As an early adopter of Netflix, I take full responsibility for my part in the demise of the neighborhood video store. Little did I know that my yearning to get a new DVD each week for a low monthly fee (my first Netflix rental being 1978’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) would seal their doom. To be honest, I thought they would complement one another. There were just so many titles the little shop near me could handle. Netflix would simply fill in the gaps. And let’s not forget the biggest draw of Netflix back then—no late fees!
Ah, hindsight is always 20/20.
Like many children of the ’80s, I pine over the loss of video stores every chance I get. I miss the people who worked there and became part of my movie loving family. I miss browsing the horror aisle of front-facing VHS covers, garish art hiding what was mostly amateurish schlock on the magnetized tape. Sure, with Amazon and Netflix I now get curated titles based on an algorithm dreamed up by some pencil-necked geek who likes to peek at my watch list. But I really miss the staff picks by quirky Janice or emo Mike. They often took me out of my lane and led to some amazing discoveries.
When I close my eyes, I can still smell the video store—that blend of plastic and popcorn from the “help yourself” machine. I can hear the creek of the double saloon doors that shielded young eyes from the coffin-sized porno room. How every time those hinges squealed, you looked over to see who was clutching videos to their chest, eyes on the ground. Getting the balls to finally walk in there myself and pick a title was a rite of passage. Where’s the test of mettle in popping up some free porn on your phone today? Jerking off to DDD Boobers Gang Bang doesn’t make you a man. Asking the video store clerk to put that movie on hold for you does.
The two video stores by me had huge horror collections. This was the golden age of horror, an age that came about thanks to the proliferation of video stores. My girlfriend and I would hit the store, read the backs of the VHS boxes for about half an hour, make our picks and head home, settling in for epic movie marathons. Over the course of a decade, I watched every scary flick in those shops multiple times.
Here’s a kicker. Even if the movie was awful, I watched it until the bitter end because I was INVESTED in that movie. Our stores had a limit of how many movies you could take out at a time. It was usually three (but the owner of one video store granted me an exception because she saw I was a horror movie fanatic). I had to get my ass out of the house, drive to the store, browse the rows of movies, pay for them with cash from my pocket (no credit cards allowed) and bring them home. It wasn’t a huge investment of time and money, but it was enough to set in my mind that I was staying until the closing credits. Plus, those three movies were it. You learn to appreciate what you have when there’s this little thing called scarcity.
Because of my movie ethic, I sat through terrible flicks like Microwave Massacre, Humongous, Munchies, Demonic Toys and Saturday the 14th. Sometimes the ending paid off, but most times it was, at best, a popcorn fart in a stained couch cushion. No matter. I went to the store to pay for them and they were all I had, so in a way, I appreciated their company. It didn’t hurt that my human company was a raven-haired beauty that was way out of my league. And that’s why you put a ring on it, friends.
Sometimes, I just went to the video store to hang out. I’d find out what was in the latest shipment as it was dropped off (holy cannoli, Puppetmaster Three!). I’d shoot the shit with the folks who worked there because we loved to talk about movies. My other passion is reading, but libraries and even bookstores demand a kind of hushed reverence. Not so with the video store, where we would talk loudly about our favorite kills or which movies had the best nude scenes. I’m not sure the older couple browsing for Barbara Streisand movies appreciated our conversations, but this wasn’t their sanctuary, their church, their home away from home.
After I married that raven-haired bombshell and had kids, the owners would let us keep some of the cartoons my daughters rented over and over. While the kids played with toys in the children’s movie area at the back of the store, my wife and I would seek out new additions or well-worn gems. We knew the kids were OK because the women who worked there loved them and became instant babysitters the moment we walked in the door. A day’s haul would be a bag filled with Apt Pupil, The Unnamable, Barney Explores the Manson Compound (I wish!) and The Best of Blue’s Clues.
I’ll never forget the day I saw the Going Out Of Business sign on the window. The owner sat behind the counter in silent tears.
“How can this be?” I asked. “The store is always full.”
“Not as much as it used to be. We can’t compete with these new services that mail movies right to people’s doors,” she replied, wiping her eyes.
I swallowed hard, too chickenshit to admit I was responsible for this sad turn of events.
Instead, I said, “What will you do?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe go back to being a teacher’s helper. It’s been so long. I hope someplace will take me.”
The next weekend, there was a big going out of business sale. Every movie in the store was only $3.00. I bought a few, private shame burning my cheeks. There were so many more I wanted, but I was too devastated to take advantage of another person’s loss.
After the store closed, my video family scattered to the winds. We never saw one another again. Instead, we were all cloistered in our homes, asses growing wider as we clicked around searching for what movie to stream that night.
Sure, we gained easy access to a library of flicks that has never been seen before.
But we lost our community.
No amount of message boards or later texting or social media groups could replace those face-to-face moments. Seeing someone’s eyes grow wide as dinner plates when I told them about the insane gore in Dead Alive. Or watching my kids run into the arms of the woman who kept the shelves in order, them walking hand-in-hand to the little play table in the back. Munching over little bags of popcorn and debating which was better: The Hills Have Eyes or Last House on the Left.
I miss those stores. More importantly, I miss the people. I’d trade being able to stream a movie before it hits theaters for paying an overdue fine and asking for the latest horror recommendation any day.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.