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From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores

By Alex Ross Perry | Indiewire March 31, 2012 at 12:48PM

Perry's interview with Joe Martin, the longtime proprietor of East Village rental store Reel Life--which closes its doors for good at the end of this month--is an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to the deterioration of the physical video store.
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ARP: If Netflix really can make everything that people want available for free in the best possible quality right now, then I don’t get how anybody could ever have a relationship to something that is supposed to be a nice item. If everything is just a file, on an iPod, an e-reader or something, then I am afraid that movies will reach that point of immaterial irrelevance to people.

JM: It’s there one day, you move it to your trash the next day. Or it’s on some hard drive you have at home. Having it reduced to that is the death of cinema. I don’t understand why Roger Ebert advertises what is streaming on Netflix. I don’t know how many film critics are going to be employed to criticize a movie that is just streaming. It seems like an irrelevant exercise to have people criticizing one of 50,000 things.

"I don’t know how many film critics are going to be employed to criticize a movie that is just streaming."


ARP: It’s just too much content. People can’t make a choice. If I come here, I’m not going to spend four hours looking for something. I’m here for 20 minutes, I’ll pick something and I go home. On Netflix I could be browsing for an hour and my time is spent doing that. People no longer have to remember how to make a choice. Like the kid in the store who is taking so long, the parent says to just make a decision. Just pick one thing, and the next thing you want, you get it when we return this. With streaming or Netflix, they’ll never be told to pick one thing.

JM: It’ll be, ‘Let’s watch it for five minutes, and move on to the next thing, and the next thing.’ I think it is about that personal investment in handling something and bringing it home. It gives a heightened sense of import towards what you’re watching. It doesn’t matter if it is a thousand dollar or hundred million dollar budget. If it comes with enough investment on the person’s part, they’re going to watch it and give it a real critical view instead of an erstwhile glance.

ARP: There are movies that if I saw them on streaming, nothing would inspire me to click on it. But when you have told me, ‘It’s actually really good,’ I took it home. Because that small difference makes more sense to me. No matter what I think about a movie, it might never be my top choice. Because there are a hundred other things I already know I want to watch. If I’m here and you tell me about it, I quickly decide to take it home. And a lot of wonderful decisions happen that way. And if you don’t get it today, it’s still on the shelf next time you come in. Because we thought that things would always be there for us, which is obviously no longer true. And now you are allowing people to take home a piece of the collection. Which is emotional for me. How hard was it to say goodbye to physical product that you’ve been surrounded by every day?

JM: It is out of necessity. The store has been my livelihood, but has not been a moneymaking endeavor, to the point where I have no savings. So it is in order to support my family, but it’s heartbreaking. It’s very hard to see the store dwindle in front of my eyes. A lot of the stuff was my own personal things that I kept in my apartment and brought here to pull off the shelves and enjoy whenever I wanted to. This is an extension of my home. Would that I could, I would be here another 12 years at the very least. I believe in the experience and I believe in video stores. I love video stores. Watching it go is very hard, and it’s very bittersweet. To see every day, the customers who have supported the store are the ones that are taking stuff home, I appreciate that. When I tell people, ‘Thanks for giving them a good home,’ I’m serious. The whole experience of closing it feels like a death in family. Both of my parents have passed away, and I feel very similarly. It is kind of overwhelming and you don’t have time to focus on what you’re losing. But every night since we’ve been selling the stuff, I have a blue period where I’m bummed to see the shelves no longer stacked tight.

ARP: There is an emotional value in the fact that I will have at least two more Octobers of horror double-features from Reel Life. The tapes will have your numbers on them, and the store will live on. It belongs to everybody now. So my last question is your take on the future of video as a medium, or video stores, or just stores.

JM: Video stores obviously are tied in with bookstores and music stores. It’s going to be very hard to keep them going, unless you have some sort of ownership of the property. And there are some great video stores around the country. I don’t know if they are dealing with a situation like me with landlords, but there are great video stores. I think they will exist for as long as they want to exist. The thing to realize is that they’re doing it because they love doing it, and they love movies. And that in and of itself has a value to people. When I go to a store, I know I’m going to a place where someone loves movies, and wants to keep that tradition going. As far as video though, there’s less and less places to even go and buy DVDs. Virtually the only place when anyone needs a book or a DVD or a CD is go to Amazon. And that’s a sad comment on society, that that’s what it’s come to. There’s one enormous retailer that only exists in cyberspace and some warehouses across the country, and that is the hub for all media. For all packaged media is through that, and virtually nothing else exists. And whether they want to ship something to you is another story altogether. With things like Amazon On Demand, our entertainment is becoming very cheap. I think it’s very hard to picture what entertainment will look like in 20, 30 years.

This article is related to: Alex Ross Perry







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