Oct 16, 2011

Tales of an Analog Enthusiast Book 5: Independent Video Store Day

ABOVE: That's Rentertainment; Champaign, IL
(Photo courtesy of Jason Pankoke)
It had long been my intention to reboot the dormant "Analog Video Enthusiast" series of posts (or hell, just reboot this blog in general), and saw no more appropriate time to do it than on October 15, the first annual Independent Video Store Day. Inspired by the annual tradition of Record Store Day (born in 2008), Video Store Day likewise honours a form of retail which is in fear of becoming extinct thanks to the Internet. Today, independent video rental stores enticed consumers to come out for some great deals on video rentals and purchases, and simultaneously reminded them how much fun it is to go the neighbourhood retailer instead of downloading movies from iTunes and Netflix.

What did I do to celebrate Independent Video Store Day? Nothing. I had an excuse-- I was out of town for my father's birthday. But since I spend most of the year's other 364 days browsing video stores and looking for tapes or DVDs in some of my favourite haunts, I bear no remorse for missing it. Instead, hopefully this day enticed those who weren't already converted how much of a valuable commodity is the video rental shop around the corner, and they will continue to support it. In other words, it's great that you cook a Christmas dinner for the homeless, but they still have to eat every remaining day of the year.

There are now consumers who don't know about a life without having a VCR in the home. Soon, if not already, there will be consumers who won't remember what one was. I am old enough to know a life before the days when the VCR became a household item, and can comment on how radical a change that became for anyone interested in cinema. Suddenly, the consumer no longer had to be a slave to the TV schedule- they had the power to choose instant programming for themselves. Further, because consumers were so excited about this newly acquired power, they would also virtually rent anything to play on these newfangled devices- many would sample previously unheard of titles that suddenly became available to them. Thus, in the 1980s, well into the 1990s, video stores of all sizes appeared to capitalize on the new craze. Colloquially, when we refer to the golden days of video stores, we often think of the "mom and pop" outlets. Many of these perished under the juggernauts of the franchise stores. How could one compete against a store that had 20 copies of everything? Yet, over the years, we've also seen the chain stores fade away: The Video Station, Jumbo Video, Major Video, and of course, Blockbuster, this year's huge fatality.

The decline of video stores over the years has been blamed upon downloads (legal or otherwise) and streaming. That's the argument, right? Why would some kid want to trot down to the video store to pick up Scott Pilgrim, when they can just go "click" on the mouse in their bedroom? Instant gratification, and no-one had to put on any galoshes. But this decline is also symptomatic of a greater issue: the continuing social displacement of our society, because of its false dependence upon gadgets. Everywhere you look, it's people fiddling with their new Crackberrys, iPads, iPods and iPhones-- each new model more enticing than the last with new features and more capabilities, offering the consumer a Swiss army knife of diversions from having to communicate with another human being. And I guarantee you that, when iBlowJob appears, no-one will ever have to go outside again.

Hey, I'm no old fart. My day job is spent in front of a computer screen, working online, and learning new technology. But let's be fair- I surely don't want to come home and spend the rest of my waking hours in front of another computer screen. Contrary to what that smartass reviewer at Broken Pencil will have you believe, I'm no luddite, BUT these gadgets should only be tools-- they are not your life. It's great that we have all of these devices, but our reliance upon them goes to ridiculous extremes. I really don't need to hear yet another person on the streetcar during the morning commute call someone to say they'll be there in two minutes. Who gives a fuck? Just show up in two minutes.

My home computer is an old operating system on which it gets increasingly harder to watch video, especially in streaming- I can't run Netflix because I have the wrong processor. But even if I did get a new computer, I'd still much prefer to rent a video or DVD. (Not only that, but the selections of titles for Canada's Netflix plain sucks.) Why would I want to watch a measly Quicktime (or worse, Flash) file when I can see something of greater resolution on a disk-- and on a bigger screen, no less?

Since the giants have fallen, how do the independent hangers-on still persist? Selection and expertise. The whole joy of going to a video store is "Hey, look what I found". How many times have we had the thrill of discovery in going to the neighbourhood retailer for one thing, only to come across another title that one didn't know about, or at least didn't know was available? But still, for the most part, the independent video store is a chapel for the already-converted. The majority of moviegoers is of adolescent males, who often will only care about what's new, and even then, if they can get their fixes without having to leave their bedrooms, all the better. As such, many wouldn't care about the back catalogue or the history of the medium. ("Huh? Fright Night is a remake?") If we don't support these stores, we lose this access to that heritage. Not only that, but.... well, I don't know about you, but I kind of like chatting in person with a fellow human being. Sure, it's great to have access to a lot of bells and whistles at one's fingertips, but nothing beats the over-the-counter expertise.

And in honour of Video Store Day, I'd like to give due props to one store that I've frequented over the years. For the past fifteen years I've been a customer of 2 For 1 Video. When I first encountered them in 1996, their three aisles were crammed with VHS tapes; even today in the age of DVD and BluRay, the shelves are equal parts tape and disk.

In the beginning of my visits, 2 For 1 was also in competition with two other shops in the same block: another independent shop across the street, and a Blockbuster next door- both of those are now long gone, but still 2 For 1 hangs on. I'd like to think that their reason for continuing to stay around is due not only to the fact that now they're the only store in that little neighbourhood nook, but also to their expertise. For example, Shane, the enthusiastic employee who has been working there for 20 years, claims to have seen every movie in the store. That's a broad admission, but the more you hear him talk, the more you believe him. Think about it- even if you see a couple of films in the store every day, over time, it adds up. And he's honest enough to tell you whether he thinks a movie is good or bad- not necessarily to discourage or entice you, but at least to give the customer an informed opinion on whether the film in question is what they're seeking.

Since the independent video store is becoming a niche market, there also seems to be a sense of elitism about it now-- an indie snobbism of the "holier than thou" variety that one associates with the record store clerks of High Fidelity. I'll grant that I've experienced that sometimes (yet, not always) in the stores I've frequented. Personally, I just fluff them off like any other poser I encounter. If you ignore the assholes long enough, they go away. (In fact, that deserves a post of its own some day.) Well, there's none of that posturing at 2 For 1. In fact, they offer the best of both worlds in video rentals. The staff is courteous, honest and helpful, free of the indie snob pretension, and yet refreshingly offer their own opinions on their inventory to help the consumers to make their own choices, which is something that chain store employees are forbidden to do.

To be sure, 2 For 1 has had its ups and downs over the years. This modest little outfit used to be open from noon to midnight, seven days a week- now they're open about eight hours a day. A few years ago, they were looking into moving to a smaller retail space, which also didn't have as prominent a store front, as their rent was being increased. As such, they began whittling down their inventory by selling off hundreds of VHS tapes, which of course delighted collectors like me, but not without a touch of melancholy. (This feeling too, is worthy of a post all its own.) Many of the sale titles were from boxes of inventory they had in the basement. Over the years, they had been removing slow renters from the shelves to make space for new inventory, and finally saw fit to let them go. Ironically, some of the titles they were selling off were of films I had been seeking for years, and would have rented had I seen them earlier. Once again, that is the necessity of a video store, to find and leave with something else than what you came for. But still, they're hanging on, still in the same space, God bless them, and I know it will be a sad day for the community if they ever do pack it in.

Wait, what? Community? Yes! To Netflix or iTunes, you're only just a customer. Will Netflix ever ask you how your wife and kids are doing? While it's a great thing to support our video stores today, remember that they need our attention the other 364 days of the year, too. Independent video stores exist not just to fill a niche market- they are a necessary life blood. They give a vivacity and social circle to the neighbourhoods in which they still struggle to survive. If we lose this, we're one step closer to becoming as faceless as the gadgets we reply upon.

And yes, I'm well aware of the irony that this piece is being read online.

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