It’s rare that I get moved to tears by shelving units. But this was the state of high emotion I experienced on the sixth floor of Manhattan’s Museum of Art and Design. For several weeks this summer, one room in the gallery has been turned into an old school VHS video store. It looks pretty crummy, with heavy boxed copies of Mr Mom and Pretty in Pink lining the flimsy, red-wired shelving units that touched me so. Gallery patrons can actually go in and rent the films.
Video stores have played a vital part in my adult life and development. They were part of what made me me. Their continuing demise, a demise illustrated by the need to have an art installation celebrating their past, thoroughly depresses me.
I briefly joined Lovefilm. Those mail-order DVD companies were just getting established during my last stint as a video store clerk, but they were already gnawing away at the shop-front businesses. I can understand these companies existing alongside actual video shop locations. You go to the store, browse, get advice, make your choice then watch your film that night. Plus you have the occasional top-up appearing from Lovefilm or whoever. Instead, everyone completely abandoned the actual shops in favour of the virtual ones. This baffles me. Making a qualified decision based on the 4 million lifeless descriptions on their website, adding it to a vague queue and then having to rely on the ineptitudes of the postal service to hopefully get one of your picks? To trade actual choice for slight convenience? It doesn’t seem to be much of a system. But that’s what won and video stores died.
I worked in three video stores during my years living in America (1994 – 2003) and they denoted three important phases of my life. I was a wide-eyed, impressionable freshly landed immigrant during my tenure at Potomac Video in Washington DC. A neighbourhood store providing mainly mainstream fare for the Cleveland Park residents, with a back room of hardcore pornography, the curious odour of which still lingers and turns my stomach (I hardly ever dealt with the new porn, but I always seemed to be monstrously hungover when I did. Not a good combo). It was my first extended exposure to porn and its appreciators. A Dutch diplomat used to rent three filthy titles every single lunchtime. For a young Brit whose porn education consisted of the occasional scrap of magazine abandoned on a verge, this was a distressing eye-opener.
Plus, in the local merchant bartering system (free coffees, free tickets to the Uptown cinema, free deli sandwiches) it was the highest form of currency. Potomac featured the flimsy metal mesh shelving featured in the Manhattan exhibition and the last time I visited it still had some of my poorly illustrated shelf dividers (the store has gone now). It was also here that I learnt an important life lesson. Most people are nice but some people are dicks. And then some of the nice ones turn into dicks when you charge them late fees.
If I may aside for a moment, I’d like to address the thorny issue of late fees. This was one of the ways the mail order companies totally screwed the physical video stores. Everyone hated late fees. And everyone hated them even more, once those guys abolished them (even though they are now jacking up their monthly membership costs to astronomical levels). Late fees were a perennial source of conflict and upheaval in every store I worked in. In some the rules were strictly enforced, others were more lax. Didn’t matter, everyone hated them and could never grasp why they were being made to pay. Even when I explained in the most condescending tone possible that the store made money by renting films to people and we can’t rent those films to people if they are in your rumpus room. That seemed pretty simple to me. If you rent a boat/hotel room/hooker and keep it longer than you should, you can expect to pay more. But that doesn’t apply to Herbie Goes Bananas, that you should be allowed to keep forever for free, it seems.
Anyway, slightly more settled but no more mature, I washed-up in San Francisco and was adopted by the fine people at Lost Weekend Video (still going strong, 1034 Valencia Street in the Mission, visit the new Cinecave, tell them I sent ya). Just as things were starting to change in my life, the video store world seemed to reflect this. DVDs started to appear and also complaints about DVDs not working (way more than VHS tapes, you could build a comfortable shack out of VHS tapes). And so with the DVDs came the ability to send them through the mail and the existence of the mail-order video rental industry. It was especially prescient in the excitable, tech-savvy, early-adopter Bay Area.
Despite the usual regular wrangles over late fees, Lost Weekend had a family vibe, with freaks and regulars and Jello Biafra and Jonathan Richman (I once refused to charge him late fees ‘How can I? You wrote Hospital’). Perhaps the coolest thing to ever happen to me was the day, quite early in my Lost Weekend tenure, when all of Fugazi came in to visit me. Things have been downhill since then. We also won an award for my semi-curated British TV section. It’s a great place. I could go on tour and play shows whenever I wanted (everyone at the store was involved in music), there was candy and a photobooth and regular poker games in the basement. But slowly the evil, indolent tentacles of Netflix and its ilk started to seep into the business and customers ebbed away, occasionally reappearing shamefaced. We didn’t think it would last. It lasted.
This really surprised me. I always thought, even if you could get movies delivered to your door, people would still like the video store experience. Browsing, getting advice, showing off to dates, killing time. Perhaps the fact that anytime anyone asked me for a recommendation I always answered ‘Straw Dogs’ didn’t help. But, as so often, human nature failed me completely.
My final video store was Evergreen Video on Carmine Street in New York’s West Village. Two things were remarkable about this place. It had a truly remarkable roster of celebrity members (Lou Reed, Claus Oldenburg, the various Gyllenhalls, Joe Jackson, Meryl Streep and, my favourite, Geoffrey Holder, the voodoo man from Live and Let Die and many other amazing things). I also worked alongside legendary rock critic and professional grump Paul Nelson (I heartily recommend the book about Paul’s life: Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery). But my time at Evergreen is a bit of a blur. I was a complete mess during this time. I meandered through a series of drug-fuelled lowest ebbs, drank an incredible amount and chased after some highly inappropriate women. I decided to return to the UK before any permanent damage could occur.
And that was the end of my stint as a video store clerk. When I visit San Francisco, I always stop by Lost Weekend and usually end up doing a bit of shelving. I don’t miss retail and the inherent assholism that comes with it, but I do miss getting paid to be a professional know-it-all about films. Working in a video store really does provide you with an excellent movie grounding. As well as having to watch subtitled Danish things, you also have to watch the new releases, as that’s inevitably what you’ll be asked about the most.
I’m now a member of an excellent store, Close-Up video on Brick Lane in London’s east end. I love being back in an actual video shop. Shop staff watching Robert Bresson, then getting annoyed when you ask what it is. It’s great! I urge you all to get out there and support your local video store, if it still exists. I mean, record stores made a comeback, maybe the same thing could happen? And cassettes, cassettes are back. I don’t know why, but they are. So I believe it may be slightly premature to have an art exhibition dedicated to the video store. I think it could return. A renaissance, a rebirth. So get out there, find one and save it. But please, if you do, don’t argue about the late fees. It really annoys the clerks.