka in the early 1990s, its presence exposed me to films that I would not have otherwise known I wanted.

Jake Cole, Slant, Spectrum Culture

I grew up in the suburbs where the only alternative to Blockbuster was Hollywood Video (which, in comparison, may as well been heaven when stacked against Blockbuster, featuring a better selection, more competitive prices and a less strict rental window). So I can't say my memories of in-store rentals were that fond, especially given that my cinephilia did not fully bloom until Netflix had already established itself as the de facto rental service. Nonetheless, I get the nostalgia for video stores, especially given Netflix's changing business model. Once a place where so much could be found, now a deliberate move away from disc rental and a pursuit of new titles over classics and foreign movies threatens to turn Netflix into a virtual version of what made Blockbuster so tedious, with the added setback of programming that caters to people's tastes rather than challenges them. Instead of coming across that hip clerk who might turn you on to something you'd never heard of, algorithms now ensure you never have to leave your comfort zone. Still, it's hard to think back fondly on Blockbuster's shelves of titles to be browsed when I remember that about the only thing I ever got there on a whim was Suburban Commando. Not all trips into the unknown are rewarding.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Blockbuster: There was one a couple of blocks away but I never went there in my life, because, ever since I've had a VCR, I've also lived more or less around the corner from a great independent video store, the Video Room, which is still in business, and where I go to rent (and to rent not just DVDs but also VHS tapes -- which they've still got -- for some treasures that haven't been released in the digital format) and also for good cinephilic conversation. Actually, I did go to Blockbuster a few times -- to buy VHS tapes on clearance when, unlike the Video Room, they got rid of them altogether. I like to own. I don't want movies and music to be stored in the cloud, because clouds disperse; I don't want the availability of movies I love to dangle on the thread of contracts I'm no party to. I only stream movies when there's no alternative -- I'd rather have a DVD, or even a VHS, of which I have hundreds, most of which I recorded from TV, and many of which haven't turned up yet on DVD or, for that matter, even on TCM (cable's great virtual cinematheque), let alone at a screening in a repertory house. But there's something about streaming that links it to the primal state of theatrical movie-going: the sense of urgency, of the need to see something quickly once it becomes available, because that availability may be of limited duration and may end suddenly and without notice. The downside to life as a video pack rat is that ownership sometimes doesn't enable viewing, it takes the place of it. How many times have I been on the losing end of this dialogue: "Have you seen it?" "No, but I own it."

Adam Nayman, The Globe and Mail, Cinema Scope

I worked at two video stores in my teens and mid-twenties: an upscale-neighborhood Blockbuster and a family-owned place that specialized in VHS box sets of British series like Foyle's War. My tour of duty in these venues covered the shift from VHS to DVD, although the bigger development, at least for me personally, was meeting my wife; while I was wearing the Blockbuster blue, she was working for the (literally) mom and pop competition. That's how we met, and when she called my branch to ask if we had some obscure movie or other, well, that was the start of something big.

But the video store that had the biggest influence on my movie-going life was Video-On, the last shop on the left in a tiny mini-mall at Bayview and Merton in Leaside, Toronto. My mother was an avid collector of VHS tapes and she'd always bug the proprietor -- an older Chinese-Canadian man named Anthony -- about selling her old, rarely rented titles; usually he consented by the second or third request. Me, I used the fact that my mom was tight with the manager to get away with murder as far as renting inappropriate films was concerned: one glorious summer in the early 1990s, I systematically checked out the entire horror section, two or three films at a time, and gorged on such grotesque delights as Gothic (who could resist box art with Natasha Richardson stretched out nude and sleeping at the mercy of a grinning goblin?) and The First Power(God love you, Lou Diamond Phillips). I'd conservatively estimate that I rented 500 hundred movies at Video-On in my tween and early teen years, on top of whatever my mom took out to watch; when the shop went out of business in the late 90s -- right before I started working the graveyard shift at Blockbuster -- our family probably bought 200 tapes (which less than a decade later had to be replaced with DVDs). I felt extremely guilty when I started working at Blockbuster since I eventually made the connection between its arrival and Anthony's departure (free-market economics not being my strong suit as a kid) but a job was a job and I got free rentals. My Blockbuster did not carry Gothic or The First Power but that was okay because I'd already bought them for $10 each.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

The most important video store in my life is fortunately still going strong, and hopefully will continue to. It's Toronto's Bay Street Video, at Bay and Bloor Sts., which advertises itself as "Toronto's Largest DVD Collection." That's no lie -- I have yet to stump the place or its knowledgeable staff for even the most obscure of video requests. Bay Street Video's collection is so vast, Toronto cops should have gone there first in their quest for the Rob Ford crack video -- I kid!

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I came a bit later to my cinephilia than some of my generational cohort, and didn't immerse myself into repertory viewing until a time when, yes, Blockbuster was the easiest primary option. In recent years, I've been more reliant on libraries, which (depending, I suppose, on the library system where one lives) are still great places for such stuff. And it may be too early to say what cloud-based cinephilia will be like. Right now, there are too many glitches inherent in the system (buffering problems, screens lacking contrast depth) for streaming content to match even the quality of a good home-entertainment system. Hard physical media will only be missed if streaming media continues to be the hit-or-miss experience it still is. 

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

The most important video store in my life was not a store at all -- it was the local library, which had shelves and shelves of VHS tapes available in both the children's and main rooms. You could keep nonfiction films (mostly theatrical and dance products, plus PBS documentaries of the kind they play during pledge drives) out for a week, or more standard narrative fare for two days. We were only near the library once a week, so I watched lots and lots and lots of documentaries about obscure points in American history and have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic ballets. While that wasn't a great way to learn about film history, it does contrast sharply with how I watch movies now, since I can watch most anything I want whenever I want, and I don't have to worry about overdue fees. And I guess if I'd grown up in the Netflix age, I wouldn't be able to tell you quite as much about the Hudson River School painters or how pioneers found their way across the country or the difference between various Swan Lakes. For all the benefits that come from video in the cloud, that, I think, is a loss.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?

So, so many, particularly mom-and-pops like Groovy Movies in Nashville and Premiere Video and Tapelenders in Dallas and Rocket Video and Cinefile in Los Angeles, all of which were staffed by passionate people who really knew their deep catalog. I got to become one of those passionate people the summer after I graduated from college, when I worked at the then-new Tower Video in Nashville, developing my own clientele of customers who knew that I could find what they were looking for. And while Blockbuster gets a bad rap, often deservedly so, in the 1980s, they had a real commitment toward trying to carry as diverse a catalog of tapes as possible. I still remember in the early '90s, when they started selling off tons of their foreign/indie/documentary selections to make more room for New Releases, my friend Robert Abele and I spent a weekend driving to various Blockbuster locations around Dallas to snap up offbeat titles, many of which I still have in my library. As a film buff old enough to remember life before the VCR, having access to so many titles without having to wait for them to pop up at repertory cinemas (which the VCR pretty much killed) or on TV was a real game-changer. I can't imagine what my coming-out process would have been like without those "Gay & Lesbian" sections of my favorite video stores, or writing Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas without places who could rent me Scrooged in August (and have cool enough clerks to recommend movies like The Silent Partner).

Robert Levin, amNewYork

Like most of my colleagues, I spent an enormous chunk of my youth in a video store. Or, more accurately, video stores: The local Dierbergs, a St. Louis-area grocery store chain, had a collection that was in retrospect rather middling but seemed like Shangri-Las to my younger self. It opened up a portal into the world of movies; I'd spend hours exploring the depths of different sections, in search of unfamiliar films that intrigued me enough to bring home. And, if I just couldn't find the right movie at Dierbergs, there was a Blockbuster about a half-mile up the road. I've long since accepted that the age of the video store has passed, and while there's much to be said for the instantaneous access of the digital era, the excitement just isn't the same. At its heart, cinema is a spectacle. Surfing a Netflix queue, or the on-demand fare offered by your cable provider, simply isn't as thrilling as wondering into a store devoted to movies, with the promise of brand new worlds waiting to be discovered behind each box.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com

My parents were early adopters of home video. My father spent days toiling over whether to go VHS or Beta. Prior to this, they would actually rent 8mm prints with sound of shorts from the library. He chose VHS (whew!) and we were first in the area to get an enormous, clunky VCR. This was before Blockbuster -- before any stores were dedicated exclusively to video (at least in our area.) We rented our tapes from a Camera store. As the store started devoting more of its real estate to video, it offered a limited buy-in for a lifetime club membership. Pay X amount of dollars up front, you get 3 free videos a month forever and ever. My parents did this and we were soon envied by all the other families who didn't have such foresight. (We also ate nothing but rice and tap water for weeks to balance the checkbook, but that's another story.)

The first VHS we rented was the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata. My sister and I were furious at my mother, who said it was "brilliant" and that we should "sit still and expand our horizons." My father, who had just spent 30 minutes on his knees trying to figure out how to hook this damn gizmo up, eventually admitted that it was the most boring thing he'd ever seen, and that there should be a more democratic method of picking up tapes in the future. The manager of the camera-turned-video store was named Jeff, who we called Jeff Video. He was a long-haired hippie who also played guitar and wrote country songs. I still can hum you one of these tunes decades later. Anyway, Jeff was so cool that he would sometimes pull the hot title and hold it for us, even without asking. I remember him surreptitiously slipping us the Sean Connery tape of Outland, in that giant puffy Warner Home Video case. Same with My Favorite Year, which also came in the oversized MGM/UA case. This special treatment was a problem once, when he presented us with Poltergeist, a movie I absolutely did not want to see. I remember being pissed at Jeff Video for this. Just having that thing in the house made me nervous. My parents and older sister watched it, and even with me in the bedroom with the door closed I could hear some of the music and I was terrified.

Anyway, the store -- our store -- did well enough that they moved into a larger location. Alas, they moved a town over, such that it was kind of a pain to drive all the way there. By now the area had a Blockbuster and an Easy Video. We broke ranks with Jeff Video and got memberships to the big stores, but neither had the same feel. Once in a while my father would feel guilty and say "We should drive to the old place" and my mother would say "What, you want to schlep all the way down Route 9? I'm not going back there tomorrow." 

I just did an Internet search and was shocked to discover that the fabled store of my youth survived until fairly recently. Recently enough to get listed on all sorts of web-based directories, anyway. (I just called the number, but no answer.) It seems like they lasted as long as they did by turning away from home video rentals and going back to becoming a photo equipment and processing shop. But there's not much call for that sort of thing either these days, I'm afraid.

Michael Pattison, Senses of Cinema, Sight & Sound

My mid-teen years coincided with HMV (UK) reducing its VHS stock. Week by week, I'd spend £10 on a two-for-ten deal on videotapes. There was also a local store called Play -- no relation to the site of the same name, as far as I'm aware -- that I used to binge-buy from. I remember purchasing MK2's Chaplin box set disc-by-disc for around £2.99 per film. But the best bargain came when I arrived at the checkout one day with a bunch of Tartan Video DVDs -- Julien Donkey-Boy, some Bergmans -- only to see Edgar Reitz's first Heimat box set for a stunning £9.99. I blushed with excitement. With prices like that, it's no wonder it closed down!

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk

In the '80s, in a sleepy little New York town, stood a quaint video store at the end of a tiny strip mall. It's there that Family Vision Video, with its towering shelves (all 5 feet of them), offered a wealth of titles and NES games to entertain, amuse, sometimes confuse, but otherwise consume the 10 year old me with tales from Hollywood and beyond. Probably no different from countless corner video stores across the country but its proximity to my house allowed me access to new releases, classics and obscure foreign titles just a short bike ride away. It was the type of place run by real movie fans. Sure they had strange tastes, and some real weird films peppered the shelves, but they always had some odd delight to recommend or something really cool playing on the TV at the front counter. It was always fun to talk about what you hoped to expect from the title you were picking up and dish about it after bringing it back; they didn't even mind too much if you forgot to rewind it. So even if it wasn't the place that showed me every movie that helped define my tastes (that honor goes to my Father) but it let me appreciate the joys of discussing film with other fans. Also whenever they were looking to unload any and all promo posters, or, on rare occasions, life-size displays you would be sure to find me struggling with ways to get cardboard monstrosities for Home Alone or a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie home on my tiny BMX bike. Netflix and on-demand services are convenient but I'd trade the 12 years I've been a member just to be able to walk the aisles of the long forgotten Family Vision Video and see what Archie was watching. 

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule.com

I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember the name of my favorite local video store growing up in Wilmington, DE! While I may not be able to recall the name, I can close my eyes and scan the aisles and shelves in my mind to this day. The storefront read "from the ridiculous to the sublime" and that variety was formative for me as a cinephile. I feel nostalgic for those trips to the video store today, but I'm inclined to say that the existence of Netflix and other streaming services might actually leave future generations of film critics in a better spot. The experience of browsing is simply not the same online, but if you learn about film somewhere else and know what you want, it's now easier than ever to find what you're looking for.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

Star Video in Brevard, NC was my defining video store. Most weekends during my first two years of high school, my friend Jason and I would walk there from his house and pick something out. The clerks didn't prevent us from seeing R-rated films; if anything, they encouraged it. Once I got my driver's license, I went there by myself and often did their "5 movies, 5 days, for $5" offer, renting more experimental fare and watching them after my parents went to sleep. It was a great introduction to edgier films from a place that didn't ask questions (other than supportive ones). Dialing up titles on Netflix just isn't the same.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

As someone who really didn't have too much of an experience with video stores growing up (my family wasn't into movies like I was, so the occasional trip to Blockbuster that my dad would make mainly was for old NES games, though I could go on about how much fun we had with the Micro Machines game and how disappointed I was in Swamp Thing), the most important video store to me actually isn't one that's in my life. I'm going to cheat and say the stores that folks like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino worked at/frequented take top honors. Without those stored, we may not have had those filmmakers, or at least not in the same form. Plus, one of my favorite scenes from Clerks wouldn't exist.

Sean Hutchinson, CriterionCast, Latino Review

The most formative video store in my life was this semi-small New England-based chain of video stores called Tommy K's Video I frequented almost every weekend while growing up. Somewhere in between the broad Blockbuster Video-type brick and mortar stores and a smaller cinephile's dream, Tommy K's was a place where I could get the newest releases but still have a wide range of weird and wonderful obscurities at my disposal. I suppose it's telling that with the rise of Netflix that Tommy K's made the absolutely baffling switch from video store chain to a series of tanning salons still serving the fine people of southern Connecticut to this day. 

The move from actual video store destinations to Netflix and on-demand streaming services never really bugged me because it boils down to a fundamental matter of convenience. It seems to me that people are still clinging to a nostalgia tied to browsing the video store of their dreams, but what is obvious to me is that that very tendency just needs to be reformed for the literally thousands of titles at your fingertips through these dozens of streaming services. I love it that future generations will just have the classics and the new blockbusters all at their disposal in a different way, and in the face of such a broad and intimidating selection what needs to happen now is for people to learn the ability to truly discern quality over quantity.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

Hollywood Express, Cambridge. Always there with whatever you need or want. And still is.

Jeff Berg, ABQ Arts and Entertainment, Las Cruces Bulletin

My first piece of paid writing was to review VHS tapes for the local daily in Missoula, Montana. At that time, VHS was fairly new, (I remember my first two VHS viewings: Jeremiah Johnson and Pink Flamingos) and everyone was trying to cash in by having rentals. It was great, of course, since there were so many films that I had never seen that were now available. There were three indie stores, two of which I don't recall the names of, but are long gone, and Crystal Video, which was in the lobby of the local (RIP) wonderful indie arthouse hall. I made friends with the daughter of the owner of one of the forgotten stores and always got freebies from her and we later dated briefly and had a lot of fun (not watching movies... thank you Kris!). But it was a great time for finding rare and odd films...some of which have still never appeared on DVD or elsewhere (such as Slipstream with Luke Askew, a great Canadian flick from '73). Many other stores come to mind: Facets in Chicago, Casa Video in Tucson and the terrific Video Library and underrated Casablanca Video which remain in business here in Santa Fe. 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

The first video store I remember going to was, I think, called Video Update. It was tucked away at the end of a large strip mall and felt small even though I was young and just about everything seemed enormous. There I found a seemingly endless amount of possibilities and at the same time restrictions on what I could watch. What I couldn't watch, the R-rated movies and the mysterious films kept behind a door in the back, had to have an identity I created. I remember seeing the box for A Clockwork Orange and was drawn in by the image of Alex with his upside-down eyelash. I put it together that the movie was some modern update on Frankenstein and that the mad scientist who had invented this person had put things together wrong and that the eye was put in upside down. I thought the title referred to these mistakes in that an orange was natural and the mechanisms of a clock were not and that the film must have been filled with similar mistakes and contradictions. What will be lost with the unknown of the video store will be the fantasy world we create to interpret our fictions. As our queues become more and more personalized the future cinephile will be coddled and stupid and will think that cinema is at his or her service rather than the other way around, a mode of expression that shows us ourselves through the veil of a fiction cannot function properly without the reverence created by the gap in our knowledge filled in with our created fantasies and the fantasies presented to us in the film. It will function similarly but in some as of yet undetermined way.

Dan Kois, Slate


VisArt Video in Carrboro, NC. It is where I first rented Tom Noonan and Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch and learned about what good moviemakers had really been up to in the 1980s and 1990s. Its clerks were smart and funny and I would just take whatever suggestions they made, and they were always right.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Much love and respect to Video Culture in Murfreesboro TN, Kim's in NYC, Captain Video in Hermitage and White House TN, Tower Video in Nashville and NYC, as well as that place in Tampa on the bottom level of that Bauhaus-looking building that I can't remember the name of. Of them all, only Captain Video in White House remains, and that's because in the mid-'90s they remodeled and dedicated half the store to tanning beds. I loved them all. Each were like love affairs in their own way, each with their areas of expertise.
I like physical media, and it's most disconcerting to see one's home collection of film eventually becoming subject to the same outlandish restrictions as theatrical viewing. The digital changeover in theatres did a wonderful job of putting absolute control over the viewing of movies into the hands of distributors, so it doesn't require too many paranoid tendencies to see a similar iron hand being wielded against home viewing as well, once all video is simply streaming data. That's not even to imply malevolence- but anyone who's had a screening derailed because of incorrect keys or KDM problems understands that when the decision is taken out of your hands, then something is wrong. I guess I'm a video libertarian in that respect.

If things continue in this fashion, with physical media shunted aside for more and more streaming, you'll find viewers going with downloads and torrents. Distributors and rightsholders need to make their holdings less like what can already be conveniently downloaded, not moreso.

Slave

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: 12 Years a Slave

Other movies receiving multiple votes: GravityAll Is LostBlue is the Warmest Color

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1 Comment

  • Coleman | November 13, 2013 2:23 AMReply

    Pleasant street video formerly of Northampton MA was the greatest video store I've ever been to. Sadly closed in 2011.

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