Let’s hop into the mental time machine to travel back to a place before the internet became so fast and advanced that nobody ever had to leave their houses: a time where people would have to go to video stores. Although most likely nobody reading this is too young to not remember these places (unless I have a readership with a kid on another kid’s shoulders wearing a trench coat and sunglasses going by the name Mann Adultguy), for the uninitiated the very idea of a video store is a completely foreign concept for most people currently under 10 in America–and in just a few short generations will be a distant memory that only old-timers talk about.
I worked in a video store for one wonderful summer in 2000–NJ Video on Route 88, next to a laundromat and just up the road from the OB Diner in my hometown of Point Pleasant. It’s a dance studio now. That was one of the better moments in my life, driving my old ‘85 Dodge Caravan (a hand-me-down from my folks) while blasting my beloved Velvet Underground’s Loaded/Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine tape (now since long lost, like many homemade relics from the cassette days) on my way to a job where all I did was watch movies all day. We’d open at 10 AM and close at 10 PM and if that video store didn’t permanently close down at the end of that summer I might have worked there forever. It remains my favorite job I’ve ever had; if the world didn’t move on from the physical rental system of movies, I might have even opened a video store of my own when I grew up.
I’ve already mentioned one of the better aspects of the job–watching as many movies as you wanted all day–and as anyone that follows me on here knows, I like movies: talking about them, writing about them, reading about them, watching them, all of it. Such a complex art form that spans so many genres over such a great breadth of time that address the panoply of human emotions and address the human experience itself–what’s not to love?
But there were so many other incredible things about it. It was genteel work, for starters: most people that came in were happy to be there because they were looking forward to picking out a movie to watch and enjoy. Customers would mostly be friendly and even ask you for recommendations or just talk to you for a while about films.
The work was clean, as well: you’d just process returns and rent outgoing videos, put them back on the shelf, straighten out disorganized video sections, and that was pretty much it. Between long stretches of the day where nothing would happen, all you had to do was watch movies, read books, and pass the time in this odd little pocket of the universe filled with thousands of box art covers on rows of shelves. It was some of the most enjoyable work I’ve ever engaged in, and although it was brief (as mentioned, the store closed down at the end of the summer–not because people weren’t renting movies anymore but because the owners had done some rather foolish things financially), it was a one of the more memorable summers of my life (Incidentally, I would go on to write a screenplay about my experiences that summer, which has been locked away in a case with all of the other short stories, scripts, and first draft novels I grounded out in my youth).
With my last paycheck and with the store closing and selling off their stock, I spent it all on videos from the store. At one time, I owned every Woody Allen movie up to that date, along with all of my favorite 90’s movies, sci-fi classics, and odd art films. I still have a few floating around with the NJ Video stickers and barcodes still stuck to them, somewhere in the stacks of my past that are gathering dust in the basement, probably alongside that case of unproduced and unpublished work.
What I miss from that time period, or maybe even of the past in general, are these sorts of shared spaces. So many people would stop and chat in the aisles with their neighbors who were looking for a flick to watch; couples would come in holding hands looking for a romantic movie; gaggles of friends would bomb through with their pack to rent a horror movie for the weekend; or families would come in on Fridays and Saturdays as their kids went to rent a video game or their favorite movie while mom and dad found something to watch later that night. It was a shared space that had only one purpose: so people could find something to watch to pleasantly pass a few hours. They’d get into their cars, drive across town, walk around aisles neatly organized and categorized videos with their box art faced outwards to entice them to rent, walk up to the counter, pass along some civil banter, pay a few bucks (or a few late fees), and off they went again. There was something so human about it all, so social.
Now nobody needs to do any of that; they can flip on their TV and in just a few short clicks watch anything they could ever possibly want without having to get up from the couch, much less leave the house. Nobody becomes acquainted with familiar faces or goes through the ritual of social protocol in these shared spaces. And that’s too bad: there was something about the shared experience of these other spaces, these heterotopias, of the culture of video stores whose essence is now lost forever in America’s increasingly hazy past.
Progress marches on but we lose the little things along the way that made the past special and different from now. Everything is flat and slick and fast. But clunky VHS tapes, rows and rows of box art, and walking through aisles of movies just to find the right one for that night wasn’t just a format–it was an experience. A shared cultural experience. And it’s one that I yearn for as much as I yearn for the past–not a specific biographical past but an experiential one that disappeared long before I realized how much I would miss it one day.