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Criticwire Survey: The Video Store That Changed My Life

Criticwire Survey: The Video Store That Changed My Life

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: With Blockbuster Video closing its remaining stores in January, the video-store era is drawing to a close, but for most critics they were an essential part of learning to love movies. What was the video store that changed your life?

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I grew up in a small town, so we didn’t have Blockbusters or big chain rental stores. My most important video store wasn’t really even a video store per se. It was a place called Felker’s Tile & Carpet, and like the name implies, it was a tile and carpet store. The Felkers were big movie fans, so they began renting videotapes, presumably to supplement their main business. Over the years, their selection became surprisingly large, with movies taking up nearly as much space as everything else. In the summer, I would go there daily to rent tapes. Because their selection was extensive, and because hot titles were often rented out, I became adventurous, trying films I’d never heard of, or, at my adolescent age, wouldn’t normally have considered. One of those titles was a 1985 John Malkovich picture called Eleni. That was the first “arthouse” film I’d ever seen, and it made me want to see more. In retrospect, taking a chance on movies outside the norm doubtlessly played a major part in my growth as someone who appreciates cinema. By the ’90s, a West Coast Video had opened locally. It seemed cooler, and the selection was even greater, so I started going there. But you know what? That was just a place I went; Felkers, on the other hand, was a place where I developed. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pop Matters

Where but Brockport Video Theater could a cadre of high-schoolers in upstate New York rent a VCR and a fistful of strange, exotic (oft gory and idiotic) VHS tapes for an all-night video binge in the basement of someone’s parents’ house? Amidst the ridiculous (Blood Feast), heavy (Apocalypse Now, on two VHS tapes), peculiar (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and sublime (Repo Man), there were also fascinating and obscure music-based films (Rude Boy, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains), and all sorts of other things to leave us in confused wonder. Part of the beauty of these showcases were precisely how little we knew or understood about the films we were selecting. We based many of our picks on the box-art (gorgeous women and the possibility of gore and/or nudity, it must be said, were high on our list) and little else, which lead to many horrific movies but also a shocking number of really striking things we would have had no idea about otherwise. If it hasn’t yet, I’m sure this process can eventually be replicated by some cosmic, coded algorithm being developed by Netflix or Amazon, but that complete, uncluttered freedom the video store represented will be lost to the ages, along, I suspect, with much of the joy of random cinematic discovery.

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

This one is easy. In my hometown of Lansing, Michigan, there existed — and still exists, last I checked — a place called Video to Go. Growing up, it was my movie Mecca. Though we lived closer to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, both of my parents preferred Video to Go, probably because it offered, for several years anyway, a 5-rentals-for-$5 deal. It was through this unbeatable special that I was able to gorge myself on movies — first, as a preadolescent, when I’d tear through every unseen title in the horror section, and later, as a teenager, when I’d begin exploring the annals of world cinema. VTG didn’t just possess the biggest selection in town; it was basically the only local source for foreign films, which also made it a better educational institute than either of the colleges I’d eventually attend. Naturally, of course, I ended up working there eventually, as an undergrad at Michigan State University. Besides the unlimited access to product, the job also put me in contact with a group of older cinephile co-workers, whose tastes and attitudes played a pretty big part in shaping my sensibilities as a movie lover. I still think back fondly on that job and on Video to Go in general. Can streaming sites serve the same function for a younger generation as VTG did for me? Maybe, though I’d like to see them try to replicate the educational value of a slow Tuesday morning, when video store employees have nothing to do but sit around and talk about movies.

Adam Batt, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I’m not sure how well travelled the very peculiar practice on which I am about to muse was. In the 1980s in the UK, men across the land traversed the streets of suburban Yorkshire in a van from which multiple cinematic delights could be found. Rather than having to traipse out to an actual store one would simply have to saunter out in to the street on a Friday evening, where for as little as 50 pence per night one could indulge in any manner of film. It was a bit like the original Netflix.The bonuses of enterprising lone traders were wide and varied. Ours hardly ever followed the law of certification, which was somewhat notoriously bad in the UK during this period, meaning that my brother and I got to see all manner of film years before society deemed it proper for us to do so. The Video Van Man, as is the official job title of the chap in question, also bore other fruits, selling all manner of all kinds of items, much of it contraband. 

On a serious note, my appreciation of film really came of age alongside the rise of the DVD, so I can vouch for the importance of such things, especially to those of us that grew up away from well-catered for cultural hotspots. While the possibilities afforded by streaming are exciting, the murky world of intellectual properties and licensing looks set to be a minefield of restriction for some films that have had a difficult enough time making their way to DVD and Blu-ray as it is. We live in a world where permissions can be revoked with the click of a button, which raises all sorts of questions about works which will in the future face licensing transitions (see a lot of early Criterion releases). Ultimately my concern for future cinephiles is that a wealth of great movies will wind up being trapped in some kind of release limbo, with boutique distributors like Criterion or Masters of Cinema afraid to go out on a limb to obtain the rights for titles knowing that they’re going to be edged out of the equation at some point further down the line.

Devin Faraci, Badass Digest

There were two video stores that were formative for me. The first was on my corner and they gave me one of my first jobs. I handed out flyers for them — or I was supposed to. I actually threw all the flyers in the sewer and went home to watch TV and then returned to the store a few hours later to get paid. This influenced my work ethic forever. That store also allowed me to rent porn when I was 14. But the truly influential video store for me was one called Video Van. They had a physical location, but their schtick was that you would call them and they would drive their video-filled van to your house and you would pick something. Video Van had an extraordinary assortment of grungy horror and exploitation films in that van, probably because they knew people would feel more comfortable renting weird, sick stuff in private than at the store. My entire aesthetic was shaped by renting grindhouse movies from the back of that van in Queens.

Mary Pols, Time

The most important video store in my life is still thriving. It’s called Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion! and it’s in Brunswick, Maine. There are five people who work there who I know by name and who know me and know my dog and know my kid and know my taste and give me cheerful shit about stuff like the nice things I am quoted as saying about The Guilt Trip (it was charming and don’t try to tell me otherwise, not even if you’re Seth Rogen). And I’m nothing special — they seem to know all of their customers on this level. Going there is fun even when I have late fees. They are knowledgeable, the inventory is great (they have never disappointed me and I look for some fairly obscure things) and the place is a social hub for our town. Also, they have a ridiculous number of ways to save money, spin-the-wheel specials, package deals, longer rental period for professor types teaching with a film and so on. When I moved back to Maine three years ago, I gave up the Netflix. I’d way rather go down the street and see a smart, kind funny human being who understands why I need that Homeland disc right this second.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

The local video store when I was a kid was Valdez Video (later Luis Video), and it was awesome because it was, almost literally, a third kung fu movies, a third Mexploitation (less absurdly random than you’d think in what’s now South Park Slope in Brooklyn, but still kind of funny considering that there were always like’ 80 movies called things like Chinga Mi Esposa, Por Favor right by the counter), and a third “drama/comedy.” The only other sections I remember were “Kids,” because that’s where they kept the Danger Mouse tapes, and “War.” In spite of the disproportionate and idiosyncratic genre divisions, I never remember not finding what I was looking for, probably because I’d just grab something else with cool cover art. My dad never did let me rent any of the Mexploitation movies, I think because he was afraid the esposas actually got chinga’d, no matter how hard I tried to convince him it would help me learn Spanish: “I can talk in an English accent now because of Danger Mouse!” Nope, no luck. Anyway, eventually Luis moved to a bigger location and just wasn’t the same without all the bootleg probably-porno movies, and by that point I was old enough to take the subway into the city to go to Kim’s, i.e. Mecca. Talking about Kim’s would take a book, or at the very least more room than I have here. Still, you never forget your first, and I’ll never forget Chinga Mi Esposa, Por Favor, if that was what it was called, and not my memory filling in a blank. There was a guy flipping the middle finger at someone on the cover, I know that much.

Mike D’Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, The Dissolve

By a freak of timing, my main source of nostalgia is more specific than a video store: a laserdisc store. In 1991-92, right before I headed off to attend NYU, I worked at a place called Laserland in San Jose, CA, which exclusively dealt in what was then thought to be the future of home video; in retrospect, it’s as if I worked at a record store that sold only 8-track cassettes. In any case, that’s where I first encountered the Criterion collection, educating customers on the difference between CAV and CLV (trust me, you don’t want to know), and it’s where I first started assembling a personal video library, purchasing films that I’d later rebuy on DVD and am now rebuying again on Blu-ray (one of these days I’ll learn). We also sold laserdisc players, and had a home-theater demo area in the back; my boss invariably used the Terminator 2 disc to blow people away.

My most vivid memory is the guy who would come in every Tuesday and buy literally — literally — every single title that was released that week. Which was not an inexpensive hobby, as laserdiscs were much pricier than DVDs — Criterion editions of a single film could run $50-100. (I remember paying $100 for The War of the Roses!) I sometimes wonder what happened to his collection. In terms of discovering obscurities and general ambience, Kim’s Video was unbeatable. But I expect other folks will have them covered. If not, there’s always Karina Longworth’s terrific story on where their inventory wound up.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running, Cinephiled

My personal relationship with video stores has been… peculiar, largely because I’ve almost never had a genuine obligation to join one. In the early ’80s, I was cronies with consumer electronics journalists; later, I became one myself, when I joined the staff of Video Review in the 1986. I was indifferent to VHS by 1987, championing laser discs. (My mom ran a video store herself in Washington, New Jersey around this time, and one of her customers was Keith Jarrett; I wound up lending him a laser disc of Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons ’60 by proxy — he was interested in it because Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were featured prominently in at least one of its party sequences.) The first thing I did at Premiere, in summer of 1996, was a big package on this newfangled DVD technology. Eventually I got to run that magazine’s Home Guide. I asked Aaron Hillis to start making contributions to the magazine in part because of the really clever and funny description cards he made for new titles at the Carroll Gardens video store he worked at when I first met him a few years after I was in the neighborhood, a now-defunct joint called Hole in the Wall Video, owned by a guy who still lives across the street from me. But I hadn’t met him at the store, but at our “local.” (This led to a lot of over-confident freelance queries beginning with “So I hear you hired a guy you met in a bar.”) Mondo Kim’s, of course, was where I shopped for foreign-region stuff, and it was a great hangout in a way, and I still haunt the First Avenue Kim’s for stuff I don’t get for promotional consideration. But I get a lot of stuff for promotional consideration. Not that I’m bragging: Years of begging went into it. When I started my book on Robert De Niro I feared I’d have to go the rental route to research some of the actor’s more obscure titles, or movies I missed the first time around. But Amazon Instant Video turned out to be more than capable of handling my research concerns. So that was that. I can’t say I’ll miss Blockbuster because I didn’t like them at all in the first place. Their early practices poisoned the well for collectors to a certain extent, which didn’t help my view of them.

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

After I left college and my managerial position at North American Video in Raleigh, NC and moved to NYC, I tried to get a job at the old Two Boots video store and never got a call back. Then I walked into the greatest video store on planet Earth, the St. Mark’s Kim’s Video, told the guy in charge (Sean Price Williams) that I didn’t have much time to be interviewed because I had to make a Jean Eustache screening, and was hired on the spot. So my favorite video store was my store. I worked at Kim’s from 2000 to 2004 or something like that and was the one responsible for the War on Terror action shelf, sticking the Jackass movies in the documentaries and making sure Edvard Munch was always always always in the employees picks section. I met so many friends, future filmmakers, collaborators and inspirations. I gave The Mother and the Whore to Liv Tyler. I made $6 an hour cash under the table and had Sunday mornings to myself. I came to believe that we rented bootlegged movies like Satantango because we were important to people and that cinema culture was being incubated amongst our meticulously organized-by-director wire shelves. I would talk for hours with people about movies (or more commonly watch Sean talk to any one of his many visitors), learning and sharing and arguing and growing. I wouldn’t be anywhere without Kim’s and employees and customers like Sean, Alex Ross Perry, Ronnie Bronstein, Jessica Oreck, Josh and Benny Safdie, Eric Hynes and many others agree. To this day I still don’t have a Netflix account because I believe the death of video store culture was a body blow to cinema. (Though I gotta shout out that nice girl out there that lets me use her login. You rule.)

Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed

I have so many important video store memories — like when a clerk at Kim’s Video in the West Village of New York City told me I couldn’t find Crimson Tide in any of the obvious categories (Denzel Washington, Tony Scott, etc.) because it was “in the Hans Zimmer section.” (He didn’t actually call me an idiot for not knowing; I heard him loud and clear, though.) But the most important store to me has to be my childhood one: the Video Room on 84th and 3rd in Manhattan. It was the closest one to my house — and was nine blocks away! I trudged there constantly when we first got a VCR in the early ’80s, at first renting movies I had seen and loved (like teenagers do), and then venturing into movies I knew I should see (Hitchcock, film noir, A Clockwork Orange). I don’t remember a single meaningful discussion with a clerk, but the store was well-organized and well-stacked. Any video store at that time would have changed my life, but for me it was the Video Room. RIP.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Growing up in Seattle, I was lucky enough to find more than my fair share of options for watching cinema of all stripes. But no single rep house could possibly encompass the scope of film history the way that Scarecrow Video did (and, for now, still does). Choose your hyperbolic metaphor or invent your own: This store is like a temple, Kim’s Video on crack, movie heaven. Scarecrow deserves all the praise it can get. Two floors, organized by director, genre, sensibilities— you could lose yourself for hours and leave with a handful of titles that felt as though they’d been gifted by the gods. I have yet to experience that Pollyanish glee while sifting through my Netflix queue. While the streaming age has made more movies available than ever before, and god bless the aggregators helping to make that possible, it has also downgraded the value of curation to cleanly defined categories that aren’t necessarily reliable (what the hell does a recommendation algorithm know about New French Extremity or subversive blockbusters?). Scarecrow had a section for virtually every sensibility and managed to invent a few of its own. It didn’t just accommodate existing curiosities about cinema; it actively advocated for their continuation. I use the past tense because I mainly took advantage of this resource in the past, but I hope that Scarecrow’s future is rich and as impactful on young cinephiles exploring their options as it was on this one. Oh, and they published a book.

Sean Axmaker, Cinephiled, Parallax View

I clerked for, bought for, and managed video stores for almost 12 years, beginning in the video store boom of the mid-eighties and ending just as DVD overtook VHS in the late-nineties. It’s a culture that I watched grow and flourish, just another part of the weekly routine. While a lot of recent articles reflecting on the whole video store culture seem to focus on the negatives of the experience (late fees, long lines, and how many times do I have to hear about “surly clerks”?), I recall how stores, in particular independently-owned neighborhood stores, developed strong relationships between clerks and customers, especially when they could find someone with similar tastes and interesting recommendations. Metrics and logarithms don’t replace the conversations that lead to new discoveries and make loyal customers, they merely offer a pale substitute. 

My first store, Flicks and Pics in Eugene, closed down in 2007 (their collection went to the public library), but the most important video store in my life was and still is Scarecrow Video in Seattle, the greatest video store in the known universe. I worked there as a manager for three years (one of many managers, I might add; it took a lot of work to manage that collection and the customers that once flocked to it) but I was digging into its library long before I started working there. They imported Hong Kong action movies on laserdisc and European rarities on VHS PAL from Britain (they rented PAL players as well) before they become available stateside. After I started working there, I saw the original Ringu on a Japanese VCD (the pre-DVD format!) and Edward Yang’s first movies from laserdisc import. And, of course, I had access to almost every domestic release of interest on VHS and laserdisc. DVD was just getting started when I stopped working there, but my account has remained active. I continue to turn to Scarecrow whenever I need a film for research. I pray it survives because it is facing hard times and possible closure.

And that is the real loss: a curated rental library. Scarecrow Video has more than a dozen times the amount of options that Netflix or Amazon Instant does, and they only disappear if the disc is damaged and out of print. But even smaller neighborhood stores offer much more variety and a personal response to customer interests than monolithic streaming sites. What happens if you suddenly get on a Fritz Lang kick, or a fascination with Hammer horror films, or pre-code movies, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals? Even Hitchcock movies! Libraries may cover some of that, but losing video stores will make film culture much poorer.

Matt Prigge, Metro

I spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia, so the answer is obviously TLA Video. The chain, which suffered a slow death over the last several years, blew my mind when I emigrated from South Central Pennsylvania suburbs to the big, evil city. I still remember the glee at first of seeing an entire row of Kurosawa films, plus Kubrick’s The Killing, which I had only before then read about. (Also a shout-out to Beaux Arts Video, which was tiny but had some rarities that were too rare for TLA.) But honestly I would be lying if I didn’t say Blockbuster didn’t mean a lot to me as a film-hungry teen. I exhausted their limited supply of “edgy” fare in high school, traveling to relatively far-off chains to see if they carried Woody Allen’s Love and Death, Bergman’s Passion of Anna or Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers. Like many, I (or my parents, anyway) ditched the mom and pop stores and even the more local chains for this corporate behemoth, and on one level I’m happy to see them go. Especially because when I applied there early in college they didn’t hire me. (Ditto TLA.) But memories, many of them warm, remain, even if I had to buy The Last Temptation of Christ to see it.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

You never forget your first video store. Mine was New Video, on University Place in Greenwich Village; I used to run into Griffin Dunne and other movie geeks there. While it was my first, it was not the most important. That would be TLA Video in Philadelphia, especially its South Street and its Chestnut Hill branches. They carried obscure titles that New Video would bother with. In the late 1980s, my pal Steve Harvey, a curator in MoMA’s Film Department, was stunned to find all these 1950s Italian comedies at TLA while he was working on a program of midcentury Italian comedy. He didn’t have to preview by having prints sent from Italy. After that, various MoMA curators would call me to see if TLA had an obscure title they needed. More often than not, TLA did. And their video clerks were as knowledgeable as clerk/auteurs Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. They also had an extensive pornography section, separated from the main part of the store by a beaded curtain that resembled something a Warner Brothers’ brothel. Naturally my six-year-old daughter, wanting to play with the pretty red beads, walked in that section. She quickly came out, red-faced. “Do naked men really look like that?” she whispered.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Living in Philadelphia, I was spoiled by TLA Video, which specialized in alternative, foreign and indie films. I could (and did) spend hours perusing the shelves for hidden gems, getting quite an education in cinema with every rental. Because of TLA, I was able to watch films like Warhol’s Flesh, Heat, Trash trilogy that would only show in retrospectives. TLA also enabled me to catch the work of indie filmmakers like Todd Verow whose special brand of cinema was a staple on the shelves. When film friends visited Philly, I always took them to TLA and they just marveled at all of hard-to-find films. It was a sad day when TLA closed its stores, but I won’t mourn for Blockbuster. I never rented from one. 

Todd Gilchrist, The Wrap, Forbes

Personally, the most important video store in my life was, ironically, a Blockbuster, because it introduced me to one of my oldest and best friends, who worked there, and shared in my budding obsession with movies as I departed for college a year behind him. But probably the most important one to me, cinematically speaking, was a little hole in the wall store in Chapel Hill called Dave’s Videodrome. It closed before I might have even reached my junior year in college, but it was a dingy little space where he rented all sorts of Asian cinema, including lots of John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam long before their films were made available internationally. He also had an enormous collection of Shaw Brothers movies which I fully utilized to cultivate my now-longstanding affection for martial arts cinema, and just generally functioned as that older, more knowledgeable guy who would turn you onto the weirdest, wildest and most influential movies you never knew your life depended on you seeing. 

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

For me, the most important video store was Blockbuster. I realize that may be some kind of heretical statement, but living outside of a big city meant I didn’t have a ton of video-store choices. In the small town of North Tonawanda (near Buffalo, New York), there was Blockbuster, my local library, the handful of movies to rent at the grocery store, and, eventually, a Hollywood Video. And if Blockbuster’s arrival had put smaller stores out of business, they did so well before I was old enough to browse. Also, back in the early 1990s, the Blockbuster felt huge to me, with rows and rows of old and new films (my memory tells me that there were far more old films as opposed to new releases, but it could be playing a trick on me) to choose from. By the time I left Western New York for college in a warmer climate, that feeling of bigness in the Blockbuster evaporated. And when, a few years later, I signed up for Netflix because the local brand-name video stores seemed to only carry, primarily, 100 copies of 10 new releases, the feeling went away entirely. But when I was younger, and the world seemed bigger, Blockbuster’s existence mattered to me.

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

The most important video store for me was Erol’s Video in my hometown’s local shopping center. For some reason, they’d let me rent rated-R movies even though I was barely older than eleven, and that was my gateway toward classic movies and more mature entertainment. And when they transitioned from VHS to DVD, I ended up watching their limited collection in alphabetical order. I’m pretty sure the first DVD I brought home was A Clockwork Orange.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

This may be an unpopular opinion, but the most important video store in my life was the local Blockbuster! Although the conglomerate was rightly criticized for stocking a million copies of the latest big releases in an attempt to shut down the local competition, I did find some smaller movies there that it would have been otherwise impossible for me to see – it was at a Blockbuster that I discovered Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ a few months before the release of Pulp Fiction, or Hard Boiled before John Woo made the jump to Hollywood. Today, I would probably be insulted by the dearth of independent and foreign films available at my local Blockbuster, but for a kid in Topeka in the early 1990s, its presence exposed me to films that I would not have otherwise known I wanted.

Jake Cole, Slant, Spectrum Culture

I grew up in the suburbs where the only alternative to Blockbuster was Hollywood Video (which, in comparison, may as well been heaven when stacked against Blockbuster, featuring a better selection, more competitive prices and a less strict rental window). So I can’t say my memories of in-store rentals were that fond, especially given that my cinephilia did not fully bloom until Netflix had already established itself as the de facto rental service. Nonetheless, I get the nostalgia for video stores, especially given Netflix’s changing business model. Once a place where so much could be found, now a deliberate move away from disc rental and a pursuit of new titles over classics and foreign movies threatens to turn Netflix into a virtual version of what made Blockbuster so tedious, with the added setback of programming that caters to people’s tastes rather than challenges them. Instead of coming across that hip clerk who might turn you on to something you’d never heard of, algorithms now ensure you never have to leave your comfort zone. Still, it’s hard to think back fondly on Blockbuster’s shelves of titles to be browsed when I remember that about the only thing I ever got there on a whim was Suburban Commando. Not all trips into the unknown are rewarding.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Blockbuster: There was one a couple of blocks away but I never went there in my life, because, ever since I’ve had a VCR, I’ve also lived more or less around the corner from a great independent video store, the Video Room, which is still in business, and where I go to rent (and to rent not just DVDs but also VHS tapes — which they’ve still got — for some treasures that haven’t been released in the digital format) and also for good cinephilic conversation. Actually, I did go to Blockbuster a few times — to buy VHS tapes on clearance when, unlike the Video Room, they got rid of them altogether. I like to own. I don’t want movies and music to be stored in the cloud, because clouds disperse; I don’t want the availability of movies I love to dangle on the thread of contracts I’m no party to. I only stream movies when there’s no alternative — I’d rather have a DVD, or even a VHS, of which I have hundreds, most of which I recorded from TV, and many of which haven’t turned up yet on DVD or, for that matter, even on TCM (cable’s great virtual cinematheque), let alone at a screening in a repertory house. But there’s something about streaming that links it to the primal state of theatrical movie-going: the sense of urgency, of the need to see something quickly once it becomes available, because that availability may be of limited duration and may end suddenly and without notice. The downside to life as a video pack rat is that ownership sometimes doesn’t enable viewing, it takes the place of it. How many times have I been on the losing end of this dialogue: “Have you seen it?” “No, but I own it.”

Adam Nayman, The Globe and Mail, Cinema Scope

I worked at two video stores in my teens and mid-twenties: an upscale-neighborhood Blockbuster and a family-owned place that specialized in VHS box sets of British series like Foyle’s War. My tour of duty in these venues covered the shift from VHS to DVD, although the bigger development, at least for me personally, was meeting my wife; while I was wearing the Blockbuster blue, she was working for the (literally) mom and pop competition. That’s how we met, and when she called my branch to ask if we had some obscure movie or other, well, that was the start of something big.

But the video store that had the biggest influence on my movie-going life was Video-On, the last shop on the left in a tiny mini-mall at Bayview and Merton in Leaside, Toronto. My mother was an avid collector of VHS tapes and she’d always bug the proprietor — an older Chinese-Canadian man named Anthony — about selling her old, rarely rented titles; usually he consented by the second or third request. Me, I used the fact that my mom was tight with the manager to get away with murder as far as renting inappropriate films was concerned: one glorious summer in the early 1990s, I systematically checked out the entire horror section, two or three films at a time, and gorged on such grotesque delights as Gothic (who could resist box art with Natasha Richardson stretched out nude and sleeping at the mercy of a grinning goblin?) and The First Power(God love you, Lou Diamond Phillips). I’d conservatively estimate that I rented 500 hundred movies at Video-On in my tween and early teen years, on top of whatever my mom took out to watch; when the shop went out of business in the late 90s — right before I started working the graveyard shift at Blockbuster — our family probably bought 200 tapes (which less than a decade later had to be replaced with DVDs). I felt extremely guilty when I started working at Blockbuster since I eventually made the connection between its arrival and Anthony’s departure (free-market economics not being my strong suit as a kid) but a job was a job and I got free rentals. My Blockbuster did not carry Gothic or The First Power but that was okay because I’d already bought them for $10 each.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

The most important video store in my life is fortunately still going strong, and hopefully will continue to. It’s Toronto’s Bay Street Video, at Bay and Bloor Sts., which advertises itself as “Toronto’s Largest DVD Collection.” That’s no lie — I have yet to stump the place or its knowledgeable staff for even the most obscure of video requests. Bay Street Video’s collection is so vast, Toronto cops should have gone there first in their quest for the Rob Ford crack video — I kid!

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I came a bit later to my cinephilia than some of my generational cohort, and didn’t immerse myself into repertory viewing until a time when, yes, Blockbuster was the easiest primary option. In recent years, I’ve been more reliant on libraries, which (depending, I suppose, on the library system where one lives) are still great places for such stuff. And it may be too early to say what cloud-based cinephilia will be like. Right now, there are too many glitches inherent in the system (buffering problems, screens lacking contrast depth) for streaming content to match even the quality of a good home-entertainment system. Hard physical media will only be missed if streaming media continues to be the hit-or-miss experience it still is. 

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

The most important video store in my life was not a store at all — it was the local library, which had shelves and shelves of VHS tapes available in both the children’s and main rooms. You could keep nonfiction films (mostly theatrical and dance products, plus PBS documentaries of the kind they play during pledge drives) out for a week, or more standard narrative fare for two days. We were only near the library once a week, so I watched lots and lots and lots of documentaries about obscure points in American history and have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic ballets. While that wasn’t a great way to learn about film history, it does contrast sharply with how I watch movies now, since I can watch most anything I want whenever I want, and I don’t have to worry about overdue fees. And I guess if I’d grown up in the Netflix age, I wouldn’t be able to tell you quite as much about the Hudson River School painters or how pioneers found their way across the country or the difference between various Swan Lakes. For all the benefits that come from video in the cloud, that, I think, is a loss.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?

So, so many, particularly mom-and-pops like Groovy Movies in Nashville and Premiere Video and Tapelenders in Dallas and Rocket Video and Cinefile in Los Angeles, all of which were staffed by passionate people who really knew their deep catalog. I got to become one of those passionate people the summer after I graduated from college, when I worked at the then-new Tower Video in Nashville, developing my own clientele of customers who knew that I could find what they were looking for. And while Blockbuster gets a bad rap, often deservedly so, in the 1980s, they had a real commitment toward trying to carry as diverse a catalog of tapes as possible. I still remember in the early ’90s, when they started selling off tons of their foreign/indie/documentary selections to make more room for New Releases, my friend Robert Abele and I spent a weekend driving to various Blockbuster locations around Dallas to snap up offbeat titles, many of which I still have in my library. As a film buff old enough to remember life before the VCR, having access to so many titles without having to wait for them to pop up at repertory cinemas (which the VCR pretty much killed) or on TV was a real game-changer. I can’t imagine what my coming-out process would have been like without those “Gay & Lesbian” sections of my favorite video stores, or writing Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas without places who could rent me Scrooged in August (and have cool enough clerks to recommend movies like The Silent Partner).

Robert Levin, amNewYork

Like most of my colleagues, I spent an enormous chunk of my youth in a video store. Or, more accurately, video stores: The local Dierbergs, a St. Louis-area grocery store chain, had a collection that was in retrospect rather middling but seemed like Shangri-Las to my younger self. It opened up a portal into the world of movies; I’d spend hours exploring the depths of different sections, in search of unfamiliar films that intrigued me enough to bring home. And, if I just couldn’t find the right movie at Dierbergs, there was a Blockbuster about a half-mile up the road. I’ve long since accepted that the age of the video store has passed, and while there’s much to be said for the instantaneous access of the digital era, the excitement just isn’t the same. At its heart, cinema is a spectacle. Surfing a Netflix queue, or the on-demand fare offered by your cable provider, simply isn’t as thrilling as wondering into a store devoted to movies, with the promise of brand new worlds waiting to be discovered behind each box.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com

My parents were early adopters of home video. My father spent days toiling over whether to go VHS or Beta. Prior to this, they would actually rent 8mm prints with sound of shorts from the library. He chose VHS (whew!) and we were first in the area to get an enormous, clunky VCR. This was before Blockbuster — before any stores were dedicated exclusively to video (at least in our area.) We rented our tapes from a Camera store. As the store started devoting more of its real estate to video, it offered a limited buy-in for a lifetime club membership. Pay X amount of dollars up front, you get 3 free videos a month forever and ever. My parents did this and we were soon envied by all the other families who didn’t have such foresight. (We also ate nothing but rice and tap water for weeks to balance the checkbook, but that’s another story.)

The first VHS we rented was the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata. My sister and I were furious at my mother, who said it was “brilliant” and that we should “sit still and expand our horizons.” My father, who had just spent 30 minutes on his knees trying to figure out how to hook this damn gizmo up, eventually admitted that it was the most boring thing he’d ever seen, and that there should be a more democratic method of picking up tapes in the future. The manager of the camera-turned-video store was named Jeff, who we called Jeff Video. He was a long-haired hippie who also played guitar and wrote country songs. I still can hum you one of these tunes decades later. Anyway, Jeff was so cool that he would sometimes pull the hot title and hold it for us, even without asking. I remember him surreptitiously slipping us the Sean Connery tape of Outland, in that giant puffy Warner Home Video case. Same with My Favorite Year, which also came in the oversized MGM/UA case. This special treatment was a problem once, when he presented us with Poltergeist, a movie I absolutely did not want to see. I remember being pissed at Jeff Video for this. Just having that thing in the house made me nervous. My parents and older sister watched it, and even with me in the bedroom with the door closed I could hear some of the music and I was terrified.

Anyway, the store — our store — did well enough that they moved into a larger location. Alas, they moved a town over, such that it was kind of a pain to drive all the way there. By now the area had a Blockbuster and an Easy Video. We broke ranks with Jeff Video and got memberships to the big stores, but neither had the same feel. Once in a while my father would feel guilty and say “We should drive to the old place” and my mother would say “What, you want to schlep all the way down Route 9? I’m not going back there tomorrow.” 

I just did an Internet search and was shocked to discover that the fabled store of my youth survived until fairly recently. Recently enough to get listed on all sorts of web-based directories, anyway. (I just called the number, but no answer.) It seems like they lasted as long as they did by turning away from home video rentals and going back to becoming a photo equipment and processing shop. But there’s not much call for that sort of thing either these days, I’m afraid.

Michael Pattison, Senses of Cinema, Sight & Sound

My mid-teen years coincided with HMV (UK) reducing its VHS stock. Week by week, I’d spend £10 on a two-for-ten deal on videotapes. There was also a local store called Play — no relation to the site of the same name, as far as I’m aware — that I used to binge-buy from. I remember purchasing MK2’s Chaplin box set disc-by-disc for around £2.99 per film. But the best bargain came when I arrived at the checkout one day with a bunch of Tartan Video DVDs — Julien Donkey-Boy, some Bergmans — only to see Edgar Reitz’s first Heimat box set for a stunning £9.99. I blushed with excitement. With prices like that, it’s no wonder it closed down!

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk

In the ’80s, in a sleepy little New York town, stood a quaint video store at the end of a tiny strip mall. It’s there that Family Vision Video, with its towering shelves (all 5 feet of them), offered a wealth of titles and NES games to entertain, amuse, sometimes confuse, but otherwise consume the 10 year old me with tales from Hollywood and beyond. Probably no different from countless corner video stores across the country but its proximity to my house allowed me access to new releases, classics and obscure foreign titles just a short bike ride away. It was the type of place run by real movie fans. Sure they had strange tastes, and some real weird films peppered the shelves, but they always had some odd delight to recommend or something really cool playing on the TV at the front counter. It was always fun to talk about what you hoped to expect from the title you were picking up and dish about it after bringing it back; they didn’t even mind too much if you forgot to rewind it. So even if it wasn’t the place that showed me every movie that helped define my tastes (that honor goes to my Father) but it let me appreciate the joys of discussing film with other fans. Also whenever they were looking to unload any and all promo posters, or, on rare occasions, life-size displays you would be sure to find me struggling with ways to get cardboard monstrosities for Home Alone or a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie home on my tiny BMX bike. Netflix and on-demand services are convenient but I’d trade the 12 years I’ve been a member just to be able to walk the aisles of the long forgotten Family Vision Video and see what Archie was watching. 

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule.com

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember the name of my favorite local video store growing up in Wilmington, DE! While I may not be able to recall the name, I can close my eyes and scan the aisles and shelves in my mind to this day. The storefront read “from the ridiculous to the sublime” and that variety was formative for me as a cinephile. I feel nostalgic for those trips to the video store today, but I’m inclined to say that the existence of Netflix and other streaming services might actually leave future generations of film critics in a better spot. The experience of browsing is simply not the same online, but if you learn about film somewhere else and know what you want, it’s now easier than ever to find what you’re looking for.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

Star Video in Brevard, NC was my defining video store. Most weekends during my first two years of high school, my friend Jason and I would walk there from his house and pick something out. The clerks didn’t prevent us from seeing R-rated films; if anything, they encouraged it. Once I got my driver’s license, I went there by myself and often did their “5 movies, 5 days, for $5” offer, renting more experimental fare and watching them after my parents went to sleep. It was a great introduction to edgier films from a place that didn’t ask questions (other than supportive ones). Dialing up titles on Netflix just isn’t the same.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

As someone who really didn’t have too much of an experience with video stores growing up (my family wasn’t into movies like I was, so the occasional trip to Blockbuster that my dad would make mainly was for old NES games, though I could go on about how much fun we had with the Micro Machines game and how disappointed I was in Swamp Thing), the most important video store to me actually isn’t one that’s in my life. I’m going to cheat and say the stores that folks like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino worked at/frequented take top honors. Without those stored, we may not have had those filmmakers, or at least not in the same form. Plus, one of my favorite scenes from Clerks wouldn’t exist.

Sean Hutchinson, CriterionCast, Latino Review

The most formative video store in my life was this semi-small New England-based chain of video stores called Tommy K’s Video I frequented almost every weekend while growing up. Somewhere in between the broad Blockbuster Video-type brick and mortar stores and a smaller cinephile’s dream, Tommy K’s was a place where I could get the newest releases but still have a wide range of weird and wonderful obscurities at my disposal. I suppose it’s telling that with the rise of Netflix that Tommy K’s made the absolutely baffling switch from video store chain to a series of tanning salons still serving the fine people of southern Connecticut to this day. 

The move from actual video store destinations to Netflix and on-demand streaming services never really bugged me because it boils down to a fundamental matter of convenience. It seems to me that people are still clinging to a nostalgia tied to browsing the video store of their dreams, but what is obvious to me is that that very tendency just needs to be reformed for the literally thousands of titles at your fingertips through these dozens of streaming services. I love it that future generations will just have the classics and the new blockbusters all at their disposal in a different way, and in the face of such a broad and intimidating selection what needs to happen now is for people to learn the ability to truly discern quality over quantity.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

Hollywood Express, Cambridge. Always there with whatever you need or want. And still is.

Jeff Berg, ABQ Arts and Entertainment, Las Cruces Bulletin

My first piece of paid writing was to review VHS tapes for the local daily in Missoula, Montana. At that time, VHS was fairly new, (I remember my first two VHS viewings: Jeremiah Johnson and Pink Flamingos) and everyone was trying to cash in by having rentals. It was great, of course, since there were so many films that I had never seen that were now available. There were three indie stores, two of which I don’t recall the names of, but are long gone, and Crystal Video, which was in the lobby of the local (RIP) wonderful indie arthouse hall. I made friends with the daughter of the owner of one of the forgotten stores and always got freebies from her and we later dated briefly and had a lot of fun (not watching movies… thank you Kris!). But it was a great time for finding rare and odd films…some of which have still never appeared on DVD or elsewhere (such as Slipstream with Luke Askew, a great Canadian flick from ’73). Many other stores come to mind: Facets in Chicago, Casa Video in Tucson and the terrific Video Library and underrated Casablanca Video which remain in business here in Santa Fe. 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

The first video store I remember going to was, I think, called Video Update. It was tucked away at the end of a large strip mall and felt small even though I was young and just about everything seemed enormous. There I found a seemingly endless amount of possibilities and at the same time restrictions on what I could watch. What I couldn’t watch, the R-rated movies and the mysterious films kept behind a door in the back, had to have an identity I created. I remember seeing the box for A Clockwork Orange and was drawn in by the image of Alex with his upside-down eyelash. I put it together that the movie was some modern update on Frankenstein and that the mad scientist who had invented this person had put things together wrong and that the eye was put in upside down. I thought the title referred to these mistakes in that an orange was natural and the mechanisms of a clock were not and that the film must have been filled with similar mistakes and contradictions. What will be lost with the unknown of the video store will be the fantasy world we create to interpret our fictions. As our queues become more and more personalized the future cinephile will be coddled and stupid and will think that cinema is at his or her service rather than the other way around, a mode of expression that shows us ourselves through the veil of a fiction cannot function properly without the reverence created by the gap in our knowledge filled in with our created fantasies and the fantasies presented to us in the film. It will function similarly but in some as of yet undetermined way.

Dan Kois, Slate

VisArt Video in Carrboro, NC. It is
where I first rented Tom Noonan and Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch and
learned about what good moviemakers had really been up to in the
1980s and 1990s. Its clerks were smart and funny and I would just take
whatever suggestions they made, and they were always right.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville
Scene, Interface 2037

Much love and respect to Video
Culture in Murfreesboro TN, Kim’s in NYC, Captain Video in Hermitage
and White House TN, Tower Video in Nashville and NYC, as well as that
place in Tampa on the bottom level of that Bauhaus-looking building
that I can’t remember the name of. Of them all, only Captain Video in
White House remains, and that’s because in the mid-’90s they
remodeled and dedicated half the store to tanning beds. I loved them
all. Each were like love affairs in their own way, each with their
areas of expertise.
I like physical media, and it’s most
disconcerting to see one’s home collection of film eventually
becoming subject to the same outlandish restrictions as theatrical
viewing. The digital changeover in theatres did a wonderful job of
putting absolute control over the viewing of movies into the hands of
distributors, so it doesn’t require too many paranoid tendencies to
see a similar iron hand being wielded against home viewing as well,
once all video is simply streaming data. That’s not even to imply
malevolence- but anyone who’s had a screening derailed because of
incorrect keys or KDM problems understands that when the decision is
taken out of your hands, then something is wrong. I guess I’m a video
libertarian in that respect.

If things continue in this fashion,
with physical media shunted aside for more and more streaming, you’ll
find viewers going with downloads and torrents. Distributors and
rightsholders need to make their holdings less like what can already
be conveniently downloaded, not moreso.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: 12 Years a Slave

Other movies receiving multiple votes: GravityAll Is LostBlue is the Warmest Color

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