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Requiem for a Video Store

The text came from a buddy — a fellow film fan, but also one who had spent his first couple of years in New York as an employee there. “Just a heads-up,” he wrote, “World of Video is closing on 4/28 and they’re selling off their stock. May find some good deals.” I stopped in, and found a couple of bargains, but the victory was bittersweet: World of Video, the 29-year-old DVD and VHS rental joint in New York’s West Village, felt like the last of the Mohicans, the last man standing, and now it’s closing its doors for good. At risk of overdramatizing the thing, it feels like the end of an era — not just the shuttering of a genuinely great video store (seriously, they had stuff there you couldn’t find anywhere), but the end of the video store experience, which is, let’s face it, one of the few remaining vestiges of communal cinephilia.

A couple of weeks back, we talked about the gradual transformation of film culture from a group to an individual pursuit — the switch from the shared experience of discovering a great old movie at a theater or a college film society to the solitary experience of clicking a button on Netflix or iTunes and watching it in your living room. Home video usually took the blame for the death of the revival cinema, and while that’s a mostly accurate accusation, it’s also a slightly reductive one. While the video store may have killed the community of the movie house, a real video store — stocked with great flicks and a passionate crew — may have helped keep that sense of community alive.

All of them didn’t do that, don’t get me wrong. I worked in several video stores, starting as a 16-year-old and continuing into my twenties (further into my twenties than should have been acceptable, truth be told), and yes, that included stints as a cummerbund-wearing Hollywood Video clerk and as a polo-shirted drone for Blockbuster. Both were deeply dispiriting experiences that confirmed every deeply held stereotype of soulless corporate culture; I actually had a manager tell me that she didn’t really watch movies “because I have to be around them all day.” (She was later promoted to a district manager position.) But at the small ones, the mom-and-pops, had personality and vitality; we had regulars who came in several times a week (some of them, more than once a day), who’d hang out and talk about what they’d rented and what they should see next, and our staff of movie geeks was more than happy to make suggestions and, yes, occasionally engage in good-natured disagreement.

Those mom-and-pop shops all eventually crumbled under the Blockbuster empire, which makes it all the more satisfying that the Big Blue has similarly fallen in the face of a superior business model (not without some whining, of course). Blockbuster, Hollywood, and Movie Gallery just plain dominated in smaller markets, like my hometown, but in bigger cities, a locally-owned video store with a personal touch could thrive. In Los Angeles, Video Archives served a loyal clientele with a notoriously opinionated staff, including a young motor-mouth named Quentin Tarantino. In Seattle, the indie Scarecrow video was renowned for its broad, eclectic selection. Same went for Mondo Kim’s in New York’s East Village, which became both known for its 55,000-plus titles and feared for its surly, judgmental clerks. World of Video’s all-over-the-map selection (and expansive adult section) made it a big hit on the other side of Broadway, while TLA video — located almost exactly halfway between them in New York, with additional locations in Philadelphia — carved out its own niche of art films, documentaries, and porn. All of them rented tapes and (later) discs, but they did more than that; they provided the tools for a film education, with titles divvied up by genre and director, obscure bootlegs and imports sharing the shelves with official studio releases, and know-it-all clerks that might have turned up their nose at your Meg Ryan rental, but could also tip you off on lesser-known gems buried deep in the stacks. You could go to the video store and have a real conversation about film with people who not only knew their shit, but were passionate about it — and if it meant taking home some unwatchable exploitation movie or foreign oddity, then you could give ‘em hell about it the next time you went in.

Now, they’re almost all gone. Scarecrow is still around, but Video Archives closed clear back in the mid-’90s; TLA shuttered its New York location and most of its Philly spots, and Mondo Kim’s lost its lease and the giant building in the East Village in 2009. And now, World of Video is closing up shop. There are still ways to engage in the kind of spirited discussions and recommendation exchanges that would happen at the counters and between the shelves at Kim’s or TLA or WOV; that’s what message boards are for, I suppose, though their anonymity too often allows a degeneration into trollery. The video store is fading away, which I suppose that was inevitable, and I’m sure that movie fans who came up on Netflix and YouTube will wonder what the hell we think we’re losing, aside from late fees and the inconvenience of dropping stuff off. But there was something intangibly vital about a well-stocked, well-staffed video shop, and even if you hadn’t been in years, it was always strangely comforting to know it was there.

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