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Cardboard Kids with Glowing Eyes: An Ode to the Age of Video Stores

    I suppose the advantages of streaming movies greatly outweigh the disadvantages; in fact, it’s quite possible that there aren’t any disadvantages of which to speak. Conclusively, the quality of digital movies (whether via HD streaming or Blu-ray disc) makes that of VHS tapes seem positively unacceptable by comparison, to the point that most people born after 1993 or thereabouts are likely to be baffled by the fact that we were ever able to be satisfied with it. And talk about inconvenience, right? We had to go out to a store, browse through a physical selection of movies, occasionally cope with the fact that the movie we were looking for might not be in stock, and then return the movies we rented by a specified due date. Logically, there’s simply no defense of video stores when you compare them with the way we watch movies today. Convenience, quality, accessibility, and selection all weigh heavily in favor of streaming.
    Why, then, does it seem like so many people my age actually miss video stores? Maybe it was the experience of it all: the fact that, as a child, going to the video store on a Friday night was an event. Sometimes the excitement of browsing through the video store in search of that one VHS cover that would jump out at our impressionable little eyes was just as great—and sometimes even more so—as watching the movie itself. To physically pick up that worn-out rectangular box, study the artwork, read the description on the back, and feel the jangling and clicking of the tape inside as we moved our hands…I don’t know why that all seems important in my memory, but it does. As much as I’m glad I now have access to pretty much any movie ever made simply by pressing a few buttons on my remote or clicking the mouse on my laptop, the process of renting a movie (do we even say “rent” anymore, or just “watch?”) is a cold, mundane activity. Of course the experience of watching a movie can still be powerful and at times even transcendent, but the process of watching a movie can’t be that anymore. For the most part, the memories we have of watching movies will be restricted to the movies themselves, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, but I can’t help but feel a tinge of remorse that I won’t be forming any new memories like the ones I have of renting movies as a child.
    VHS first appeared in the United States in 1977, but it didn’t become a household fixture until around the mid ‘80s. From then, it was by far the most prominent way in which to watch movies at home until at least the late ‘90s (the second-most popular being to simply watch airings of movies on TV, and a very, very distant third being laserdiscs). DVDs started being sold in the U.S. in 1997 (a full 20 years after the first VHS tapes were released, which shows you how much longer it once took for new technology to be developed), but they didn’t fully dismantle the VHS format until around 2000. It was in 2001 that Blockbuster stores officially began weeding out their VHSs to carry solely DVDs. So just to give a rough estimate, the “VHS era” lasted from about 1980 to 2000, so more or less 20 years. By comparison, the “DVD era” lasted about 9 years, from 2000 to 2009. This is when both Blu-rays and streaming really took off on a large-scale level. I remember video stores beginning to carry Blu-ray discs, but their selection was still very small by the time most of them were forced to close. The relevance of video stores, therefore, was probably just about—but not quite—30 years. Consider for a moment how short this is for an entire industry to last. I think it’s fair to say that Blu-ray purchases, VOD rentals, and streaming services are widely perceived as being merely components under the umbrella of the larger movie industry rather than industries unto themselves. The video store, however, was very much its own industry; yes, it was an industry based on movies, but it was somehow separate from the movie industry. It was an industry and, more importantly, an experience all its own.
    My point is that the video store era fits into a decidedly narrow age gap, making the phenomenon perhaps all the more special to those who cherish it. But is it just nostalgia that makes video stores seem great in retrospect? Is it just the mere fact of their association with our childhoods that makes some (including myself, of course) in my generation look back upon them with a sense of loss and a feeling that something is emotionally unsatisfying about the current state of watching movies at home? I won’t deny that it’s a contributing factor; after all, everybody at one time or another looks back fondly on their childhood, and that can often result in glorifying things that are objectively not as wonderful as we remember them being and whose only real value is the sentiment we’ve attached to them. As much as I try to conjure up some sort of semi-objective approach to my defense of video stores, it would be false to write this with any pretense of objectivity, and what’s worse, it would be boring. Nobody wants to hear about the advantages and disadvantages of going to a video store versus streaming movies digitally. I’m sure there are some people, however, who would want to hear about my own personal experiences at video stores, because it will probably bring them back. This is a profoundly generational thing, after all, and even though I never wanted to become one of those people who talks about how much better things were in their time for no good reason other than “because I was there,” I’m afraid that’s what it’s come to. I don’t have any rational arguments as to why video stores were better than digital streaming. Deep down inside, I even know that they weren’t better. But I often let my emotions get the best of me, and my emotional argument is simply to tell younger people, “Your memories won’t be as vivid or meaningful as mine.”
    There were two video stores I frequented during my childhood. The first one was indeed a Blockbuster, and while my adult mentality leads me to think I should be ashamed for having such a strong fondness for what was in its prime a major corporation that was probably guilty of many of the same things other giant corporations are guilty of, I can’t really work up any shame in my feelings. I loved that Blockbuster, and I have too many memories that took place there for me to ever resent the fact that it was objectively an impersonal experience. But that’s just the thing: childhood doesn’t really allow for concepts like objectivity and impersonality. No child is ever objective, and every experience is a personal one. That’s why when people say how depressing it is that children love going to McDonald’s, I feel less sorry for the children than I do for the person making the comment. Of course children love going to McDonald’s; children love going anywhere that isn’t school or the doctor’s office. I see nothing wrong with having fond memories of Blockbuster, McDonald’s, or any other corporate chain. If you were taken to nothing but mom and pop shops as a kid, then all of your fond memories will be of those, because that’s where you were taken. There’s nothing better or worse about that as opposed to people who have fond memories of mega-chains. It’s not that sort of thing even passes through your head when you’re a kid. Back then, it never even occurred to me that I was visiting just one out of thousands of Blockbuster locations. To me, that was Blockbuster: the big, blue-carpeted video store in the strip mall with the bargain store where I got all my Fright Time books. There was a pizzeria there called Carlo’s, which was the main place from which I got pizza. They also served Italian ice there, which I’d also get quite often. There was an Old Country Buffet across the street, and they built a Petco next door to the Blockbuster not too long before I moved. I didn’t have to look any of that up; that’s all in my memory. For all I know, none of those places are still there (the Blockbuster almost certainly isn’t).
    One Saturday night, we picked up some pepperoni pizza from Carlo’s and rented some videos. I say “videos” rather than “movies” because on that particular night, we didn’t rent movies. I remember I chose to rent one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series VHS release. In fact, I remember the exact one: it was the one with killer pizza aliens. I don’t even remember much from the actual episodes, but I have a very firm recollection of the VHS cover. And I remember being in the video store knowing full well that I’d seen the episodes a number of times already, but I just felt like watching it. Remember, this was before you were able to own entire series on DVD and watch them anytime you wanted. Sure, you could buy the VHS releases of TV shows, but each release only contained two to four (but usually only two) episodes, so you had to pick your favorites wisely. I came home and basked in that irreplaceable delight that any kid my age got from eating pizza while watching Ninja Turtles. Later that night, of course, was Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and even though that doesn’t directly relate to the video store, it’s a part of the memory of that day. I don’t remember what episode it was, just like I don’t remember the content of the Turtles episode. I do, however, remember very minute details of browsing the aisle at Blockbuster that day and settling on that Ninja Turtles tape. I remember standing in line next to the display of Twizzlers, the sun having just begun its descent shining softly through the window and giving the whole area of the register a sort of faint, orange glow. I remember leaving with the tape in my hand, studying the artwork and reading the back description (not that I hadn’t already done so numerous times before both on that day and on previous occasions) as we walked back over to Carlo’s to pick up the pizza. I remember the smell of the pizza, and I remember getting a sky-blue Italian ice for the ride home (don’t ask me what flavor that actually was). For better or worse, I remember the trip to the video store more than I remember the content of what I rented. You’d be surprised how often that was the case. Or maybe, if you grew up at around the same time, you wouldn’t be surprised.
    I rarely bought movies back then, but I remember one of the few times I was allowed to buy one was when I came across Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. I didn’t even play Street Fighter II that much back then, even though I owned it. Frankly, I was much more into Mortal Kombat II. But you know, when you have a friend coming over for a sleepover and there’s an animated movie based on a video game (this was when that was a rare occurrence) that they don’t have in stock for renting, you go into begging mode and put on the “I’ll do an extra good job of cleaning my room” act. Mainly I just remember being intrigued by the fact that Chun-Li had a shower scene. I would later learn that in the original Japanese version, they actually showed her breasts (the American version was censored to get a PG-13 rating). Imagine my disappointment.
    As many memories as that Blockbuster gave me, though, it still wasn’t the main video store I frequented back then. That honor would go to a little independently owned video store called Easy Video. It was in the big plaza even closer to my house that also had a Shop Rite and a comic book store (until they moved the comic book store next door to the elementary school in what was obviously a stroke of marketing genius). It was a comparatively small store, but the selection was just as good, if not even slightly better. Plus they had big cardboard displays in the store. Do you know how cool big cardboard displays are to a six-year-old boy? Those displays were my window into the adult world for a while. I say this because they would invariably be advertising R-rated movies, and staring at these big displays would put my imagination to work on what those movies must have been like. I was way off, of course, but I guess it didn’t matter. I didn’t have any internet that allowed me to look up the movies and find out the plots or look up clips or trailers on YouTube. That big cardboard display of Uma Thurman lying on a bed looking seductively into the camera…what was that about? Pulp Fiction? I had no idea what it was supposed to be. It was obviously a movie about sex, I figured. There was no other reason for this woman to be looking so seductively into the camera. That’s what all R-rated movies were in my mind: pornography. If I hadn’t heard of it through commercials on Nickelodeon or advertisements in Disney Adventures, it must be nothing but people having sex. You know, stuff that parents watch.
    When the Showgirls display came out, oh my god. Forget about it. Some obviously nude woman cut off at just the right (or wrong) parts against a black background? It’s like they weren’t even trying to hide it from me anymore. As far as I knew, there was no middle ground between the movies I was watching and full-on pornography. I mean, I had seen Aliens, which I didn’t know at the time was an R-rated movie, but I figured that and Jurassic Park were the pinnacle of cinematic maturity. Beyond that, there was only porn. I was convinced that my parents—and all adults, really—were renting Showgirls while I was content being entirely sure that I was never going to want to watch icky stuff like that. Clearly, Jurassic Park and The Mask were better than those stupid movies grownups were watching. I mean, they had sophisticated plots and stuff. Grownups just didn’t know what they were talking about, because really, nobody could be watching better movies than what I was watching. There was no way I was missing out on anything important. I was absolutely convinced of this.
    Well, almost, anyway. There was also the horror aisle. The horror aisle is where I lived vicariously throughout my childhood and fostered what would eventually become perhaps the primary obsession of my life. I guess some DVD covers nowadays are still pretty intriguing, but nothing will ever compare to the VHS covers they made for horror movies during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Just looking at the boxes was enough to make me feel like I had seen the movies. I had a slight problem at one point with falling asleep at night. Maybe every kid goes through this at some point. I’m not sure. In any case, it wasn’t because I had watched any scary movies. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw an actual horror movie until I was maybe ten. But I had seen those VHS boxes at Easy Video, and horror movies were therefore screened in the theater of my overactive imagination. Did I know what Candyman was about when I was a kid? No. But I passed by the cover every time I went into that store, and every time I made it a point to subtly walk by it again and again to get another glimpse at that cover. It scared the hell out of me, but for some reason I kept wanting to look at it..
    The big one that scared me was yet another cardboard display. Easy Video for whatever reason decided to place this display at the end of the children’s aisle, so it was unavoidable. I didn’t have to sneak past the horror section while pretending to be just passing through on my way back to the children’s aisle; it was right there for me to look at. In retrospect, I have no idea why it caused me so much trouble sleeping at night. But there it was: a big cardboard display of John Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned. Again, I had no idea what it was about. I probably would have been less scared had I read a synopsis of it. But I wasn’t able to at the time, because it was just an advertisement for a movie that was not yet available for rental, meaning I couldn’t just pick up the box and read it. It was intimidating, that row of eerie, white-haired kids with glowing orange eyes. I didn’t know what to make of it. I mean, it wasn’t like it was a shadowy figure with a hook for hand; it was a bunch of children with glowing eyes. Why was that so scary to me? At the time, I still thought “damn” was a very bad word, so maybe it had something to do with the fact that the word “damned” was right there in the title, plain as day, that made it seem so forbidden and daunting. In a giant clusterfuck of movie confusion and thrown-in imaginative interpretation, I mixed the movie up with Children of the Corn in my mind, and even then, I didn’t know what Children of the Corn was about, so the result was this: I stayed awake at nights sometimes convinced that there were a bunch of little white-haired children with glowing orange eyes in my closet, and I knew they were there because I could hear them chewing on corn. That’s nothing I would ever have gotten from watching any movie. That irrational and frankly embarrassing nightly terror was caused solely by a cardboard advertisement at a video store that made my imagination freak out.
    That’s the sort of thing that’s irreplaceable about video stores. In the days before internet (or at least before I had internet) and streaming movies, simply browsing through a video store could give me nightmares. That horror section was the bane of my existence, and at the same time, it was a perverse fascination of mine. You might even call it an obsession. If I were a kid now, I’d just look up the movies on IMDb, read the synopses, and be done with it. The mystery of not knowing what these movies were and not being able to find out had such a profound effect on me. Maybe that’s the conclusion I’ve been grasping for this whole time: streaming takes all the mystery out of movies. You aren’t given much of an opportunity to let your imagination run wild with what you think the movie might be about; if you want to know, you can just watch it, anywhere, anytime. And if not, you can at least look up the trailer on YouTube, and you can skim through all the comments and reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and get a pretty good idea of what it is. I suppose that’s why most movies don’t bother with interesting covers anymore. What you mostly see is images of the movie’s stars (often just their faces) plastered across the box with some vague image that literalizes the movie far too much and leaves little to the imagination. You’re expected to already know what the movie is about, and if you don’t, you can always just look it up. Why bother trying to lure you in with the cover alone, right? People already know what movies they want to see before they’re even released. Browsing is a thing of the past. I suppose people still browse on Netflix and whatnot, but they’re reading the descriptions more than looking at the covers. In fact, unless you highlight the individual movie, you don’t even get a good look at the cover. It’s truly a lost art. When video stores were the only way of even finding out about movies…well, there I go again babbling on about “back in my day.”
    This is not to say that my roughly biweekly visits to Easy Video were all traumatizing experiences. Obviously, most of the movies that really meant something to me as a child were found there too. There was this one video that I rented all the time. I’m sure most people in my age group will recognize it. It was called Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.  It was a short, PSA-type video about drugs, except it was a cartoon that featured a whole slew of famous cartoon characters. Most importantly to my personal taste, Slimer was in the video. I’m pretty sure the only reason I rented it in the first place was because Slimer was on the cover. Alf was in it too, although I wasn’t aware he was a cartoon character (and as far as I know, he never was except for in this video). It had some of the Looney Tunes, Winnie the Pooh, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a bunch more. Anyway, I don’t actually remember too much from the movie (I actually revisited it last year, but due to the…um…mental condition that I was in whilst watching it, I still don’t remember the details). It was about some teenage kid with brown hair who wore purple jeans if I remember correctly, and there was one scene that took place inside his brain after he smoked weed. Did the message get through? No. Slimer was in it. I didn’t care about the message. I only rented it because of the cover. And I rented it probably a dozen times. Clearly the message didn’t get through to me, but whatever. It was a cartoon that was free to rent because George H.W. Bush commissioned it as part of an anti-drug campaign. Let’s just leave out the latter part of that sentence. It was, I must emphasize, a free cartoon.
    There’s a movie I used to rent from Easy Video all the time that I’ve never been able to rediscover or even find out its title. I’ve tried doing searches on Google, IMDb, and Wikipedia. To this day, I don’t know what it’s called or how I’d go about finding it again. But perhaps I don’t really want to. It might be better leaving it as some shockingly detailed childhood memory. It was a little animated video about these brown rabbits who wore yellow pants and lived in this cozy little hole. I think it was only about twenty minutes long, and it may have included another animated short on the same cassette, but I don’t remember if it did. I just remember the one about the rabbits. I mainly remember it because of one scene in which the mother rabbit is cooking a carrot stew in this enormous (compared to her size) pot, and I used to always get hungry for soup. I think I actually made it a point to rent that video whenever my mom made chicken soup for dinner so that I could watch it and feel like I was participating in the coziness and innocent comfort of the movie. Even as a kid, I responded more to atmosphere and feeling than I did to plot. That was just a movie that made me feel warm and cozy, like I wanted to crawl into bed under my flannel sheets and cuddle with my giant mound of stuffed animals while eating from a big porcelain bowl of chicken soup. Like I said, I don’t know what the movie is called, and I doubt I’ll ever find it again, but I certainly remember where I got it from, and I remember holding it in my hands at Easy Video on multiple occasions.
    I don’t really know if I have an overall point. I feel as though this is the part where I should be writing some conclusive statement on the cultural or generational significance of video stores, or at the very least offering a final cathartic reflection on my own personal experiences with them. I don’t really have an ending. Such is the nature of memory, I suppose. When you’re struck by a vivid memory, do you construct it in your mind’s eye with a concrete beginning, middle, and end? So I don’t know how to end this, and I don’t know what my point was. Sometimes I just like revisiting memories. I miss the feeling of walking through a video store without feeling like I’m familiar with all of the titles. Perhaps it’s bliss in ignorance or naivety, but as a child, there was a sense while browsing through a video store that it was possible to someday see every movie ever made. It would take a long time, of course, but there was some finite number of movies in that store, and I thought that if I really wanted to, I could make my way through all of them as soon as I was old enough to include all the R-rated porn movies. As it is now, I feel so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data at my disposal that I often struggle to settle on a single movie. I don’t know if I’d still feel that way if video stores were still the way of the world. Granted, the neighborhood I live in now still has a few video stores around, and one of them even still stocks VHSs. I would like to visit one day and browse around for old times’ sake, but I’d also probably feel self-conscious knowing that the mere act of doing so would be a retro activity, perhaps done with an overriding layer of irony.
    Maybe it would be better to just let video stores remain a pure memory in my mind and not attempt to convince myself that I can still find relevance for them in today’s digital age. It would be comforting, I guess, to be able to search through the horror aisle again, to be transfixed by the mysterious cover art. But it wouldn’t work that way. I’m too familiar with all the titles now. It would never be the same. And I’m fine with that. I realize that I’m an adult now, and my days of wide-eyed impressionability are over. It just saddens me a little to know that those days are over for everybody when it comes to this particular phenomenon. Nobody will ever develop memories like this again.
    People will have more access to a wider variety of movies than they ever have before, but their minds will never be filled with thoughts of what the movie in that big cardboard display might be about. They’ll never overhear the teenage clerks discussing the cleavage of the woman in the elevator in Liar Liar. No matter how many memories are created by the movies themselves, I can’t help but feel sad when I think about how the current generation of children will only remember clicking a button on a remote—or worse, on an iPad—in order to watch a movie. There’s a Tom Waits lyric that goes “But there’s one thing you can’t lose, and it’s that feel.” In writing this whole thing, whatever it ultimately says (if anything at all), it’s what I’ve concluded for myself: like all memories, the details may fade, and the ability to recreate them certainly will, but the feel—the feel of being there, having all of my senses in tune to that singular and now extinct environment—will not be lost, and for what it’s worth, I’m glad I grew up within the narrow frame of time that allowed me to feel that.

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