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The Case of the Incredibly Shrinking Video Store

A few weeks ago, Josh and I got a date night and went to see the Unknown Known about Donald Rumsfeld.  I know, we’re just two crazy kids in love and grooving on political documentaries.  After the date… which took place in the day and not really the night… we were walking downtown and passed a Potomac Video advertising a going out of business sale.

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My first job was at a video store.  It was the most glamourous, wonderous place in the world.  I remember when the first video store opened in town.  We got a VCR, a very high-tech invention, and my friends and I could rent movies and watch them.  It took about a year for a movie to come out on video, therefore, we still watched movies in the theater as many times as possible in order to hold us over until we could rent the movies to watch at home.  Movies cost $3 per day.

When it came time to get a job, I had to get special permission from the school stating that I could handle a job and my classes because I was below that sixteen-year-old threshold for holding a job.  I took my paperwork to the new video store in town — the first one had since closed, and this new one was tucked back in a very busy shopping plaza — and applied for a job.  I felt impossibly grown-up.  The owner hired me at minimum wage with free video rentals to boot.  I could take out up to three movies at a time, and keep them out for a whole week.

I loved that video store even though, as the newest employee, it was my job to put on the rubber gloves and clean out the after-hours drop box in the morning.  Why rubber gloves?  Because people jizzed through the opening onto the videos.  And we rented a lot of porn, so even if someone didn’t jizz through the slot the night before, it was still a good idea to wear rubber gloves because… well… it was porn.

That’s just one of the many glamourous details I can tell you about life at the video store.

But really, I loved that job and worked there until I left for college.  I loved being able to take out movies for a week.  I loved keeping track of the holds list, and calling people to tell them that their movie was now in the store.  I loved shelving boxes.  I loved choosing the movie to put on the store’s television.  I loved our regular customers, especially the quirky ones.  I loved helping people choose a movie to watch.

It’s sad to see Potomac Video closing.  Video stores are a pretty recent invention, all things considered.  Potomac Video, for instance, only has been around since 1981.  That’s nothing in the economic continuum.  A thirty year lifespan for a type of business?  I don’t mean for a single business: I mean, video stores have only been around since the late 70s.  (The first video store opened in 1977.)  And now they are pretty much gone.  Poof.  Goodbye video stores.

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It’s easy to understand their demise.  An automated box can do the same job as a free-standing store.  Moreover, most people stream movies directly onto their television, or buy a cheap copy on iTunes.  Why rent a movie for $3 if you can have it indefinitely for $7?  I know we’ve been guilty of adding to the demise of the local video store.

Standing in Potomac Video, staring at the carnage as vulture-like customers descended on the business, picking the shelves clean of movies, made me wonder how I would feel if I was standing in the last bookstore.  I didn’t really browse very much at video stores, so the act of renting from a Red Box is similar — for me — to going into the video store and grabbing the movie I want.  But I am a hardcore bookstore browser.  I am a walk-by-every-shelf sort of person.  I pick up a bunch of books and then sit down and read the first few pages to make sure I like the voice before purchasing.  It would gut me if bookstores ceased to exist.

Oh my G-d… what if bookstores are next?

It fits in the sense that first there was the disappearance of the large, chain video stores.  The Erols Video and the Blockbuster.  And now there is finally the quiet cough of the independent video stores as they shutter their businesses.  We’ve already seen the demise of large, chain bookstores like Borders.  Will there be a point in the future when even the small, independent bookstores close their door for a final time?

I’m turning 40, and video stores don’t really exist anymore.  It’s crazy to think how different the storefronts will look twenty years from now; that our generation has lived through the birth and death of video stores within our lifetime.

Reassure me: are bookstores going to go the way of the video store?  Is there any chance for a video store revival in the future?

12 comments

1 Flygirl { 05.27.14 at 9:04 am }

I desperately miss video stores. If we still had one, I would still haunt the aisles mostly every weekend. I hadn’t considered book stores going the same way. Surely not! There’s just nothing like spending an hour or two in a bookstore.

2 Heather { 05.27.14 at 9:27 am }

Um, well, I can’t even remember the last time I was in a bookstore. But, I didn’t go all that often before the internet either, I’m a library person. Libraries are where I get my books. Unless I read one that I know I HAVE to have, I’ll buy. Of course now, I do buy from Amazon or some other site. Hmmm.
I don’t think we’ll see the mass exodus of book stores like we did video stores. Only because there are lots of people young and old that still want the physical feel of a book. Plus, bookstores are branching out their services, they are changing a bit with the times.
Now video stores… I miss them. I miss being able to get a video like Space Camp the moment I decide I want it like I could when a video store was nearby. I miss spending a good half hour figuring out which video I wanted. I miss the waiting and anticipation to see if the new release was in yet and if their were any copies left.
The video store we went to when we first got our VCR had little cards on the front and you brought that up to the counter and the clerk went and got the tape from the back. You know, because of theft (in small town upstate NY no less). Anyway, I remember that the clerk knew me, knew my mom, knew what I liked. I rented Goonies at least 20 times. When I stopped renting it she asked why, I told her it’s because I got it for my birthday (side note, I only watched it once or twice after that). I like, and miss, that connection to the community. Blockbuster kind of ruined that too.
Anyway, all things change but it seems they are changing to quickly, to rapidly. The CD has also *almost* gone the way of the dinosaur. Again something that came and went in our lifetime.

3 Katherine A { 05.27.14 at 9:38 am }

Loved reading about your life working at a video store. Hadn’t thought about what people *ahem* do through that slot, though…

I think the biggest difference between video stores and books is that with books, there can be such a strong tactile component to the experience. I remember in college was getting to go over to the library during a 16th century British Literature course and getting to actually look at some books from that time period. We actually got to touch one of the books, and it was amazing how different the paper was and just to be able to hold it. The day I got to “pat the book” is still one of my favorite memories. DVDs/VHS tapes just don’t have that component to them.

I also have some Jean Plaidy novels on my shelf that belonged to my (deceased) grandmother. I like reading them, knowing that my grandmother read these books and bookmarked them and turned the pages, and it’s a connection thing.

So even though I love being able to easily tote my Kindle around with me, there’s something about books that I don’t think is ever going to totally go away. I think bookstores, especially those wonderful little used bookstores, are not going anywhere.

4 loribeth { 05.27.14 at 9:59 am }

I don’t think books are going to totally go the way of the dinosaur. But I am not sure all the bookstores we have right now will survive either. 🙁 There have been a huge number of small independent bookstores that have closed in the Toronto area in recent years, and even Chapters (the megabookstore chain, a la Barnes & Noble in the States) has closed some stores recently. The ones that are left have been gradually scaling back on the actual number of books they hold. My local suburban Chapters underwent a renovation a few years ago & carved out a huge kids section that takes up probably 1/4 of the store space… but there are probably more books than toys, & we find parents tend to treat it like a play area — it is constantly full of shrieking toddlers whose voices carry throughout the store. The space that’s left has also been changing — I would say at least another 1/3 of the store is now filled with various tchtochkes (sp) — journals, cards, stationery, women’s scarves, pillows, mugs, gourmet candy & cookies, frames, etc. It’s sad & infuriating, but apparently it’s profitable. :p

Dh & I have developed a Saturday night ritual over the past 15-20 (gulp!) years since our local Chapters opened — most Saturdays, we go out for dinner & then head to the bookstore, pick up drinks at the in-store Starbucks & then browse for an hour or so before heading home again or on to the evening’s other activities (visiting FIL, for example). Yes, we can buy books more cheaply online &.or in e-reader format (& sometimes we do) — but you simply can’t & don’t browse an online bookstore website in the same way that you browse through a bricks & mortar store. I often find books in the store that I’m sure I never would have found or bought online. And yes, while I do enjoy my e-reader for commuting & travel, I still like the feel of a book in my hands. In some cases, I still buy the paper version. For example, the book about the Beatles I bought is way too heavy to lug around in its paper/hardcover version — but it’s way harder to flip around in an e-reader (peek ahead at the ending of novels, lol) — so I read the e-version on the train & then look at the stuff in the footnotes in my hardcover version when I get home at night.

I don’t know what we’d do if our local store closed. 🙁 We don’t like the changes, but we’d rather have some sort of bookstore around than none at all.

5 a { 05.27.14 at 10:01 am }

I hope bookstores don’t go the way of video stores. That would mean libraries are soon to follow. They’re still holding on, I think.

6 Life Breath Present { 05.27.14 at 11:36 am }

Although video stores never had too much of an appeal for me personally (I like reading more), I remember going to them as a kid. Sometimes that’d be a family weekend thing. We’d get to rent a few videos, us kids, and mom and dad rented a few things that they were interested in watching with us. Good times happened around some videos. I don’t recall exactly when I stopped even going to the video store, but I do remember I did. I honestly can’t remember the last time, that’s how long it’s been….and I’m only in my 30s.

Bookstores on the other hand. Love to go browsing through the shelves, especially used books, seeing what’s out there and choosing something to read or learn from. Even bookstores where I buy something new, same thing. I love being able to pick out a bunch of books and look through them, maybe even read a bit (just as you) before making my purchase.

I don’t believe bookstores will ever become obsolete. There’s so much involved in reading that bookstores are a necessity. I, too, like that I can purchase a digital book and put it on my Nook, but we like to have books around the house. I like to hold a book in my hand sometimes while I’m relaxing in bed or on the couch reading.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.27.14 at 3:05 pm }

I have to say, I can’t remember the last time I browsed at a bookstore. I should remedy that soon.

Ewwww on the return slots. Just ewww.

8 Pepper { 05.27.14 at 4:16 pm }

I worry about bookstores. I don’t frequent them as much as I used to because I try to save money and use my library or end up buying digital copies of books I do want to own. My closest bookstore is 20 minutes away by car and I simply don’t make the trek. But I used to. When I was single and then when I was married and childless, I loved to spend hours there. I want that experience to still be there for people who do have the time and inclination. I love to take my daughter there and let her look at all the books, stop and have a treat, browse all the sections of books we likely won’t read. I want to continue to take my daughter there to pick out books when she starts reading. So I make it a point, at least once a year, to go into my local bookstore and actually buy a full-priced, brand new book. It may not be much but I already saw one chain close and the other big chain closed a nearby location last month. It may be once a year, but I feel like it’s something.

9 Pam/wordgirl { 05.28.14 at 12:29 am }

If Jeff Bezos has his way … There is something about the confluence of the dismissal of liberal arts education combined with the systematic gutting of the literary institutions (albeit distribution businesses at their core) all for money rather than art.

Boy I am getting oooooold and uber-crotchety.

Xo

10 deathstar { 05.28.14 at 2:13 am }

There’s a video store in our neighbourhood but I never go in. All the Blockbusters and Rogers video stores are gone now….years ago we were in there at least twice a week, perusing the shelves. Ah, good memories. Kind of like book stores. Before Chapters/Indigo there was Duthies bookstore (2 very large stores) here in Vancouver and Coles bookstore (a chain) out east. Both are gone now. I used to go to Duthies and look for smart guys. Which was a bad idea, because what kind of guy hangs out in a bookstore in the middle of the day when he should be working so he could afford to take me out?

11 Brid { 05.28.14 at 2:35 am }

Coles isn’t just Eastern… we have one here in PG, but I think Chapters, Indigo and Coles are one in the same now.
We also have a wicked local bookstore. It’s big, with a cafe/lunch spot, and an arts space for intimate concerts, art exhibits, etc… as well. Maybe the cafe and art space carries the bookstore…. I saw Jill Barber there and it was awesome… small and close, so cool. Hopefully the other aspects of the business can keep the bookstore alive. Nothing compares to spending an afternoon fingering thorough the shelves to find the next best things to read.

12 Tiara { 05.28.14 at 1:56 pm }

I worked in a video store too! Best job ever.

I fear bookstores will see the same fate as video stores…& then what about libraries?

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