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Requiem for a Video Store

By posted at 6:01 am on May 5, 2011 9

At first glance, Beaux Arts Video didn’t look like much.  A cramped storefront on Tenth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, it was a few hundred square feet of worn carpet, handmade shelves, and ceilings that dripped when it rained.  The front of the shop, bright and neatly kept, was devoted to new releases; a larger, scruffier section, down a short flight of steps, held the rest of its aging stock, VHS to DVD, classics to pure dreck.

Despite its shortcomings, Beaux Arts managed a modest greatness.  Its overstuffed racks spoke like an ardent fan who loved Tootsie, Marty, and Zardoz pretty much equally.  When my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 2001, we found ourselves there most nights, our eyes aglaze with choice.  Kirsten browsed upstairs, moving slowly from row to row; I poked around downstairs, searching for something weird: Delicatessen, Logan’s Run, maybe A Boy and His Dog. A section of “Great Directors” included Hawks, Wilder, and for some reason, Zemeckis.  A shadowy horror section held oversized VHS cases that I’d invariably inspect while muttering, “What the fuck is this?”  This was where I discovered some of our culture’s crowning glories: Invasion of the Blood Farmers, Humanoids From the Deep, and Basket Case 3: The Progeny.

The early 2000s were a time of growing pressure for Beaux Arts, and it worked admirably to keep up.  Rather than add porn or Jujubes—tactics that succeeded briefly for some small video stores—it responded with cinematic novelty, as if that might stanch the bleeding.  They stocked the obscure, the foreign, the Criterion-collected.  Short of a spike in Tarkovsky rentals, these would never turn a profit, but their presence made a statement: someone, at least on one corner of one city, still tried to give a shit.

By the latter half of the decade, though, the slide was irreversible: if Blockbuster had been injurious, Netflix was a cancer.  And so was On Demand, Hulu, and the thousand other ways we now put stories before our eyes.  Suddenly, the shop was superfluous; it might as well have sold whale oil.  I’d sometimes spend twenty minutes there, seeking hidden treasure, and become acutely aware that I was the only customer.

Inevitably, Kirsten and I drifted away from Beaux Arts as well, an act of civic hypocrisy.  We lived in a city in part because of places like Beaux Arts—shops and parks and streets that, like remote island flora, cannot exist elsewhere in exactly the same form.  Beaux Arts had Lance, the quiet and amiable manager, who ran a site inspired by films that disturbed him as a kid.  A shoebox near the register was filled with scraps of paper, each bearing a title—Alphaville was one—for the indecisive renter.  A dry-erase board behind the counter, its margins filled with doodles, bore a list of new releases.  When a movie was out, a frowny-face was drawn next to its title.  In the last couple of years, there were very few frowny faces, and we were rarely there to see them.

Say what you will about the dehumanizing effects of technology—I’m not kidding here; I will never tire of it—but its speed and ease eventually erodes all argument.  Rather than walk a few pleasant blocks and chat with a friendly clerk, we clicked and clicked and clicked until Beaux Arts finally fell.  The decline was graceless and swift.

First, prices rose.  Then the “Recent New Releases” section gave way to shelves of snacks—sad, hand-bagged Ziplocs of almonds and cashews.  Last came the sale of “Vintage Entertainment Ware,” half of the store inexplicably given to antique snifters and china.  My “What the fuck is this?” was now reserved for the shop itself, and I instinctively stayed away.  Its desperation was too plain.

The “Final Days” signs went up a couple of weeks ago.  A sheet of paper taped to the door read, “All DVDs $2.00.”  I went in to see if, like the boy in The Giving Tree, I could strip my old friend of everything as it died of what I’d caused.  The leavings were appropriately grim: Stuck on You, Corky Romano, disc two of Kirstie Alley’s Big Life.  I wasn’t disappointed, though; I didn’t really want anything.  Since we’d opened our account a decade before, the concept of ownership had changed.  The impressive stoutness of a two-tape set—Nixon or Titanic—now seemed faintly insane.  Home DVD collections were beginning to feel like clutter, and I needed no more of that.  My eyes ran across the shelves.  This was where my wife and I had fallen for Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn, Freaks and Geeks.  It had brought us Miyazaki and Kurosawa, Ashby and Altman.  I’d once run here in the rain to get more episodes of Six Feet Under.

Such a thing would never happen again.  Through no fault of its own, Beaux Arts had become a room full of junk.  I nodded to the clerk, who I didn’t recognize, and got the hell out of there.  Beaux Arts Video was dead—and despite all it had given me, I felt a shameful relief.

(Image copyright the author)

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9 Responses to “Requiem for a Video Store”

  1. Matthew J. Robinson
    at 8:52 am on May 5, 2011

    Well-said, Jacob. Sitting atop your article almost as a gesture of perfect irony rests a rectangular ad for Netflix.

  2. Matthew J. Robinson
    at 8:53 am on May 5, 2011

    On my end, anyway.

  3. Books are my Boyfriends
    at 12:18 pm on May 5, 2011

    This piece broke my heart in the best possible way. Pitch perfect and excruciatingly honest, thank you for a great read.

  4. Emily
    at 12:57 pm on May 5, 2011

    Loved this. Well-written and spot-on. Not one week after my husband and I finally signed up for Netflix, our local video store quietly closed. We talked about our part in that, how we so simply traded in one thing for another, and then suddenly didn’t have the choice to trade back. I miss the actual wandering, the touching and flipping-over of strange VHS and DVD cases. There’s nothing romantic about click-click-clicking, is there?

  5. DAS
    at 1:37 pm on May 5, 2011

    In the early days of the world-wide web there was lots of interesting content. I should have downloaded it to my hard drive, but I didn’t because I knew it would be there for me always.

    Of course, it is no longer there.

    When we have all weaned ourselves off physical CD’s and DVD’s I wonder how long it will be before stuff we knew would always be there for us, is no longer available; either priced out of reach, or sidelined by copyright or distribution rights litigation.

    It might be time to start adding to our personal “clutter”.

  6. minimalist
    at 1:46 pm on May 5, 2011

    I have fond memories of our local independent video rental store (which actually managed to last longer than 4 of the 6 Blockbusters in town) but I’m not going to get sentimental about it nor am I going to pretend that I would ever go back to the old system if given the chance.

    Video stores were fun while they lasted but they had a time and a place. Romanticizing the video store experience doesn’t change the ways in which they were a pain in the butt (late fees, titles you wanted being checked out). We do give up some things with digital media (serendipity, social interactions) but I say what we gain is more compelling (better selection, no late fees, flexibility to watch in numerous places, etc).

  7. Neelanjana Banerjee
    at 2:34 pm on May 5, 2011

    Powerful, powerful piece. I continue to love how The Millions posts stories about all kinds of stories and the way we experience them. Remember Empire Records? We need a video store version. I am living in India for a year and amusingly, a video store opened a few blocks away for the first time and going in there feels so retro and awesome, and even though I don’t have an account, I check it out sometimes. For me, an avid iTunes/Playstation movie downloader/Netflix fanatic … I still would go to Lost Weekend Video in San Francisco’s Mission District to get new releases and I loved that. I have such visceral memories of trips to Blockbuster as a teenager with my boyfriend or mom or brother, or one time when I went to rent “My Own Private Idaho” when I was 15 and the clerk in Dayton, Ohio told me that it was full of gays and wouldn’t rent it to me and my brother told her to fuck off and give me the movie — such a great and powerful memory in a way that is SO different than browsing and clicking.

  8. Nick
    at 2:40 am on May 7, 2011

    Wonderful article. Thank you. My wife has just closed down the bricks-and-mortar aspect of her store. Despite the deep love and strong following of locals and visitors alike, retail really is a dying thing. Her shop continues online (and all the better for it!) but it is strange to be in the midst of such change.

    Someone told me the other day that ski shops are now charging people to try on their wares because customers are simply window shopping in-store and going online to purchase the goods. My wife suggests that bookstores will need to start implementing a door charge because of the Book Depository model (browse in-store by cheaper online)

    The internet is changing so much of what we once considered static elements of life – and not just in the commercial world.

    Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy [ride]!

  9. Corey Williams
    at 11:31 pm on June 9, 2011

    Screw em, they ruined me with fees anyway. I do miss having to run down a hallway to find something interesting as opposed to, say, blinking. And then have them not be rewound. To be forced to confront the previous experience of your new lover. Ouch.

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