Death of video stores

Illustration by Nathan Mixter - Staff, Photo by Dryad &

We’ve wrung hands over the closing of local bookstores, and
we’ve lamented the demise of record stores.
We’ve wrung hands over the closing of local bookstores, and we’ve lamented the demise of record stores. But video stores – should we care? Video stores always felt colder, slightly tawdrier, certainly more ephemeral, less lovable. A few years ago, when everyone but Blockbuster itself seemed aware that decline was imminent, the Onion offered a typically satirical story about a “Blockbuster Museum,” where visitors learned about once-popular practices, such as “renting movies” for brief periods, an act which subjected customers to “late fees” if a video wasn’t returned in the allotted time.

Which sounds familiar, of course, though three years later, in the age of Netflix and online streaming, it’s more like sincere history.

And now that video stores seem just about dead – a decline, more or less, that paralleled the emergence of Netflix, and convenience with it – few are lamenting the end of video stores. Perhaps with reason: Video stores rarely made themselves easy to like. The biggest were warehouses: harshly lit, impersonal spaces offering a dispiritingly weak selection if you wanted a film more than six months old. Clerks could be indifferent, their counters acting as judicial roosts, placing them above us, no matter their height. And late fees – who didn’t sweat a frantic dash to Blockbuster?

Indeed, Blockbuster itself, at the peak of its power (and it still has 3,425 U.S. stores), was influential enough to discourage production of NC-17 films (by refusing to stock any) and the video release of widescreen movies in proper rectangular aspect ratios (by carrying only a smattering of letterboxed titles). But then Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy Sept. 23; since 2008, it closed 1,061 stores. In April, Movie Gallery, which owned Hollywood Video, announced it was done, completely; the last Hollywood Video closed in August. Chances are your neighborhood has the derelict skeleton of at least one.

Because chances are you don’t think much about video stores these days.

But I remember video stores differently. I remember them, the best ones, even the occasional Blockbuster, full of surprising rocks to turn over. So does Joe Swanberg, 29, the Chicago-based filmmaker best known for being at the fore of the no-budget mumblecore film movement (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”). He worked in a Hollywood Video in Naperville, Ill., in the ’90s. He fell in love with movies in high school and decided that “the responsible thing, the educational thing, was to work in a video store.”

He stocked it with quiet French dramas by Eric Rohmer, documentaries, “stuff nobody was going to rent in Naperville, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to give people the sense of discovery I felt. Those movies probably sat on shelves, but it’s nice to think that, for someone, we reminded them that walking through a good video store was actually walking among aisles full of great possibilities.”

I can’t remember the last time I walked into a video store, rented a movie, brought it home and then returned it. I just can’t. I use Netflix. I stream movies through an Xbox. I rent video on demand occasionally. Every video store membership I have ever had I let lapse. But walking into Specialty Video, on Broadway near Belmont Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, the early days of video stores flashed back. Specialty still looks the way video stores looked in 1984: a long, thin storefront, lined with white wire racks holding scores of titles. Way in the back, behind a curtain, there’s an adult section. And the manager – in this case a sarcastic man in his 40s named Jeff Dean – is not a corporate lackey but a mixture of movie love and congenital pessimism.

More important, beside his counter, is this: his suggested rentals, each one an underrated gem – Sissy Spacek’s “Raggedy Man,” the British thriller “Clean, Shaven.” Beside his suggestions, a young clerk’s recommendations: “Citizen Kane,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” – earnest help from an eager new movie fan.

It’s the kind of thing that made video stores vital to movie culture, said Issa Clubb, a producer at the Criterion Collection in New York, which for decades has churned out an intricately curated selection of high-end video releases of classics and underrated films. “The best (stores) were run by people who happily said, ‘You didn’t come for this, but try it.’ A film blog might offer that, but it’s a self-selected audience. Without video stores I wonder what happens to that naive customer, the one who can be prodded to the unfamiliar.”

Miguel Martinez, a clerk at Facets Multimedia, a cinephile temple, said the key is fostering real relationships with customers and expanding their taste in movies, not just tailoring those tastes. A service Netflix does not offer.

Dean is fatalistic.

“There are moments when business is so bad now that I don’t know why they haven’t closed us,” he said, referring to Lion Video, a subsidiary of L.A. Tan, which bought Specialty five years ago. “I don’t know what they get out of keeping us open.” In fact, not long ago, the Walgreens at the end of the block installed a Redbox, one of those ubiquitious self-serve DVD kiosks. It’s a few hundred feet away. Dean learned about it only after a customer came in and explained that she wouldn’t be back anymore.

“She said it cheerfully. I stood there like, ‘OK, and …’ Did she want me to thank her for the honesty? What do I say? ‘Good luck in your new relationship?'”

Yes, good luck: There are about 650 Redbox installations throughout the Chicago area (the company is based in Oakbrook Terrace). Each box holds about 200 titles. “But one of these days,” Dean said, “when we’re gone, you’re going to need a live person. When that happens, I won’t want to hear it.” He picks up the phone and calls a customer. “Hi,” he says, talking to an answering machine. “Just wanted to let you know that ‘The Tudors’ is in. I’ll hold it for a while. Thank you.”

He hangs up.

“See, now that’s what a video store should be. You think anybody else would do something like that?”

Netflix, I say.

“Right,” he says.

Brian Chankin sat in an old chair and watched the TV in front of him with one eye. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky sat beside him, huddled against the cold autumn air rushing through the front door, which stood open, waiting for new customers. “I go in and out of feeling I should close this place all the time,” Chankin said, meaning Odd Obsession, the 6-year-old store he opened on Milwaukee Avenue, which at the moment was devoid of customers. “But that’s in the air all the time here. I bet one Redbox makes more in a day than we make. You know what I’ll miss? Speaking of video store culture? Video stores found in grocery stores.”

“That’s called Redbox now,” Vishnevetsky said.

“Yeah, but that’s sad.”

You know what I’ll miss?

Stores like Odd Obsession, and the makeshift communities of movie fans that gather around them. In fact, if I were to bet: This is where the old school video store in Chicago makes its last stand. It rents VHS, bootleg copies of rare Rolling Stones documentaries; it has no shelf of Robert Downey Jr. movies, but a shelf dedicated to his father, cult filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. Here, a copy of “MacGruber” stands beside a compilation of experimental shorts from Stan Brakhage. But more important, none of the six clerks, including Chankin, works on salary.

They do it for the love of turning strangers on to movies they adore and talking about film and bonding. They are, sort of, a support group for video junkies.

They do it as if it were a moral imperative to keep places like this going. While I thought about this, a couple walked in, Craig Kamrath, 29, and Sara Mathis, 31. I watched them, then unable to stop myself, I stopped them: For heaven’s sake, don’t you know there easier ways to get movies?

“I know,” Mathis said, “but I like looking.”

“We also go into record stores,” Kamrath said. “I can see an image on a computer monitor anytime, but it’s never the same as walking these aisles and flipping through the cases.”

“When I was younger I went into stores and loved the crazy horror boxes – you know, the tape covers? Remember ‘Basket Case’?”

I do.

Hungry eyes, sunken into a head resembling an anthropomorphic baked potato, stare from between wicker strands of a picnic basket. Clawed fingers prying the lid upward. It’s an image seared into my brain – which is what Swanberg said about the images on the boxes he reshelved nightly in Naperville. “I did it so often I can describe in detail every case. I loved it.”

We all did, those of us who once visited video stores as often as we swing by Whole Foods now on the way home. You were always indecisive and there was always a copy of “C.H.U.D.” – which, as any self-respecting ’80s kid can tell you, meant Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers – its box, depicting a frog monster lifting a sewer cap. There were Chuck Norris Vietnam movies and Chevy Chase flops, stuff like “Penitentiary II” and a handful of Robert Altman films; there were also 55 copies of “Basic Instinct,” and a clerk at the front, snapping open cases, alert to failures to rewind.

But that was your neighborhood video store, and now, chances are, that rectangular building is a shell, stripped of everything but a single sign – “For Rent.”

We stood a moment, Mathis and Kamrath and I, and looked over the covers lined up side by side, each illustration blurring into the next, a pastiche of gore and fists and action heroes. Wouldn’t you miss this, I asked. They nodded, without hesitation. “Very much I would,” Mathis said. “I really would.”

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