The strip mall has no name, just a double-storeyed row of shops, with an improbably retro collection of services — a flotation tank outfit, a jazzercise studio, the glass gallery — in a place with no name. “We just call it … East Boulder” said the guy in the herbal healing store. It’s down in the lower part of the mall, beneath the retro sign “video station”, and it’s just as you remember it, even though you’ve never been there. There’s a poster for a film you’ve never heard of — Outdriven — a notice about new arrangements for after-hours drop off, and a printed-out opening hours sign, with scribbled on changes.
When you go in, the shelves seem to part in front of you, with new releases facing you on the wall on one side, comedy, with its white and pink and yellow covers going in another direction, action and adventure a swarm of black and red, foreign films classified by country France, Iran, Uruguay. Down the back, cult and classics. To the right, snacks, extra large, racks of bags of chocolates and boutique popcorn. The front counter and sanctum behind, racks of silver DVDs in plastic sleeves, the DVD polisher like a machine press, the whiteboard with titles coming soon, the old posters and the hipster jokes, a “rewind your DVDs” poster in mock-’50s style.
You get that feeling again, the one you remember as the same all your life, from different places: from a bar as an adult, from a toy store as a kid, and from a video store all your life, that sense of possibility and endless bounty contained within four walls. There have been changes; the DVD cases are too slim, there’s too many of them, the old VHS covers used to groan on the shelves like decorated bricks. Somewhere in here is the best movie you’ve never seen, the movie you will simply stumble across, and take you down a whole other path.
That was even better when you were 16, and there were no more Simpson/Bruckheimer films to watch, and instead you saw Chinatown or Charley Varrick or Persona or a million other things. Bookshops do that too, but there’s something about movies that makes it different, their capacity to surround and immerse, watched in a darkened living room, but now contained in a box. They are going now, going faster than bookshops, having just arrived. You could have been in your 30s in the ’80s, your tastes and habits set, and easily never or barely ever have been into a video store — and now, as they are going, still be in your 60s, doing your tai chi and looking forward to another 25 years of life, by the end of which they will all be gone beyond a memory.
But for anyone in a rough band from the first cohort of Gen X to the tail end of Gen Y — poor old Gen Y, that really is a consolation prize ain’t it — it’s impossible to imagine growing up without it. (Hell, maybe even the millennials get a card). When they’ve all gone, this place, Video Station of Boulder, with its 40,000 titles and college town membership pool, may well be the last holdout. Which would be fitting, because Video Station was the first of them. It’s the oldest continuously operating video store in the US, perhaps the world, going strong since 1982. “Did you know this was the oldest video store in …” I said to Noah, the bearish mildly hipster day manager. “Yeah I know,” he said, “I’ve done the research”. Now, that’s a video store day manager. The sign, with its tear-drop lettering, redolent of I dunno, Leif Garrett and the messiah-break, is no retro, it’s an original, cuneiform survival.
History records that Alexander Graham Bell proposed a protocol for the new invention he had just stolen — when calling someone on the telephone, one should use the phrase “ahoy”. There was no dial-tone, no ring; picking up the phone you spoke directly to the operator across an infinite space. No-one knew what it was, so a hailing expressing distance seemed appropriate. In the late 1970s, when Hollywood studios began licensing a few movies for the three new video formats — VHS, Betamax and the mysterious third format which readers are invited to guess — they were distributed by mail.
In 1977, George Atkinson, a camera store owner, ordered a full set in each of VHS and Beta, and set aside a corner of the shop as a display, and began renting them out. The move attracted the immediate attention of Hollywood — in the form of lawsuits trying to prevent video rental, seeing the market as a high-end, purchase model, a sort of Playboy-advert-quadrophonic-stereo-ad luxury. Once that had been sorted (it’s a complicated story beyond even the obsessiveness of this piece), Atkinson began to loosely franchise the idea.
“The whole idea of cult cinema wouldn’t exist without video stores, and nor would the sort of pre-fabricated cult flick — indy film but not all of it — that succeeded it.”
But what to call it? Was it a store? A library? None of these? It was a drop-in and pick-up sort of place, part of a change in the whole pattern of life. You weren’t going out to watch a movie, with strangers, sitting in front of a projector, at the whim of the movie house. By the mid-’80s, there were 600 Video Stations across the country, independent businesses using the brand. They were the largest stores in the pre-Blockbuster era, big beasts in the sort of Protozoic era of video stores, when they were often as not a set of 20 titles on a shelf in a milk bar.
But though they were ostensibly a brand, the Video Stations were individual stores, each conformed to the tastes of the owner — and they went the way of all independent video stores, that weren’t arthouse, when Blockbuster rose to prominence. Blockbuster, with its economies of scale, its unlimited quantities of big-budget new releases, and its thin backlist, was the death-knell of the Golden era of video, when each store was dealer’s choice — but also opened up a vista of possibilities that had hitherto been dependent on TV cycles and rep. cinemas (which, as I noted earlier, have their own pleasures).
Video stores thus, improbably, opened up the last great era of a relatively unified Hollywood movie production process, vastly expanding audience numbers over time. History may well record the cinema era as prelude to that last great gasp of Hollywood. But the other equally important thing it did was to change the process of self-formation in culture. For adolescence extended into the 20s, in the new style, a video store wasn’t just a place where you found a way to escape from life, it was a place where you found ways to enter it — different ways of being a self, different filters through which to view the world.
It was a way in which cultural consumption began to differentiate people into different consumer classes, different ways of being in the world, whether you saw the range of acceptable viewing running from Top Gun to Breakfast Club and back again, or whether you composed your own triple features, jamming together Thursday’s Game with L’Atalante and that James Belushi movie where he’s a cop in Russia, you know the one. Rep.
Cinema did that too, but video stores increased the speed and reach of that process, until it became a different sort of thing. The whole idea of ‘cult’ cinema — something between arthouse, classic, kitsch and obscure, drawing in parts of all four, but each differently assembled in each different store. The whole idea of cult cinema wouldn’t exist without video stores, and nor would the sort of pre-fabricated cult flick — indy film but not all of it — that succeeded it.
It was the distinct mix of limits and freedom that gave the video store its unique hold, and also its placefulness. At Video Station Boulder — two owners in 32 years — the customers came and went as I hung out with Noah, and browsed the place’s ‘staff picks’ section, a sort of wall of one-upmanship terror for cinephiles. You think you’ve seen staff picks celebrating the obscure, the perverse and the ironically obvious — the Video Station wall is like a joint seminar by Slavoj Zizek, Traci Lords and Professor Dr. George Steiner.
“We’ve got a pretty loyal base,” Noah said, as people came in not merely to change vids, but to get advice, a snap judgement — “my daughter sent me this, is it worth watching?” — and to get old DVDs polished up like precious stones. And then, mid-arvo, she came in, in a dark blue dress, a Bettie Page-black fringe, and matte-red lipstick, and drifted round the ‘noir’ section, which is sorted not merely by directors but also cinematographers. It would have been positively destructive to ask her any questions, she probably just ran the jazzercise studio.
She looked like a woman who had her husband’s body in the freezer, the hands removed, taken to a motel every couple of weeks to leave fingerprints, establish proof of life and a credit card trail, while she builds an alibi, before dumping his body in the Red River. While waiting, she watches DVDs. She got her movie, and kissed her fingers and placed them on the lips of Cary Grant in a poster on the counter.
Now that is a moment in space and time, entombed by the culture of a century, its fantasies and pretensions, impossible to know whether she had come in from the outside, or jumped off a cover and was making a break for it. “One hundred and six thousand,” Noah said, in answer to an earlier query. “We have issued 106,000 membership cards in our history. Call that, what, half a million people who’ve rented from the place?” The way we lived then, that way of pleasure going, like the electrophone and the rented Hogarth print, faded like old posters left too long in the window, like that copy of Moonstruck you took with when you moved cities, and still have.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review