Movie News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Demise of video stores makes me press rewind on good memories

It was one of those youth group activities back when I was in high school: pull something out of your wallet that really says something about you and share it with the group. I pulled out my video store membership card.

During my mid-teens, in the early 1980s, that was my ticket to the thing I most loved: the ability to watch a movie, whenever I wanted, uncut, on my TV.

There was a time this was a novelty. Networks would show movies that were a couple of years old, and local stations would screen the oldies. If you weren't around the TV, you missed it.

Then the Betamax cassette came out, soon followed by VHS.

I sat in the basement of my cousin Terry's house amazed he could push a button, and there was M*A*S*H or Alien, unedited and relatively on demand. Soon, I scraped together enough money from my paper route to buy my own VCR, and not too much later get that first video store membership card. I could rent movies that had been in the theater a year ago — just a year!

That teenage love affair, which included a stint working in a video store in college, has made me nostalgic reading news of the video store's last gasps of life. There was the news that Blockbuster Video was closing the last of its retail stores a few months ago. This month came news that Lexington's Premier Home Video on Euclid Avenue probably will be closing soon to make way for a temporary location for a Kroger pharmacy. Premier owners have said they do not anticipate reopening in that part of Lexington, so the Premier store on Hartland Parkway would be the last one.

"We're like dinosaurs now," owner Terri Robbins told the Herald-Leader. "It would be extremely difficult to start over fresh."

Thus, a once substantial business has gone from birth to extinction during my and many of my peers' lifetimes.

While the coming of national chains like Blockbuster and Erol's validated the popularity of home video, stores like Premier remind me of the good ol' days of video stores.

My first few years of college, I worked for a chain in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Va., owned by a couple who were forward-thinking enough to know the video thing was going to be big and enjoyed that ride for a while.

For a college kid, the benefits were great. The hours weren't as crazy as those at restaurants or other common student jobs, and I had unlimited free video rentals. It was not uncommon for me to leave work with a half-dozen movies under my arm. An employee discount got me started building a tape collection that still resides at my mom's house.

But the best part was getting to know customers. Video wasn't like taking dinner orders or dealing jeans and T-shirts.

During the '80s and '90s, video was a business built on regular customers. You got to know what they liked, what their tastes were and even their habits.

There was a group of Navy guys who would rent To Live and Die in L.A. every weekend for whatever reason. We began imploring them to buy a copy to save on all the rental fees.

Staff members also were coming up with similarly gritty dramas we'd watch among our free rentals and then recommend.

I was very into comedies and classics and would revel in recommending smaller titles like Better Off Dead or the reissue of Lost Horizon to people who would return them with a big thanks. I will never forget the customer who asked, "Amadeus? Isn't that about space aliens?"

It was that kind of approach I appreciated as a customer in subsequent years, the clerk who would look at my rental and have a couple of complementary titles to recommend.

When I worked in Athens, Ga., there was a video store famous for its eclectic collection and personable staff. One clerk asked one of my newspaper colleagues if she was OK because she had been renting a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies.

Whether I was behind or across the counter, video stores were places to develop film appreciation.

But that was another era.

As much as I romanticize the video store and the physical form of the Betamax tape, the idea of accessing the entire James Bond catalogue in just a few clicks has a huge appeal. (That said, the recommendations from Amazon Prime or Netflix never seem to be quite as insightful as those of the people at Video Express back home.)

Yes, the video store's time has probably come, but it's hard to watch the end.