Video Stores: Shared Spaces & Experiences

Let’s hop into the mental time machine and travel back before the internet became so omniscient nobody ever had to leave the house or directly interact with another human being ever again. 

Unless I have a readership comprised of kids on other kid’s shoulders wearing a trenchcoat and sunglasses going by the name Mann Adultguy, a fair amount of you remember video stores. But for most people 18 and under, a video store is a completely foreign concept and in just a few short generations will be a distant memory that only old-timers like myself 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 Loaded/Sonic Youth Washing Machine tape (now long lost, like many relics from the cassette mix tape 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. If the world didn’t move on from the physical rental system of movies, I would have opened up my own. 

I’ve already mentioned one of the better aspects of the job, watching as many movies as you wanted to all day, but there were so many other incredible things about it. It was easy going work, for starters: most people that came in were happy to be there because they were looking forward to picking out a movie to enjoy. Customers would mostly be friendly and even ask you for recommendations or just small talk with you for a while about films. 

If you are reading this, you know that me 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 span of time that addresses the panoply of human emotions and the human experience itself. And you got paid to enjoy them all day!

The work was clean. You would just return and rent videos, put them back on the shelf, straighten out disorganized sections, and that was 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; not because people weren’t renting movies anymore but for unrelated business reasons), it was a great moment in my life and one of the more memorable summers of my life. 

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 on them, somewhere, in the stacks of my past that  gather dust, as the past tends to.

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 comedy to watch; couples would stroll in holding hands for a romantic movie; teens and their 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 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 of their lives. They’d get into their cars, drive across town, walk around aisles neatly organized of video box art faced outwards to entice them to rent, walk up to the counter, pass a few words, pay a few bucks (or a few late fees), and off they went. There was something so civil about it, 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. And that’s too bad: there was something about the shared experience of these other spaces, of the culture of video stores whose essence is now lost 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 Now 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 the biographical past, but the experiential one that disappeared long before I realized I would miss it so much one day. 

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