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Don't Mourn Blockbuster. Weep for the Video-Store Era.

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire November 6, 2013 at 4:31PM

Blockbuster put independent video stores out of business, but its closure marks the end of an era.
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Blockbuster
The Patriot-News

Blockbuster Video is dead, or at least it will be by January, when the company will close the 300 stores it operates and end its DVD-by-mail service. The Los Angeles Times says franchised and licensed stores will stay open -- no number is given -- but chances are they're not long for this world either.

For serious cinephiles, Blockbuster was as often as not the enemy, undercutting mom-and-pop stores and forcing studios to offer Bowdlerized versions of NC-17 films. Badass Digest's Devin Faraci, who grew up in a small town in Texas, used the announcement as an opportunity to dance on Blockbuster's grave

I love video stores. And that's why I hate Blockbuster. Thirty years ago we lived in a very different video store climate, one dominated by smaller stores that offered selections tailored to the community. These were stores that curated their videos, that had employees who got to know you and understood what to recommend. These were stores that were part of the neighborhood. And, in the grand tradition of all big box stores that have blighted the American retail landscape, Blockbuster moved in and put them out of business.

But Twitter was filled today with nostalgic reminisces of small-town-dwellers for whom the chain was their gateway drug, and at SlashFilm, Germain Lussier said the steamrolling conglomerate had become "the lingering heartbeat of a once-beautiful era." But if Blockbuster has the honor of turning out the light on the video-store era, it's only because they turned out everyone else's lights first. There are survivors, like Seattle's Scarecrow Video or recent upstart Video Free Brooklyn, but I live in the fifth largest city in the United States, and for the purposes of renting a movie from anything but a Redbox kiosk, it might as well be the far side of the moon.

No one really mourns the loss of Blockbuster Video, which after demolishing the mom-and-pop stores with their plentiful new releases and loss-leader prices quickly adopted a winner-take all strategy. But the video-store era is something to mourn. Matt Singer evokes some of the reasons in a piece for The Dissolve he was fortuitously working on when the Blockbuster news broke: "We live in a world where immediacy and instantaneous access is the fundamental driver of commerce. Convenience certainly has its place, but expertise should still have one too."

I, too, mourn the loss of video stores with knowledgeable clerks and a sense of community, even if the only one I ever applied to work at never called me back. (They went out of business a mere 16 years later, which served them right.) But what goes with it as well is certain sense of stability, the knowledge that if you put off seeing a movie today you could always go back next week or next year. A movie might go out of print, but your local store would still have their copy, available for the same price. It's too easy, in every sense, to assume that streaming video will fill the void, and that physical media are simply obsolete. What physical media is, and will become moreso, is rare, the province of collectors and specialists rather than anyone with a membership card.

I shouldn't be shocked any more at the ignorance of those who say things like this, from a friend's Facebook page: "video stores are for those without internet. and who's without internet these days? only those without indoors [sic] plumbing." But it stuns me nonetheless how easily people assume that everything worth watching is available on the 'net, or, more accurately, how willing they are to convince themselves that only the things they have access to are worth watching. Time and again, I see someone on Twitter asking if a given movie is on Netflix, and when they're told the disc is available for rental, they add, "I meant Instant." With Netflix doing everything it can to phase out its DVD-by-mail business, they've effectively converted most of their customers to the idea that waiting for a movie to show up in the mail is, horror of horrors, inconvenient, and wouldn't you rather watch this instead? (For more on this, see my article, "The Convenience Trap.") Netflix drove video stores, including Blockbuster, out of business by being the place that had everything you could ever want to watch. But once they eliminated the competition, they snipped off their long-tail business and moved towards buying in bulk, which inevitably meant plenty of movies slipped through the net. They used to be the place that had everything; now they're the place that always had something. When we lose video stores -- and there's little doubt that we will -- we lose not just the place but a way of relating to movies, of understanding them as physical, immutable objects, not susceptible to the expiration of licensing deals or internet outages. Movies live in the cloud now, and while clouds can be everywhere, they also shift with the wind.


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