One for Friday: Darren Hanlon, “Video Store”

The announcement this week that the few remaining Blockbuster video stores would be closing inspired a lot of surprisingly wistful reminiscences for the chain with the garish blue and yellow color scheme that was once best known (and reviled in all the right corners) for a selective prudishness that deemed Henry & June unacceptable but Playboy exercise videos a-okay. (To be fair, I’m in absolutely no hurry to sit through the former again, so they may have had a point purely on aesthetic merits in my example.) Of course, this didn’t truly reflect a swelling of nostalgia for one particular big business, but for the way it represents the final passing a certain type of business, one that absolutely transformed accessibility to the art of film.

I’m just old enough to remember the time when a film was available for a period of time in the theaters before almost entirely vanishing from audience accessibility outside of the few cities large enough to support a reasonable revival house or two. Once the few months of a film’s initial run had passed, the only time most people would ever see it again was when it showed up on television, probably butchered to adhere to restrictive content requirements dictated by the F.C.C. For most, that put independent film, foreign cinema and other art house content almost entirely out of reach, maybe glimpsed in clips on one of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s television shows but otherwise unattainable. When the VCR revolution came, that changed.

Once the device became all but ubiquitous in American homes, an entirely new business model emerged. Movies on videotape were deliberately priced to put them out of the reach of most consumers, usually with price tags hovering around $100, at least when they were new to the format. That price worked well for the rental market, though. Buy up a copy of Back to the Future, rent it out twenty-five or thirty times (which would likely happen with the first month or so it was in stock), and then it was pure profit after that. Video stores cropped up all over the place, and, for a time, other businesses devoted a corner of their store to VHS (and Beta!) rentals. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and through the mid-nineteen-eighties, I don’t think there was a single gas station or grocery store in the city limits that didn’t have a least a few tapes that could be checked out for the night.

Especially in the earliest stages of video store culture, there was such a desire to have stock in the store, that practically any title that has been transferred to tape was there. My town had far more philistines than cineastes, but there were still foreign films and indie dramas in the local shops. The novelty was such that absolutely any film had a decent chance to be toted out the door for a little Saturday night viewing, especially once the blockbusters on the new releases shelf had all been claimed (there was an interesting gamesmanship to securing the most coveted new releases, involving the artful calculation of the best time to hit the store to snag those hits that had been returned from the night before). There was often an inscrutable mayhem to the way back catalog titles were filed, especially when it came to placement within the genre-defined sections, which only increased the likelihood of unexpectedly discovering something unique and wonderful.

I loved these video stores. They gave me access to films that otherwise never would have come into my orbit, especially once I moved on to college and needed outside employment to supplement my meager income from work study jobs and college radio leadership positions. My first real job was as a clerk at a video store, standing behind the counter at Steven Point, Wisconsin’s dumpy Video Visions. I well remember restraining myself from offering judgmental commentary when patrons enthusiastically rented terrible comedies, pondering over which tape to slide into the store VCR to offer in-house entertainment and even sitting there on slow nights paging through copies of Premiere magazine that were racked by the register for impulse purchases that never actually transpired. I remember pulling our dingy plastic basket full of flattened videotape boxes out from behind the counter so customers could hastily flip through them looking for a pornographic film to rent, ideally before someone else came through the door and caught them in the act. I remember lugging the store’s rental VCR home so I could watch Scrooged when I was the only one remaining in the apartment during the college’s winter break. And I definitely remember the day a girl with a dazzling smile came into the store, browsing the racks while I joked with other customers (from a distance, she seemed amused by my goofiness), all the while trying to figure out how I could get her to linger a little longer once she’d finally made her selection.

Like most everyone else with a high-speed internet connection and a Netflix account, I’ve barely set foot in a video store in recent years, and even then only did so to raid the everything-must-go bins of a shop going out of business (we got Raiders of the Lost Ark and a whole season of Newsradio for two bucks apiece). But I have an amazing number of beloved memories that involve such establishments, including an emergency run to a downtown Madison institution just before closing time to secure a much-needed copy of Congo (seriously, it was important). I don’t mourn for Blockbuster. Besides all the other complaints that could be leveled against the company, they plainly did a bad job with their main mission: running a video store. But, like others, I do have some sentiment for the sunset on a certain piece of the culture.

Be kind, rewind.

Listen or download –> Darren Hanlon, “Video Store”

(Disclaimer: Across over two-hundred One for Friday entries, I don’t believe I’ve ever before devoted not one single word to the actual song being featured, unless you count the words “video” and “store,” although I wouldn’t if I were you. Don’t let me get away with it that easily. So let me use a bit of the disclaimer to note that Darren Hanlon is an exceptionally clever songwriter with a bevy of releases to his name. Everything I’ve heard is charming and endearing, none more so than this song, which I found on a compilation that seems to be well out of print. It’s available for digital purchase, but we all know how skeptical we are around these here parts about that sort of transaction duly compensating the artist. Of course, the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store gets absolutely nothing from such commerce, lowering it even further in our eyes. The song is presented here with the belief that doing so will cause no real detriment to anyone’s bank account. Should I be contacted by anyone with due authority to request its removal who is making such a request, I will do so promptly and happily.)

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