If you ask my wife, she’ll tell you I’m a very nostalgic person. I only just recently threw out an old pair of ripped up boxers she’d given me a decade ago when we were dating that said “Too Hot to Handle” along the elastic band right above cute little pictures of chili peppers. Years later, on the day we moved out of our first house as a married couple – a rental property that lacked proper heating and turned into a sauna during the summer – I walked through the empty rooms and emotionally reminisced about our twenty whole months in its cramped, uncomfortable quarters. So, you can imagine that when I learned last week that Blockbuster Video was officially closing for good – a place I haven’t even been to in years – it felt like a chunk of my childhood was dying along with it.
If you’re twenty or younger, the loss of video rental stores probably doesn’t hold any significant weight to your upbringing. Those of a certain age, however, will easily (and fondly) recall numerous trips to the local Blockbuster Video (or whatever major video store chain dominated your neighborhood). For me, it was a Friday ritual. I’d get home from school and my mom or dad would drive me to the store where I’d pull the little yellow tag perched atop the cover of the movie I wanted to rent and run it up to the front counter. Sometimes I’d search the various genres in order to figure out what I wanted to watch that weekend. Other times, I went in with a fixed purpose.
On one Friday in the fall of 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman had just been released to videocassette (yes, kids, with actual film in it) and I begged my parents to take me to the video store as soon as school ended. When we arrived, I saw, to my horror, that several of my friends were already there. Anyone who routinely rented movies in the 80s and 90s knows that video stores only had so many copies in stock. I immediately saw that none of the Batman covers on the shelf contained a rental tag. Even worse, one of my classmates, who’d arrived only a few minutes before me, was holding one – its shiny, yellowey goodness protruding from his chubby little fingers – the last available rental copy, he pointed out to me with maniacal glee.
I felt my nine-year-old jealousy swell. Back then, I lacked a little quality called perspective (though, it could certainly be said I still lack it today, but that’s a conversation for another day). I inwardly raged at those who’d gotten to the store before me as I noticed a cardboard stand near the front of the store with lifesize cutouts of Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and a large display box containing dozens of copies of the movie for sale in between the two characters. I picked up one of the thick video copies and held it gently in my fingers. I shook it slightly and felt the small film reels rattle within. I ached to take it home and watch my favorite superhero in action, though a dull sadness spread through my belly as I accepted the reality that I’d have to wait another week. A moment later, my mom took the video from my hand, placed it on the counter, and paid for it. Back in the 80s, most people didn’t buy many movies. We rented from video stores and recorded our favorite films on TV using – yes, kids – big blank videocassettes. What my mom was doing actually produced some stares from others waiting in line. I was stunned. So was my chubby little friend. He would have to return his copy a couple days later. I would get to watch mine over and over until the day I died (or so my young brain rationalized). I picked up the bag containing the video I now owned and left the store with a Veruca Salt-like smug on my face.
When I hit college in the late 90s, video stores were still in high demand, even as movie formatting was making the transition from videocassette to DVD. My friends and I rented movies all the time from the Blockbuster down the street…even during weekdays; something my parents never allowed me to do as a kid. And just like when I was a kid, I often ran into other friends browsing the sections. Our brief exchanges always allowed us to talk about our favorite films and point out our recommendations to each other.
Make no mistake, I’m not at all saying the move from video stores to digital media is a bad thing (unlike the way I absolutely do when I hear about library and bookstore closures). It’s ultra convenient to have almost anything you’d like to watch at the click of a button. And because everything’s online, it offers infinitely more choices than we had available to us within the four walls of a neighborhood video store. One thing the rise of Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes have done, though, is make me extra lazy. Just the other day, I really wanted to watch a particular movie but didn’t want to get up to pull the DVD from my living room shelf, remove it from its case, and stoop down to put it into the DVD player. So, I checked to see if it was available for streaming on Netflix and when I saw it wasn’t, I scoffed and streamed an old episode of 30 Rock instead. Such are the times in which we live…
Few things are permanent in this lifetime and video stores are just the latest cultural phenomenon to have seen its time and place pass us by. It makes me laugh when I see my two-year-old daughter’s eyes scan back and forth as I scroll through her favorite Netflix films, all readily available to her at a moment’s notice. It’s crazy to think about how she’ll never set foot in a video store. But no matter the era, to complain is human and I look forward to hearing her 21st century grievances in another decade or so. I’ve already got my response worked out: “When I was young, we had to GO TO THE STORE to get movies. And they were in giant rectangular boxes! And we had to wind them up or face possible fees and annoyed looks! And then, a couple days later, we had to RETURN THEM!!!”
And then, by her facial reaction alone, she’ll officially let me know that I’m an old man.
Alan Atchison is a Contributing Writer to The Rogue. He is a Senior Publications Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (University of Pennsylvania), where he also earned a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He lives in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two daughters. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.