Saturday, April 23, 2011

RIP video stores

I have always liked video stores.

I liked them better in the days of VHS. There was a period, there, where chains like Rogers Video, for whom I worked in Maple Ridge back in the early 1990's, had quite an odd wealth of cinema accumulated, a huge back catalogue of movies that had been released and distributed everywhere throughout the 1980's, when the industry was new, and continued coming out until, around 1991-95, the situation reached its maximum intensity, the maximum ratio of movies-per-store - a brief peak period, post-Beta and prior to the onset of Laserdisc and DVD, a Golden Age of the video store, if you will, if you don't bother about the obvious inferiority of VHS as a format. There were so many films that I saw on VHS then that one could never find on DVD in the same stores, or even the same neighbourhoods, now. I first saw Cassavetes' Love Streams, Tavernier's La Mort En Direct (Death Watch, albeit in an abbreviated cut), Alex Cox's Straight to Hell, Saul Bass' Phase IV, Bruce McDonald's Highway 61, Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue and probably at least a few of my first Ingmar Bergman's by renting them from the stores where I worked here. Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Antonioni, and various other European directors I had to go farther afield for, and occasionally do weekend Videomatica runs, but sometimes, I located gems closer to home, like that copy of Where the Green Ants Dream that I rented out of a Coquitlam Safeway; I don't think Videomatica even stocked that title at that time. I'm not saying the stores in the 'burbs were ever as good as the ones in the city - but they weren't without pleasant surprises. In a void of culture like Maple Ridge, even the local Rogers Video was a sort of beacon of potential, a place to go when you felt bored, lonely, or restless - which was most of the time, for me, here; a place associated with potential community experience and social activity, since if you got lucky, you might get into an impassioned conversation with someone who knew and cared about film, often beginning with the words "Hey, have you seen this?" At worst, you could chuckle at what the no-neck types were discussing renting, or indulge yourself in the joy of Deep Browsing.

Things changed with DVD. At least in the suburbs, after the mass-VHS selloffs, the chain stores became more conservative in their selections, doing little or nothing to build up a back catalogue to equal what they had amassed on tape. Maybe they were soured by the experience of having to change formats, maybe the lower price point on DVD didn't make it seem practical to build up a catalogue, maybe the chains were simply never smart enough or passionate enough about movies to do it right - since they were apparently being run by dull-witted, cynical businessmen who just wanted to move as many units possible in a short time and then turn them over, who pandered to the general grazers' impulse to go straight to the New Arrivals and rent something starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unique indy stores like Black Dog, Happy Bats, and the ever-present Videomatica did a great job of building unique libraries, but shops like that simply didn't flourish outside the big city. The few independent stores out here that survived the onset of DVD didn't have a better selection than the chains, they just had fewer copies of the same bestsellers; most of them are gone, now. And, with a few exceptions, the chains no longer HAD films that were released in the 1980's and 1990's on their shelves, only what had come out since the onset of DVD as a format - with a back catalogue that contained a far, far smaller selecton of movies, often indifferently displayed and poorly organized, since it was the received wisdom that people just wanted the New Arrivals, anyhow. It wasn't hard to see, with DVDs being cheap enough that one could often buy the movies one wanted for only two or three times the price of renting them, that the model was doomed to failure, that their failure to creatively engage with a new medium was a formula for eventual obsolescence.

No surprise, then, that a wave of closures of video stores is happening - I gather Happy Bats, one of the best new video stores to open in Vancouver, is gone. Alpha on Commercial Drive is gone. The Reel Bulldog in Gastown is selling off its stock as I write. Rogers has closed off several smaller locations throughout Vancouver (on Yew Street, on Davie near Denman); larger locations are coping, but for how much longer? I'm not sure if Blockbuster has closed any locations yet, since they were never as ubiquitous as Rogers, but it can't be far off, and last I checked, there was a massive "discount PV" sale of Blockbuster stock downstairs at Harbour Centre. Often, these days, when I go to the Maple Ridge Rogers, the staff outnumber the customers; sometimes I'm the only person there, and often, after an hours' browse, devoted cinephile that I am, I can find nothing at all that interests me. Adding Netflix and illegal downloading (and yet another format change to Blu-Ray) to the picture, where it was already in cinephiles interest to just buy the DVDs they really valued, rather than wasting money renting them, and it's really a wonder such stores have held out as long as they have, perhaps buoyed by video game rentals and cellphone sales. Soon all but the best will perish.

In the short term, at least on one level, it's great for me. I'm not a huge fan of either stealing or streaming; I've done a bit of both in my day, but there are always glitches - from variable quality to the impossibility of finding certain titles on torrent sites to the general absence of extras to the problems that result from my not being that much of a tech geek (I have no clue how to attach a subtitle file to an AVI that comes without one, for instance; and - with a computer and TV in different rooms, I'm not even sure how I'd go about watching movies on Netflix; I sure won't be watching them on my computer). All things considered, I'm quite happy to spend $3-6 or so on a used DVD (because increasingly that's the price I've been paying), if it's something I'm excited by - at least I'll get something that I know works. The hunt appeals to the scavenger side of me, too, something deeply ingrained that I doubt I will ever lose: the desire to get out there and search for weird culture in unlikely places. Even when I lived a few blocks down from Videomatica, it was more fun to TRY to find something good at the local Rogers than to simply go to a store that had quality cinema everywhere (that Rogers has since closed, by the way). And besides - then as now - in Maple Ridge, there's not a lot else to do; stopping in at the local Rogers and scouring the PV bin is just one of the stations of my cross here (which also includes four thrift stores and a Zellers that sometimes gets in odd DVD stock on the cheap; the staff have sometimes taken me for a potential shoplifter, since they don't understand the frequency with which I turn up, glance over the discount display to see if anything has been added, then walk away). The Rogers has a two-for-one PV sale ongoing, actually, since the vast majority of used DVDs simply don't sell anymore; my last purchase there included both Mesrine movies (one of which, I was told, had never rented - ever!), Bela Tarr's The Man from London, and the documentary Burma VJ - all for under $30. Later today, good scavenger that I am, I'll be at the Reel Bulldog in Gastown, happily perusing the remaining stock and saying goodbye, at least psychically, to the bulldog.

All the same, it's kind of sad. The closure of video stores is one less place where people can go, one less place where they can pass on knowledge face-to-face. Say what you will about the advantages of the new technology - it's bloody ISOLATING sitting in front of a computer screen all the time. Especially in smaller towns, especially for people who LACK things like high speed internet 24 hours a day, life is going to get a lot lonelier without anywhere to fucking GO. And not that I ever met a future girlfriend in a video store - at least there was that potential; I mean, it seemed a more appealing option than hoping to meet someone at a suburban bar. Where will sex-and-love-starved suburban film geeks go NOW, I wonder?

The ongoing death of a video store - as community hub, as library, as cultural exchange matrix - is a sad, sad thing. I can't be the only one that grieves the loss.

(Long live Videomatica! Long live Black Dog! Long live... whoever is left...).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. To me video and record stores were the only reason for me to get out of the house (seriously). I would spend hours in both, and discover new movies, and bands constantly, from recommendations from staff or other customers. It is so true about an isolation factor coming in when sitting on your computer by yourself checking out whats new on Netflixx or itunes. It's just not the same. I remember back in the early 90's heading over to Seymour Street on "record row", and going to Odessey, Traxx, A&B Sound, and Sam The Record Man. They were al next to each other, and my whole day would be gone on that block, and a couple hundred dollars less in my pocket. I miss those days so much. Technology kinda fucked that up.