The Death of the Video Store

It was announced this week that Blockbuster Video is finally closing down for good. While it had been quickly declining in recent years, every store will now be shuttered by the beginning of next year. This closing effectively ends the decades long run of the video store in American culture. While there might be a few independent stores that struggle on for a few more years, the video store has been replaced by services that make watching movies as easy as clicking a few buttons on your television, instead of driving across town to a physical building. Thus, the video store goes to the same graveyard as other obsolete places such as television repair shops, drive-in movie theatres, and arcades.1

I’m of the right age that I grew up with video stores, witnessed them become extremely popular, and saw their eventual demise. My earliest experience was a tiny independent video store that my family would frequent when I was very young. This was the early 80s, and the store still carried both VHS and Beta. Independent video stores were fairly widespread at the time, but it was the ascension of Blockbuster that wiped most of them away, for better or worse. I was in elementary school when Blockbuster opened to much fanfare in my town. It was huge compared to the small independent store, and had bright lights, big movie posters, and looked shiny and clean. It seemed everyone would frequent it, young and old, rich and poor. Movies were a common denominator in the community, because everyone could find something that spoke to them.

The store was laid out with the new releases lining the shelves along the outer walls, with the back catalog of movies spread out in the middle, organized by genre. My preferred method would be to circle the edges of the stores, hoping to find a new release I wanted to see, and if I couldn’t find anything good, move into the back catalog. Every movie they carried was always displayed with the official case which had the artwork and description. However, to know if it was actually available, and not checked out, the VHS was placed in a white blockbuster case behind the official case. It was always a great feeling to see the movie you wanted and then see that Blockbuster case peaking out behind it.

I remember browsing the store for long periods of time, just aimlessly wandering, hoping to stumble upon some hidden gem. That is what I think is lost by not having a physical video store, the ability to randomly browse. Everything nowadays is centered around “recommendations” and “searching,” but it is harder to simply browse digital content without purpose and find something unexpected. I could see every single science-fiction movie Blockbuster carried by simply glancing at the a few shelves, which would be much more convoluted now with digital services.

My experience with video stores peaked in high school when a typical weekend with my friends would start with a trip there. It was perfect to explore our burgeoning love of film, and we could find movies like Eraserhead or Taxi Driver or Dawn of the Dead.2 Movies that we might have read about somewhere but were not shown much on television and the video store was literally the only place you could actually obtain a copy. Throughout college I continued to go to the video store, but the frequency started to wane. Then Netflix came out and I stopped going there completely. I could use Netflix to get all my back catalog movies and around the same time my cable company started offering the ability to watch most new releases on demand.

Thus, I was as guilty as anyone in contributing to the demise of video stores and completely understand why their time has passed. However, it still saddens me, as video stores were an expression of my youth and with their demise, a piece of my youth is forever lost. That’s life though, and we all must move on into the future. Yet, it will still pull at my nostalgic heart to imagine driving across town with my friends on a Friday night, pulling up into the strip mall parking lot, and knowing some hidden gem awaited us within the video store’s bright lights.

1. I realize that some of these places still exist, but the percentage of them surviving compared to their heyday has become simply a rounding error.

2. Quentin Tarantino famously learned much of his vast film knowledge while working at a video store before he broke into Hollywood.