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We Lost It At Our Video Stores: The Writers Remember Movie Rental Havens

To celebrate the release of Tom Roston’s new book "I Lost It At the Video Store" (here's Glenn Kenny's review) we asked our writers to share their own memories about the VHS/DVD palaces that inflamed their cinephilia. What memories from these mostly bygone institutions did they hold closest to them? For your perusal, we've got a thriller starring Odie Henderson and a weaponized copy of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," a heartfelt comedy featuring Omer Mozaffar and "Cool As Ice," and of course, plenty of romance, between budding cinephiles and the rental havens that forever changed their lives.

ERIK CHILDRESS: I can remember all of the major video stores I regularly frequented the way some can recall their time and place during historical events. After the first VCR in my house it began with Leisure Tronics in Arlington Heights, IL, where the clerks called this eight-year-old "Master Childress" and blindsided me one night after mistakenly giving away the movie I reserved and replacing it with “A Nightmare On Elm Street.” "He'll like it," they told my dad. After it closed down there was Elk Grove Video, and even 7-11 got my business. After I settled on Video Plus Emporium in Elk Grove Village, I ended up getting my first job before I turned 16. It was there that I got my first taste of advance copies before they streeted. So exciting! Later I went on to Ken's World of Video, QED Laser and Hollywood Video before eventually settling into becoming a full-time film critic.

The memories of those days can fill a book and there is a part of that experience missing today. Seemingly gone are the times of anticipation for that Tuesday release or the thrill of walking in to pick out something you have never seen before. My dad would point out movies that he remembered seeing or really wanted to see. The clerks would not bat an eye when I wanted to rent “Tron” … again! My horizons expanded with every opportunity, from whatever classics were available to the cheesiest of horror films. If it was not on cable I would find it at the video store. Now everything is at our fingertips and that's a good thing in itself. Those second homes must be why I caught the collector's bug leading my love of film to transform my home into a living, breathing video store.

SEONGYONG CHO: During the early 1990s, most video rental stores in South Korea were small local independent businesses, and you always had at least one nearby rental store privately run by one of your neighbors. In the case of my neighborhood during 1993-2006, there were at least 10 video rental stores within the two-kilometer radius of an apartment complex my family lived in. In 1995, a video rental store chain named Cinema Town appeared. These rental stores usually had many classic movies besides popular ones, and I soon found myself exposed to many notable works from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, etc. And there was also one very big video rental video store in the downtown area of my hometown, and I still vividly remember those wonderful moments I spent on its lovely second floor which was full of hidden treasures including the almost complete set of David Lynch’s TV series “Twin Peaks” (somehow, its monumental pilot episode was not included in the set, so it took years until I finally saw the pilot episode on DVD). I remember well when I rented “Jaws” (1975) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) from this store in 1996—that was one double feature to remember.

OLIVIA COLLETTE: There are actually three video stores that had an enormous impact on my movie-watching habits. The first is the Blockbuster on Mountain Road in Moncton, New Brunswick, circa 1992-97. Say what you will about that franchise, but at the time, it was the only place that rented out artsy, indie, or foreign pictures, like "Exotica," "Tous les matins du monde," and "Ridicule."

The next is the Club International Video (now Le Cinoche) in Montreal, on the corner of Duluth and St-Hubert. They had such an impressive array of foreign films. I would regularly rent movies without having heard anything about them, and be consistently surprised and delighted. There was obviously some curation to the process, and the clerks clearly knew their stuff. I owe discovering "J'ai faim," "After Life," and "Nobody Knows" to the Club International.

And finally, there's Évolution 1. This place was about a block away from where I lived, and carried a healthy selection of sci-fi—ranging from popular to cultish and obscure—and managed to get many of the weird entries that made the Fantasia Festival's program each year, so that was always worth exploring. I was a regular here, and over time, the guys developed a sense of my tastes. "Absolutely Fabulous" DVDs meant I'd just had a shopping spree and was gearing up for a solo girl’s night. "Battlestar Galactica" meant we were in for a chat to dissect the latest developments in the series. Though I'm likely most proud to have introduced the young men to "Koyaanisqatsi."

NOAH GITTELL: There have been several important video stores in my life, and each played a different role. The town I grew up in had no actual downtown, just a mini-mall surrounded by residential areas. Thankfully, the mini-mall had a video store. I don't remember what I rented there, but I do remember the day I realized I could take their old posters and hang them up in my room. Coolest thing ever! When I lived in Boston a few years later, I discovered that I lived near a video store that got a jump on the competition by putting out the new releases two days early. Also the coolest thing ever! Finally, when I began studying at NYU, I discovered Kim's Video and Music. Many epitaphs and appreciations have already been written for the legendary store, so I'll just say that it's where my education in film really began. It's just a few blocks from campus, and when a couple of thoughtful professors started changing the way I thought about film, Kim's was there to supplement my formal education. Plus, I once saw Harmony Korine and Chloe Sevigny holding hands in there. Needless to say: coolest thing ever.

ODIE HENDERSON: I used to work in a small neighborhood video store, which is a bad idea if you're a film critic. I was always making recommendations ("Put that back! It's terrible!" for example), and the bosses weren't too keen on me costing them money. One movie I suggested the customer return to the shelves was "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," but not for any quality reason. The owner of the store kept putting that movie in the porn section. The guy who stood before me had horndog porn spirals in his eyes, and he was holding the box for Russ and Roger's classic. "Is the woman on the box in the movie?" he asked me, practically panting. With most porn VHS tapes, the answer is no. But this wasn't porn, and the actress on the box was indeed in the movie. "She is," I told him, "but dude, you might want to rent something else. This isn't what you need right now." I winked at him, but he didn't get it. I tried talking him out of the movie, even suggesting a litany of other titles, but he was adamant about "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." 

Years later, I said to Roger Ebert, "Roger, you almost got me killed." The customer returned a few hours later, madder than hell because BVD was, by triple-X standards, quite tame. After screaming at me, the guy threw the video tape at my head. He missed me, but he hit a huge store mirror behind me. Glass showered down on me and I barely escaped being shredded. A few months later, our video store (which was illegally copying and renting videos) got raided by the feds. I wonder if BVD guy tipped them off.

OMER M. MOZAFFAR: The feeling of walking into a video store was better than walking into a bookstore or library. It was like walking into a room full of portals to worlds far bigger than anything this earth could contain. It was impossible to spend less than an hour ambling through the same sections again looking carefully at each box again. The polish of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. The barebones dingy grey design of the monster selection at Movie Mania. The foreign film section at Regal Video. And, the B-movies at that shop next to the 7-11. I worked at Suncoast Motion Picture Co. and kept trying to play one of the “Star Wars” films on the televisions. Nothing, however, came close to the first experiences, driving so many miles, to Double Exposure, to rent the brand new tape, "Michael Jackson's Thriller." Double Exposure had two aisles, and maybe 30 selections. 

My most embarrassing experience came when studying the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, requiring me to rent "Cool as Ice," starring then-vanishing rap artist Vanilla Ice (who today seems to be making millions renovating houses). Considering the other movies I rented, that film was tame. Sharing this moment with the world is therapeutic. Especially now, looking at all those locations, replaced with sandwich shops, insurance offices, and weight loss centers that I should also visit.

MICHAŁ OLESZCZYK: My first childhood video store appeared out of nowhere when I turned eight or nine. Communism just fell across Eastern Europe and it wasn't before the dust settled after toppling of the Berlin Wall that my small town in southern Poland saw the rise of VHS. Soon, there were several video stores, of which one called "Video Fan" was my favorite. The choice of movies was laughably small by today's standards, and since the place was tiny, there was no room for the American-style display of browsable boxes. Instead, the walls of the place were lined from top to bottom with cut-outs of the covers, many crudely translated into Polish, some not translated at all. Piracy reigned supreme, quality was low, but the mythical West came to our door and we lived in a state of heightened expectation. Since VHS tapes were in demand, you had to sign up for many hit titles and wait for weeks to rent them. My faves included "Home Alone,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and that perennial classic I still consider superior to its predecessor, "Ghostbusters II.” There were hardly any art-house releases at that time, so I spent my VHS childhood on a steady diet of high-octane Hollywood candy—which is what I now try to feed my nephews, in hope they will one day become as movie-crazy as their uncle.

BARBARA SCHARRES: The video store that had the greatest impact on me was a tiny Chinese video store in Chicago's second Chinatown at Broadway and Argyle. I no longer remember the store's name, but it was something bland and generic. By the late-80s I had fallen in love with Hong Kong cinema, and my goal was to see every Hong Kong film I could get my hands on, past or current. To the puzzlement of wary clerks, I became one of their few (maybe only, I don't know) non-Asian member/customers. I visited weekly over a period of many years, checking out large numbers of tapes. The tape quality was often terrible, but even so, I made (illegal) copies for my personal collection so I could watch my favorites over and over. I started creating my own catalog of their holdings, and spent some time each week taking notes, locating the English title (usually somewhere in fine print on the box) and noting the call number, filling in director and star names later from research. 

The store was small and very grungy. Absolutely no frills: store windows covered by torn and faded posters, battered, ripped linoleum on the floor, walls obscured by the banks of shelves of tapes. The brand new releases were often held behind the counter, so you had to ask about new titles. In time, the two young women who worked there became friendly and called me by name, although a man who sometimes worked there was prone to making snarky comments about me in Cantonese to other customers. I didn't care, because this little store was my gateway to a movie culture that was my passion. So many of the films I saw back then have dropped out of sight, and I regret that they may never be remembered by anyone. The greatest Hong Kong films and the hits by major directors can be found online now, but scores of the films that satisfied Hong Kong's once insatiable hunger for an indigenous popular cinema are nowhere to be found, and many of those were pretty darn good.

COLLIN SOUTER: In the mid-'80s, my friend Jim Peebles and I raided the dumpsters of video stores that mistakenly threw away their posters and displays. I still have a vast chunk of that poster collection at home. They weren't thinking ahead, but we were (although the posters are hardly in mint condition). I would later add to that collection throughout the '90s when I held a total of four separate video store jobs, my favorite being Entertainment Tonight Video in Mt. Prospect, IL, which had the largest collection of LaserDiscs for rent in the area. Hardcore cinephiles who demanded proper aspect ratios came from all over. That place was an early adopter of new technology, so as a customer (before becoming an employee), I was already aware of the benefits of letterboxing a film long before it became the norm. I learned from all those video store jobs that video store owners are among the most obsessive-compulsive eccentrics you would ever have the (dis)pleasure of encountering. 

My favorite video store growing up, however, was Quick Flix Video in Arlington Heights, IL. I was one of their regulars. It's where I started diving into the art house films of that era ('86 - '90) as well as discovering Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and “Fawlty Towers.” They had a couple rows of theater seats in the center of the store where customers could watch whatever film was playing on the jumbo screen TV. Their check-out counter was like a movie theater concession stand, with large-size candy under the glass and fresh popcorn for sale. I still miss that place.

I sometimes wonder how my two high schools jobs impacted what I do now. Were they reflections of what I was interested in at the time or predictors of what I would be doing today? Or both? It can't be mere coincidence that I worked at a book store and then managed a video store across the street. Writing/reading/film. My time at Metro News (a massive newstand that also had a hearty book selection in Birmingham, MI) and then Videomax, first across the street and then at a different store, feels like it had to be formative on my current profession, right? And yet we can't draw straight lines from one chapter of our lives to the next that easily. I will say this—it gets me thinking about the lack of both book and video stores for today's teenagers. I spent so much time wandering the aisles of both, even before I worked there, discovering authors, filmmakers, and even Roger Ebert (we had his books and even got the Sun-Times at Metro). The internet might allow for the same access but there's something tactile about picking up a VHS box or a newspaper. It's something only happening to you in that moment. And that individuality of discovery feels like it's been lost. I miss it.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: One day in the early ‘80s, when my husband and I lived in Alexandria, Va., he announced that he wanted to buy an upgraded TV and our first VCR. I was beyond thrilled since I often worked nights on the copy desk and could fill up my days with movie binges. Plus the TV we did have was always threatening to fall off its wobbly stand and wound one of us. But I was less than pleased when Chris brought home “The Dresser” from Erol’s, a local electronics chain that also rented videos, as our inaugural viewing choice.

He was puzzled by my reaction since it was a highly-regard Oscar-nominated film that we had failed to see in theaters. I explained to him that was like bringing healthy granola cookies to someone who wanted decadently gooey brownies. We could watch such serious relatively recent mainstream movies anytime. I coveted tapes of a slightly lower-brow variety that were much harder to locate. On the top of my wish list: “Eraserhead” and “The Hunger.” Like the saint he is, Chris duly trudged back to return “The Dresser” and I spent the day savoring the bizarre world of David Lynch and Catherine Deneuve’s seductive bloodsucker before reluctantly going to work.

I was bit by the video bug. Hard. Anyone could rent a new release. I wanted to revel in all the films that I read about in Danny Peary’s cult movie books but could never see, whether Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Aguirre: Wrath of God” or “The Trip.” But Erol’s didn’t have that much in the way of off-beat offerings.

Then I learned that, less than a mile away from where we lived in Old Town, a tape rental  emporium in an old townhome was opening that catered to cinephiles who shared my appetite for less-edifying fare: The Video Vault. Its slogan was “Guaranteed Worst Movies in Town” and there were plenty of ripe-for-the-riffing turkeys that would end up being roasted on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in the future. But there was also a rich array of classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as hard-to-find foreign titles and even bootlegs, including the unreleased Rolling Stones documentary, “Cocksucker Blues.” No wonder Joey Ramone was one of the store’s best out-of-town mail-order rental customers. 

Alas, we would buy our first house a year later more than 30 miles away from The Video Vault. Occasionally we would make the trip to check out what was new. But little by little, it became less convenient to return our rentals there. Eventually, we had to make do with Blockbuster after it bought out Erol’s. It was so depressing. Their stores were as sterile and utilitarian as a hospital lobbies and the clerks usually didn’t know any movies older than yesterday.

I hadn’t thought about The Video Vault in years but I took to the Internet to see what became of the shop. Incredibly, it moved to several other locales but actually was able to hold on until 2010, even as Redbox machines and Netflix were taking hold. Yes, I find older films on streaming services or used copies of more obscure titles on the Internet now. But I miss that rush of walking into a room with shelf after shelf groaning with thousands of VHS tapes and being able to snag such rare finds like “Peeping Tom” and “Deep End.” The thrill of the hunt is gone. And I still haven’t seen “The Dresser.” 

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