City Views: Who Killed the Video Store?

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So, video stores are disappearing from the fabric of the urban environment. Now, I’m not talking about the Blockbusters and other such behemoth corporate presences, but the local, independent store staffed by undersexed and overachieving movie buffs. Much the same way that the video arcade – an institution much beloved during countless high school years if not for the games then at least for scoring some pot or LSD when your regular dealer was unavailable – has more or less vanished from local neighbourhoods, so too goes the video store.

It’s a shame actually.

A casualty of online movies, downloading, and let’s be honest, the boat loads of crap being hoisted on us by Hollywood these days, the local video store and the role it played in the integrity of a neighbourhood will be sorely missed. Not only were they places to browse the latest movie selections, they were places to connect with other locals; they were social spaces, community places. Something increasingly in short supply these days.

As more and more life, and indeed, socialising takes place in the ether of the interweb, we have fewer and fewer reasons or chances to actually be in the company of others. Sure, in the city, we are constantly surrounded by people, constantly in the company of others. But mostly we move through our public spaces, our sidewalks and street corners with only but the slightest of glances towards the others who surround us. In the video store we are browsing among others, but also, and more importantly, with others.

Someone to your left picks up a great flick wondering aloud if it’s any good. You look over, glance at the movie box then at your fellow searcher and you nod yes, “it’s a great movie.”

While seemingly this encounter is relatively minor, and video stores just seemingly so outdated, it this very contact that helps constitute what Jane Jacobs – that great seer of urban life – saw as ‘the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow’.

And they’re disappearing.

What part of the city, one wonders, also disappears with it?

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  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 05 July 2011 21:35 posted by TJ Dawe

    Another loss with the decline of the video store is how enjoyable it is to browse in a good store. Certain stores are (were) set up with a certain sensibility so that you're constantly noticing things you knew about and suddenly want to see again, or things you'd never heard of, but suddenly want to see. Directors work stocked together. Decades of movies stocked together. Staff picks. And staff that enjoys discussing movies, if you're looking for recommendations, or who just like to shoot the breeze about what you're renting as you're renting it. There's no equivalent to that in browsing Netflix, or punching titles into bit torrent sites. there are online communities of kinds, for sure. But the loss of the in person experience is considerable.

  • Comment Link Chris Rowinski Wednesday, 06 July 2011 02:58 posted by Chris Rowinski

    I worked at such a place for 4 years. Small little shop owned by the nicest Korean man you've ever met. The guy lasted for over 10 years with Blockbuster and Rogers across the street. Not only lasted, but flourished. I heard it every night I worked, "We support the local guys", "We love the owner, he really cares about his customers" etc.

    The part I enjoyed the most was the conversations TJ mentions. I used to have regulars come in and ask me what was good to watch. I knew these types... They'd seen everything new and then some and were looking for that little gem that would make their weekend. I was able to tune into their likes & dislikes through countless conversations on random topics and could recommend a movie and guarantee they'd enjoy it.

    At the end of the day, it really was a little community in itself. To this day I still run into people at the grocery store who recognize me as the video store guy... 10 years later ;)

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Friday, 08 July 2011 02:26 posted by Andrew Baxter

    I think you two both hit the nail on the head with your comments. It is not so much the video store as a physical place that is important to the development and maintenance of 'community', but the psychological space that not only permitted us to talk to each other and break that zone of privacy many of us carry through our lives in the city, but also encouraged us to interact.

    Netflix most certainly does not do this. It provides a service, efficiently, but at the expense of real human interaction.

  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Monday, 11 July 2011 23:54 posted by Matt Lewis

    I do not lament the loss of video stores, it makes no sense to have them around anymore. I am excited about what might fill their spots, but it's impossible to say what that is or will be. I think it's a fine and beautiful thing to lament the passing of anything in this world, but how about celebrating the rise of something that is filling the gap?

    You could have written about u brew culture, and how these stores are now a place to trade recipes and talk about your favorite brews. Once again, there's a commercial transaction facilitating a different, but familiar human interaction that I think is specific to life in the city.

    Or would you lament the decline of the Molson/Labatt oligopoly? Baxter, your column might start something like this "You know, back in the day, I knew who I was dealing with by the beer they held in their hand. They were either a 'blue' or a 'canadian' type. Now, I can't keep up with all the beers out there! What's this world coming to?"



    ps get down to Dan's, and get yourself some hops, barley and malt of some kind!

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 13 July 2011 23:43 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I had a similar (albeit somewhat less dismissive) response to Matt when I first read this post. I personally get tired of picking up movies and taking them back, and inevitably paying some sort of late fee, and am kinda of excited at the prospect of the convenience of something like Netflix. However, after reading Chris and TJ's comments, on top of the arguments in the main piece, I can now see a different perspective on the value of the local video shop. I'm particularly struck by TJ's description of shop workers who know what they're talking about, staff picks, and special sections with directors and such. That's a value I could support, and when you add to that the much needed community component, I could change my mind of the topic for sure. Not to mention the value of supporting the local economy.

    I know that local record stores are still surviving (even thriving) despite mega-stores like HMV closing, and I do go to them for the very reason TJ mentions, staff picks and staff knowledge, as well as conversation about those bands. So I see no reason why a niche market couldn't re-establish itself in the video realm in the same way.

    Matt I'd be curious to know why you think it "makes no sense to have them around anymore", despite the substantive points that all three in this thread have made in the opposite direction. I'm guessing you're coming from some purely instrumentalist economic position, but I may be wrong.

    AS far as other places in societies where these types of community/conversation generating spaces are opening up, I'd have to mention farmers markets. As Michael Pollan and others have pointed out, there's approx. 70% more conversations at farmers markets than at the supermarket. This has been my experience for sure, and one of the many reasons I go every weekend during market season.

  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Thursday, 14 July 2011 20:40 posted by Matt Lewis

    Thanks Trevor! You are consistently bringing me back to make a more nuanced argument, rather than the carpet bombing which seems to be my first instinct in this medium. If I could modify what I said, I would talk about having no need for mass market video stores anymore, but I realize that was not what Baxter was talking about.

    Is this happening though? Is the local video store dead? Or is it just retreating? I can imagine a store going out of business for all sorts of reasons not listed by Baxter. So I guess I have a problem with his premises too.

  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Thursday, 14 July 2011 21:54 posted by Matt Lewis

    Ok, I have recognized the source of dissonance in my thinking. The reasons Baxter gives for the death of the local video store are the reasons I would accept for the decline and (eventual) disappearance of the mass market video store. And TJ and Chris talk of the reasons that I think local video stores will stick around.

    It's interesting to see Baxter's latest piece on why the local independent record store is thriving, and the corporate music store is just about gone. I detect almost the same forces at work in both cases. Generally, consumers are no longer willing to purchase the commodities that mass market retailers are pushing, and yet according to Baxter, there are completely different results when it comes to the video and music stores. Forgive me for my confusion around the arguments presented in this piece and it's music store companion piece.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Friday, 15 July 2011 02:02 posted by Andrew Baxter

    I agree with Matt in so far as video stores don't really 'make sense' nowadays in a strictly instrumental/economical way; and returning videos is indeed annoying!

    However, the point of the lamentation was not the loss of the physical store but the social opportunities afforded by the whole act of renting a video: the conversations. These cannot be replaced by more efficient distribution mechanisms, by Netflix, or internet downloads.

    But ah well...we always have beer.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Friday, 15 July 2011 20:18 posted by TJ Dawe

    Unfortunately, the small local and intelligently stocked video stores are dying alongside the Blockbusters. In Vancouver, Videomatica, Independent Flixx, and Applause Video have all announced imminent closing. The family run Platinum Video in my old neighbourhood has ceased to be in the last few months as well. Won't be long before the others die, at this rate.

    And have you tried Netflix? In the US, it's legendary for its broad selection, but in Canada is SUCKS! Try this. List ten movies or TV shows you'd like to rent, or have seen and can picture yourself wanting to see again at some point in the future. Here are ten, off the top of my head:

    The Seven Samurai
    Boardwalk Empire
    Dead Man
    Deconstructing Harry
    Friends with Money
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    The Godfather Part II
    The King of Kong
    Kramer Vs Kramer
    Breaking Bad

    how many of these does Netflix have? One. (the King of Kong - a documentary about world championship Donkey Kong playing - which is supposed to be really good) If I browsed a video store with a selection that piss poor, I'd never go back. How is this shitty service putting all of these good video stores out of business? Is the inconvenience of returning a video really so harsh?

  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Monday, 18 July 2011 18:01 posted by Matt Lewis

    That is too bad to hear of these video stores closing down. Perhaps this is specific to Vancouver? I could imagine that a city with high property prices would discourage small operators that would otherwise serve a dedicated, out of the mainstream, movie audience.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 18 July 2011 20:22 posted by TJ Dawe

    Matt - good question. I'll ask the Facebook-o-sphere if this trend applies to their cities too.

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