A Life at the Video Store

November 10, 2011

North Carolina Video, Cary, North Carolina, 1983. My technophile father, a fugitive from movie theaters after three nuns sit down directly in front of us in an otherwise empty theater and talk throughout E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, discovers this, the first video rental store in my hometown. He brings home a Sony Betamax. The first videotape I ever rent is The Last Unicorn, a now-forgotten Rankin-Bass cartoon that was also the first movie I saw on tape (when my first grade teacher showed it, illegally, in class).

The Video Bar, Cary, North Carolina, 1984-1987. The second video store to open in my hometown, in a shopping center across the street from the mall. My mother and I drop in on its first day in business and come out with membership card #2, which we share for nearly a decade, until the store switches computers and issues new cards. Instead of carrying their chosen videotape box to the counter, customers retrieve a little laminated card for each title from a hook underneath the shelf – blue for Beta, red for VHS. Red cards guarantee tantrums, until my father finally throws in the towel and switches to VHS. Though as a child I generally dislike children’s films I rent, over and over again, The North Avenue Irregulars (because I like the cars) and the Dot and the Kangaroo movies (because I like the Australian animals).

North American Video, Cameron Village and North Raleigh, North Carolina, 1986-1987; Schoolkids Records, Saltbox Village, Cary North Carolina, c. 1988; various others. The mid-eighties are a bad time for a newly-minted Trekkie. In a lull between theatrical features, classic Star Trek is atypically scarce in syndication. My long-suffering father is deputized to drive me to every video store in Wake County in a mostly vain search for the fifty-two episodes available on video at the time of my conversion. One of these stores (I can’t remember which) supplies the crucial “Balance of Terror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever,” both found on the rare double-episode cassettes that are show’s the first home video release. (When the third season of Star Trek finally debuts on VHS, my father astonishes me by pulling out his credit card and buying all twenty-four tapes on the same night I first spot them in the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. He is tired of driving to video stores, I guess.) Hitchcock, the filmmaker who introduces me to the idea of auteurism, first catches my eye in the “Suspense” aisle of a North American Video in Morrisville.

Videorama and Video Plaza, Cary, North Carolina, 1988-1990. Tucked into neighboring shopping centers right in front of my mother’s post-divorce apartment, these two small stores make a convenient summer afternoon destination for a bored pre-teen. The copy on the videocassette boxes in these shops becomes my first film school. At Video Plaza I discover, and become obsessed with, The Outer Limits.

Silver Screen Video, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1988. Situated far out into North Raleigh, Silver Screen is run by movie buffs and is the only store in town that carries the remaining Outer Limits episodes then available on VHS – a mere eighteen out of forty-nine. Totally unaware of how the home video industry works, I call them every few weeks to ask if they have any “new” Outer Limits episodes. My voice hasn’t broken yet, and I am infuriated when the clerks address me as “ma’am.”

Blockbuster Video, Cary, North Carolina, c. 1989. The blight first intrudes on Kildaire Farm Road, where I sniff around this neon-lit monstrosity (which will wage a protracted battle with the town council, as the overbrightness of its signs violate a local ordinance). Failing to comprehend the drawing power that 1,000 copies of every bad new release will have, I dismiss it as understocked and overpriced ($5 a night plus tax?!). A friend responds more pro-actively, by depositing an electrocuted squirrel found on his lawn in the overnight drop of a Durham branch. But the battle is a losing one; Videorama and Video Plaza, both across the street, are among the first casualties.

Carbonated Video, Waverly Place, Cary, North Carolina, 1991-1995. Along with the venerable Video Bar, now relocated to the other side of the Winn-Dixie/TJ Maxx shopping center, this new arrival is the best place in town to find classic and cult movies during my teenage cinephile years.

The Video Bar, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1993-1995. This offshoot, near the North Carolina State campus, stocks a hip slate of cassettes. Here, I discover the work of Russ Meyer – never imagining that a few years later I will spend a memorable afternoon with Russ and his sometime star Charlie Napier.

VisArt Video, Carrboro, North Carolina, 1994-1995. Having exhausted the movie supply in my own county, I begin regular trips to this college town mecca, almost an hour’s drive to the west, during my senior year of high school. I rent as many as I can, copy them all to enable time-shifting (most VCRs manufactured prior to 1990 were immune to Macrovision; I kept one operational until well into this century), and do it all over again the next weekend. I can’t remember the name of it, but a tiny little video store on a bend in the road between Chapel Hill and Carrboro supplies the life-changing Home Vision tapes of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. On the cross-country trip to college, my parents check out the Grand Canyon but I haul a VCR and my 13″ TV into a hotel room each night and watch tapes from the VisArt cache. (Teenagers are dumb.)  The only film I remember from that week is Marnie, the last major Hitchcock film I have not yet seen.  I am ready for new directors and new directions as I start my new life on the West Coast.

Tempo Music & Video and the 32nd Street Market, Los Angeles, California, 1995-1999. USC is in a low-income area that cannot support real video stores. All I find are a music shop and a dingy grocery store in a little outdoor mall, each with a kiosk full of mostly new releases. No matter: In film school it dawns on me that contemporary movies can be as good as old ones, so I eagerly set about bringing myself up to date.

Mondo Video a Go-Go and Jerry’s Video, Los Feliz, California, 1997-1999. Only a short bus ride from USC, these quirky neighborhood shops fill in more gaps, and the weird proprietors behind the counter provide added entertainment.

Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, North Hollywood, California, 1996-2000. Perhaps the greatest video store of all time, EBSM is a long schlep into the Valley, but has no limit on rentals. I take a shoulder bag and fill it up each time. Noobs complain that the videos are organized not by genre but in alphabetical order, but of course I come with a list – and know enough to ask for the contraband behind the counter. Eddie Brandt’s allows me to become a television historian: it has a wall of bootlegs of shows like Naked City, East/Side West Side, Arrest and Trial, and others I’d only dreamed of ever finding.

Dave’s Video/The Laser Place, Studio City, California, 1999-2000. Having missed the laserdisc era almost entirely (those suckers are expensive, and therefore off my radar; as a teenager I mistake the rack of them in Camelot Music for soundtrack albums), I purchase my first DVD player in August 1999 and begin almost daily walks from my Coldwater Canyon apartment to Dave’s, one of the premiere DVD outlets in Los Angeles and soon to be a canary-in-the-mineshaft casualty of the medium’s decline. Dave’s is known for its celebrity customers, most famously Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, but I cherish meeting character actors like Bonnie Bartlett and Kurtwood Smith here.

Evergreen Video, West Village, New York City, 2000-2007. A friendlier but almost as well-stocked equivalent to the tool factory across town (see below), this tiny West Village store cuts up the video boxes and rehouses the artwork in fingertip-slicing laminated sleeves in bins. It’s even less browsable than Eddie Brandt’s, but no matter: by now I am cataloging every new DVD release of interest in a life-governing spreadsheet.

Tower Records, 4th Ave & 4th St, New York City, 2000-2006. The video rental shelf is small, but I can get new releases and TV seasons at two dollars for three nights – best deal in town. The Tower/Evergreen circuit becomes a fast-walking Friday lunch hour ritual for a few years.

Mondo Kim’s Video, East Village, New York City, 2000-2004; 2007-2008. A sluggish convert to the new DVD format, Mondo Kim’s eventually becomes the only store in town to amass a substantial library of imports and bootlegs. Relations with the legendarily supercilious staff deteriorate to the point that, following a conversation ending in the declaration “I have your money and I’m not giving it back,” a three year boycott is declared. Toward the end of 2007 I notice a “for rent” sign in the upstairs window and, although the twerps behind the counter persistently deny that the end is near, I lift the ban and manage to rent most of the expensive imports and out-of-print rarities just before the inevitable closure. In a typically shady maneuver, Mr. Kim, who once ranked number thirty-seven on the New York Press’s annual “Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list, does not sell off the videos but instead packs them away to a small town in Italy with the promise that the memberships of any old customers who happen to pass through Palermo will still be honored. Though I am happy to see my stoner asshat nemeses out of work, this still probably rates as some kind of tragedy.

Netflix, 2005-201?. I enjoy the rituals of browsing and spur-of-the-moment selections and am therefore a late and reluctant convert to rental by mail. Though impressed by the reliability of Netflix and the breadth of its library, I remain faithful to Evergreen and to Kim’s until they leave me twice widowed. (Visiting my home town, I ask around and realize that every single North Carolina video store mentioned above has closed its doors – even the Blockbuster. The final holdout, VisArt Video, hits eject at the beginning of this year.) At last almost entirely dependent on Netflix by 2008, I am unsurprised to find myself ditched once again, as company founder and nouveau douchebag Reed Hastings declares his loyalty to a deeply flawed streaming video offering and commences to throwing discs over the side as quickly as he can hoist them. The future is uncertain, but from here – on this, my thirty-fifth birthday – it looks a lot like 1982.

Minor changes for clarity made on March 28 and August 15, 2012.  Thanks to Scott, Andrea, and Toby for supplying the forgotten names of some of the stores mentioned above.

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12 Responses to “A Life at the Video Store”

  1. Mike Rice Says:

    I have two questions about your video odyssey: Did the video store walkabouts of your poor father ultimately lead to the divorce between he and your Mom? Also, though your pre-1990 VCR covers your ability to make VHS copies to your heart’s content, there isn’t a whisper about what you’re doing about copies in the DVD and Netflix era? Have you the full array of PC freeware to copy to your heart’s content? i recently acquired copies of those same terrible Sam Fuller’s you mention and can’t bring myself to look at their shoddiness, beyond Shock Corridor. Finally, do you have DVDs of kinescopes of East Side West Side, Arrest & Trial, and possibly the George C. Scott fifties performance of Winterset NBC erased to make west coast copies of the Tonight Show in the sixties?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Mike, every cinephile has his or her own set of ethics when it comes to copyright and the acquisition of rare material. Jonathan Rosenbaum, my favorite film critic, once compared the sharing of rare movies among cinephiles to the work of monks who laboriously copied ancient scrolls in order to preserve and distribute their wisdom. A brilliant analogy which emphasizes that, in moral terms, movies, like all art, belong to the people who look at them as much as to the artists who created them (or, more often, the profit-driven conglomerates which “own” them).

      However: I’m actually pretty conservative when it comes to copyright. I don’t share the fetish that some movie and TV buffs have for the physical possession of media. In fact, I’d rather not have the clutter — if I can rent something or watch a good stream of a movie, then I don’t need a copy of it. I don’t have any of that freeware on my PC and I’ve never figured out how bit-torrents work. Personally, I think there should be a good-faith relationship between consumers and copyright holders: if the latter release their libraries in a legal form, then it’s our obligation to support that by buying or renting those releases legally. If we pirate them, then that deprives the artists who made the movie of the tiny smidgen of royalties/residuals they’re entitled to, and (practically speaking) it discourages the rightsholders from putting out more stuff.

      If, on the other hand, a copyright holder does not make the art that resides in their charge commercially available, then I’m open to the idea of passing around that art in other forms, like Rosenbaum’s monks. That’s the big exception. If I want to write about East Side/West Side, then, yes, I do have to find someone with a set of off-air recordings or 16mm transfers of the show; and I do believe that I have an moral right to acquire those, especially in my role as a historian, since I’ll be contributing to the body of knowledge about that particular cultural arfifact. However, I really hate bootleggers who sell illegal copies of TV shows and movies for profit, and people who use bit torrents just because they’re too cheap to watch media legally. I know of a few cinephiles (including some with well-known bylines) who indulge in the latter activity and I really have to hold my tongue to keep from censuring them.

      As for your aversion to Sam Fuller, well, all I can say is … look again.

  2. Brad Says:

    Favorite statements from above: stoner asshat nemesis and nouveau douchebag.

    Thanks for the childhood memories; I remember most of those stores. It’s strange to remember a time when individual privately owned stores was the norm rather than the red vending machines outside a drugstore we see today.

  3. JW Says:

    Nice eulogy and timeline. Eddie’s is still around, somewhat improbably. Jerry’s left maybe 5 years ago or so (?), I can’t remember – you might recall better than I. I think that’s where I first rented “99 RIVER STREET” and a number of other then-hard-to-find noirs.

    As for Sam Fuller, I’m firmly in the “pro” camp on that subject.

  4. Phil Satterley Says:

    I’ll add one:
    THE VIDEO STATION – Boulder, CO 1983-present
    This was one AMAZING video store, Imagine the selection of Netflix but back in the VHS days. I worked there for several years, and each of us were considered “experts” of a certain genre, so it wasn’t unusual to hear “Phil, we got a Doctor Who question over here.” where I’d reply “”Perfect because we have a Bergman question for you”. Lots of GREAT people who worked there and went on to great things.
    Article on the store here:
    http://www.dailycamera.com/movies/ci_18184557

  5. Toby Says:

    Great piece.

    The evolution of this “hobby” from 16mm to VHS/Beta and on to DVD is an incredible one, and the retail end of it is maybe the weirdest (and most frustrating) part.

    I miss the days of 16mm, when collecting or even watching films put you in contact with this underworld populated with shut-ins, obsessives and too many other types of freaks to mention.

    The North American at Cameron Village is still there. Can’t remember if we covered that or not.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      That North American Video is a venerable one. I barely remember it, because it never had much, but I remember buying Matchbox cars at the Kerr Drugs in the same shopping center, so that should tell you how far back that one goes.

  6. Todd Says:

    I’m pleased, though surprised, to be the first poster out of five to say: Happy Birthday Stephen! Thanks so much for sharing your memories of a time that seems quite remote now. You have previously described yourself as a bit of a private and reclusive person, thus I appreciate your sharing this with your readership. Thanks as well for the most enjoyable blog on the ‘net.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Thanks, Todd. I try to keep the autobiography to a minimum, ’cause it’s ultimately kind of boring and self-indulgent, but sometimes it seems like the only way into an idea. Plus, if I’m going to keep complaining about Netflix, I’ve got to find some fresh ways to do it!

  7. mark Says:

    I really enjoyed this blog. It brought back a lot of treasured memories. I loved finding and visiting all those video stores. It was always a thrill for me when you found a video for which you were searching. I am glad you discovered your passion and was delighted to help you explore it. I would not have had it any other way. Happy 35th birthday.

    Your Dad

  8. Mike Says:

    Carbonated video! With the castle inside for the kid’s videos! I remember, as I was a kid when this store was still open. Have you seen Waverly Place lately? Barely recognizable from the old days.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I haven’t. Waverly Place was always sort of a bust — when I was in high school, our yearbook teacher wouldn’t let us sell ads there, because the merchants could never pay their bills! Another fond memory that I didn’t stick in this piece was that Carbonated was next to waterbed store, and the signs in the parking lot read “Parking for Carbonated Video Waterbed Emporium Only.” Oooh, we yukked … carbonated waterbeds!


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