Technology Killed The Video Store

Lee and I have a movie night about once a week. We’re probably among the few folks who haven’t started Netflixing yet. We simply pick something from our cable “on demand” menu, or run down the street and check out our options at the convenience store Redbox.

We never plan ahead. Half the time we don’t even decide it will be movie night until an hour or so before we plant our butts on the couch. Why would we, when we don’t have to – there’s horror, comedy, drama and romance (not that I ever try to get him to go for those) right there with the click of a remote or a trip down the street. No worrying about whether or not the video store is open. No worrying about everything we want to see being unavailable.

Umm … so what? That sounds like us and pretty much anyone reading this. Writing about how easy it is to get a movie now is sort of like blogging about having a computer or a cell phone. If I wasn’t the one writing this, I’d be saying “okay, and your point is? Bet you wipe yourself with toilet paper, too. Will you put up a blog post about that next?”

Never say never, but I’m not planning on it.

The movie thing just fascinates me because it puts me in an odd category. At 15, I got a work permit from my guidance counselor and landed an after-school job at a local video store. I worked there part-time until I was 19.

The store was less than a mile from where I now own a home. The building it was in sits empty now. It wasn’t a Blockbuster or any of the other big-time video store chains that had their day in the sun. It was a small business run by two guys who rented videos and did VCR repair on one side of the building, and ran a barber shop on the other.

Two other girls from my high school worked there with me. We stood behind a counter, with rows and rows of VCR tapes lined up in numerical order behind us. Out in front of us, the covers for the movies sat on shelves arranged under “comedy,” “romance,” “suspense,” “horror,” “thriller,” documentary,” etc. And of course, there was the inevitable “new release” shelf.

Customers would browse and bring the covers to us. We’d look at the number hand-written in black marker on the cover and swap it out for the VCR tape that matched it. We’d put the cover in the slot on our shelf where the tape had been – that was how the customers knew the movie wasn’t available anymore. We’d ring up the rentals on a clanky old cash register – $1.00 for old movies and $2.00 for new releases. The movies were due back the next day, or the customer would be charged an extra dollar. We kept tabs on who owed what on little paper receipts in a small file cabinet that looked like a recipe box. When the videos came back, we put the covers back out on the browsing shelves.

In the back of the store, there was a dark room no bigger than a closet. It was what we all jokingly called “the perv room,” which of course meant it was where the X-rated movies were kept. I don’t think everyone who watches pornos is a perv now. But when you’re 16 or 17 and your beer-bellied neighbor who has a terminal case of plumber’s crack rents “Bad Mamma Jamma” or “Hung Guns” from you …let’s just say you kinda wanna go home and take a long hot shower.

The perv room worked the same way as the main area. Customers went in, browsed the jackets, and selected their movies. When they returned them, we had to go back there and re-shelve the jackets. We weren’t allowed to do that until we turned 18. That meant that on the workday closest to your 18th birthday, the others saved the perv jackets for you all day, and you had a stack bigger than you could carry in one trip to shelve when your shift started. It was a video store clerk’s rite of passage.

I learned a lot working in the video store. Some of it was stuff I’d rather not have known. I probably could have grown old happily without ever realizing that one of my friend’s dads had a serious foot fetish, or that there were 4 or 5 guys in the neighborhood who came in and rented 2 or 3 pornos EVERY single night, and extra ones on Saturdays because we were closed on Sundays.  

There was a couple who came in every weekend and stocked up on “love stories,” as they were sometimes jokingly called. About two years before I left the video store, my father left his job and went into business running his first bar/restaurant. The place he bought needed a ton of work, and he had a crew of friends who were in various trades to help him do everything from build the roof to wire the electricity.

One day when the new bar was close to opening, I came by to check it out. The parking lot was alive with the clanging of hammers and the laughter of men at work. One of the guys who had been up on the roof climbed down so that my dad could introduce him to his daughter. It was the male half of the weekend “love story” couple.

“Hey, that’s my porno girl,” he grinned broadly.

Luckily my dad knew the ins and outs of my part-time job. I imagine most fathers would be a little flipped out by having someone greet their daughter that way.

So yes, there was that. But I learned a lot of other things about my neighborhood from that little job too. I learned that the elderly couple who always bitched about kids cutting across their yard came in hand-and-hand and rented old movies with excited smiles on their faces. I learned that the single mom who lived around the corner rented kid’s movies so that her children would be occupied while she studied for her nursing degree at night. I learned that the police officer who came in a few times a week only rented comedies because he saw enough blood and horror in real life, and that women in their 50’s loved “chick flick nights” as much as me and my girlfriends did. I met an elderly widower who rented all his wife’s favorite movies and watched them each year on her birthday.

I’d always make sure his wife’s movies were available for him, and I’d hide the best new funny flicks until the cop came in. I knew the waitress who worked across the street liked to watch something with Mel Gibson in it on Saturday nights, so I’d set aside one I was pretty sure she hadn’t seen.

Every now and then, a harried family would bring in a broken VCR. The repairman came in a few days a week, and worked from the basement. Once, he called us downstairs to have a look at what he’d found. He’d opened up a VCR to find it crawling with roaches. They oozed out and scuttled across his worktable.

After that, the latest Jason Voorhees in a hockey mask I’d been planning to spook myself with that night didn’t seem so scary.

The video store closed down a few years after I quit. It was eaten alive by a Blockbuster opening close by. The video store chains killed most of the little local shops years before Netflix and On Demand would have done so anyway.

As a busy woman who would rather pick up her remote than try her luck at a mom-and-pop video shop, I am as in love with the conveniences of today as anyone else. But it makes me a little sad to know that I had a “teen job” that taught me so much about my little corner of humanity that no college-bound girl would be able to experience today.

I learned so much about my neck of the woods working in that video store. Somehow, I just don’t think you get the same insider’s look working at McDonald’s. Everyone either does or doesn’t want fries with that. But as a small-town video store clerk,  I saw a thousand quirks and oddities. Some were ugly, but many were beautiful. You discover so much about people when your job is to help them find the movies that suit their lives.

I’m just barely dipping my toes into middle age, and I once had a job that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. The only little video stores I see around here now are pretty much one big “perv room.” I don’t think the experience of working in them would be quite the same.

What about you? Did you have a job somewhere along the way that doesn’t exist anymore because of all the changes in our world? Do our gains with change outweigh our losses?

Note: I wasn’t sure what made me want to write this post at first. But in reflecting, I think it may have been a reaction of sorts to the news of Borders going out of business. After all, this is just an older example of technology and convenience changing the tides and the way we do business …


About hawleywood40

Writer, Steelers Fan in Baltimore, Frequent Visitor to the Shot Fairy
This entry was posted in Childhood Memories, humor, Memoirs, Slices O' Life, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Technology Killed The Video Store

  1. starzyia says:

    I don’t have pay tv (cable) or netflix, neither do I download movies off itunes or anything like that… but sadly, I have abandoned the local video (now dvd) shop. Over the years I noticed the frequency of renting non watchable movies increased as the number of customers increased and the seeming decline of responsibility of the customers in caring for movies they hired. I mean, my last straw was when the video shop gave me a dvd copy of DodgeBall with large chunks snapped out of the outer edge of the disc. Not only would I not put that in my dvd player, I could have used it to slash my wrists, and I was disappointed that the staff would rent it out without ever noticing it had been returned in that condition!
    I still love the idea of walking into a little store like I used to, and doing things the way I used to simply out of nostalgia, and because I’m stubborn and don’t want to be one of these folks who are constantly updating the technology in their home.
    I think you are so right to feel the way you do about your first job, things were simple then, but it was NICE!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Your comment reminded me of how every now and then we’d get tapes brought back all dinged up and mangled. There were some customers we just knew to try to pop the movie in and watch it after they brought it back because chances were it would be messed up. As for me, I’m a complete contradiction. On the one hand, I miss so much about “the good old days.” On the other hand, I am so happy that I can do things like shop online to avoid going out when I want – guess I want it all : ).

  2. Best of all, these first-hand experiences are what we draw on when we write our fiction.

    It worries me that the stay-at-home-and-click-a-button generation will have no experience to draw on when they come to write their own novels, and will just end up re-hashing old film and TV scripts.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      So true Mark. My niece has spent most of her summer riding and working at a horse farm. There’s nothing in the world she’d rather do. I don’t know any other teenager who will get up at 6 am willingly in the summertime! I’m really glad she’s one of the ones who has chosen to get out and experience things rather than just watching or reading about them. You really can tell that some of the students at the college where I work spent most of their lives staring at screens.

  3. l'empress says:

    I had what may have been known as a “nice girl’s” job when I was in high school. I worked in the public library. I’m watching those disappear too. People don’t read the way they used to…and libraries never have enough money for personnel. Soon they won’t need the personnel.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      The library is another place that makes me nostalgic – and feel a little guilty too. I made a committment to start using the library again, and I did, until I got my Kindle. I hope my local library sticks around for a while. They do so much more for the community than just loan books. One of my closest girlfriends in high school also worked in our public library : ).

  4. Rosie says:

    In the early 90’s, I had a job inputting text for people who had alpha-numeric pagers. This was before you could text directly, so let’s say Tim had a pager, and you wanted to remind him about dinner tonight. You would call a number issued to Tim, and I would answer with “Tim’s pager! What message would you like to leave?” Or something like that. The the person on the other end would say, “Hey Tim! Don’t forget dinner at 7 tonight, Ben. P.S. Your turn to bring the gay porn.” And after reading it back and confirming the message, I’d send it off to Tim. Remember, this is before the widespread use of cell phones-back then, they were still in brick form!

    I sent messages about drug deals, hookups of the skankiest kind, and one time I realized that a fellow was leaving his wife a suicide note. I was able to alert management, and while they found the guy’s address and called out the cops, I kept him on the line and talking. When the police got there, he was almost dead, but he survived.

    It was a short-lived industry, I think it lasted about 7 years and then fell to the wayside, probably like regular answering services. That place certainly would have provided much fodder for writing stories. Now people publicize their own nonsense via Twitter.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Rosie, that job may be one of the best story mines I’ve ever heard about! I can only imagine the calls you got. And how many people who don’t work directly in emergency health services or counseling-type fields can say they were able to help stop a suicide? That gave me chills. I never had a pager – missed that whole phase and didn’t even get a cell phone until I was in my early 30s. But I remember a few people having them and using a similar type of messaging service back in the day – who knows, maybe they talked to you : )!

  5. derekberry says:

    I might soon change to Netflix. With Redbox and shows online and such, video stores are dying. But I don’t think it could affect creativity of novels too badly, because we may in fact be exposed to more films via online.
    I work now at a Photography Studio and learn a lot of interesting things that I then can use in stories!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Derek, you make a great point about people being exposed to more films and other medium online. I know I’ll watch things I’d probably never pick out in a store from the comfort of my computer, just because there’s not a lot of wasted effort if it turns out to be something I don’t like. I’ll be a photography studio is a great place to learn and collect stories! My mom worked in one when I was a teenager and she used to come home with all sorts of stories about interesting characters.

  6. L.S. Engler says:

    I love your antedotal posts like this! I never really worked a job like this before (I had the McDonald’s thing get me through high school and college, plus teaching dance on the side, which could be fodder for a post like this, I suppose), but I do remember going to one of two shops like this all the time in my hometown! Main Street Video was my favourite, though; they had a worse selection, but I’ll never forget their red tag system, and they ran the place a lot like you described.

    Believe it or not, they’re both still in business! Or, at least, they were, the last time I rolled through my hometown about a year ago. Granted, it’s a small city in the middle of Michigan, but still…

    Great post, either way. It brought back a lot of great memories for me. : )

    • hawleywood40 says:

      I am so glad to hear the little shops you went to are still in business – or at least were! Mine was right in the middle of my neighborhood, and there’s really nothing around it other than the barber shop, a funeral home and a restaurant. So other than locals, people would have to go out of their way to go there, and not too many will do that with so many other options. I’m sure that contributed to their demise.

  7. akamonsoon says:

    How interesting that you worked in a movie store. I would have never thought about all the lives you crossed paths with while you were there. That is really neat. I was especially touched by the widower who would rent videos his wife had enjoyed.

    I can’t say that I’ve had any outdated jobs but I do remember my first office job in the early 90s where they were still using electric typewriters. Email hadn’t come out yet. I worked in sales so had to check in with the manager from a payphone while out on a route around Boston. Few folks had cellphones at that time.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      I had no email in my first office jobs either – and no internet! So hard to imagine doing those jobs that way now, but that’s exactly what we did. I remember when I worked at the college newspaper – in one of my last semesters they set up this new dos-based system where we could send each other messages as long as we were on the same server. It was like prehistoric email, I guess. We thought we were sooooo tech-savvy pinging each other across the room. It was kind of useless though, since the time you really need email is when you aren’t sitting across from each other : ).

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