The independent video store where I’ve worked for 15 years is finally dead. After 28 years in business, we succumbed to the “disruption” of Netflix and Hulu, bled to death by the long, slow defection of our customer base. Once we announced our closing, the few who remained mourned — then we locked the doors. Our permanent collection is gone: boxed up and shipped off to the local library.
Videoport, of Portland, Maine, lasted longer than most. It was better than most. It owed its longevity to a single, engaged owner, to strong ties to the local film scene and a collection that put others to shame. I was proud to work there, alongside a staff that paired film knowledge and exceptional customer service skills like few other places I’ve known. We were a fixture in town, until we weren’t.
It hasn’t been so long since independent rental joints had the opposite problem. Before Videoport, I spent 10 years working at Matt & Dave’s Video Venture. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that our downfall came at the hands of a buyout by a major rental chain. Suspiciously well-dressed guys with clipboards started dropping in; soon enough, we were gone, one of the estimated 30,000 video stores in America gobbled up by Blockbuster or Movie Gallery or Hollywood Video, each eager to dominate the booming VHS rental racket. If only those chains knew that within a decade, they’d be goners too.
I spent 25 years of my life in an industry that no longer exists. Maybe I’m not the most ambitious guy. But that time has provided me with an up-close look at not just how the industry is changing but how people’s tastes, and the culture those tastes create, have changed with it.
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2) An algorithm is no substitute for human interaction
In the last days of the store, daily life at the store got pretty intense. Longtime customers were bereft. We tried to comfort them, explaining how our owner had ensured that our whole collection would soon be available at the public library — for free, even! It didn’t help much. Almost to a one, they had the same reply: “But you won’t be there to help us.”
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Over the years, we’d come to know our customers’ tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn’t even always know they had. I’ve had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — “This guy has an eye patch, and I think there’s a mariachi band” — and we’d figure out they were looking for Cutter’s Way. Other times, they’d take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, “Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener’s ever done.” If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, “What’s one comedy you’ve seen that you think is hilarious?” I’ve spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It’s a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.
If you think I’m overrating the power of these connections, consider this: Years ago, I helped a lovely, seemingly upstanding woman choose from several Shakespeare adaptations. The next week she returned, asking about the relative merits of zombie movies. Interesting, I thought.
She started coming in regularly. After months of recommendations and some earnest cinematic dismantling (“Like a handful of romantic comedies thrown into a blender,” she said of Love, Actually), I became her go-to movie guy. A year later, I became her go-to everything guy when we got married.
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3) A great video store is pop culture in microcosm
A good video store curates culture. Subjective? Certainly. But who do you want shepherding the legacy of TV and movies — a corporation or a store filled with passionate, knowledgeable movie geeks?
Standing at the center of a video store is to watch the world change, a time lapse of people’s taste. As the years pile up, some things, even popular things, simply fall out of the cultural consciousness. Videoport fastidiously stocked new releases, but the heart of our store was its permanent collection. Not just a “foreign films” header but subsections of Japanese and Hong Kong exploitation. A dedicated Criterion Collection section next to British comedy. Anime and Bollywood, documentaries, the dark, glittering jewel that was the renowned cult movies section. It took years to build that inventory: A great video store spends its entire life span building up a representation of film history shaped and curated and always there. Things left, of course, but always in response to viewers’ needs and our design.
In a store with limited space, the decision to keep a movie or TV series on the shelf was a constant battleground, a microcosm of the battle between economics and artistic integrity. It was tough to get cut from Videoport: A DVD case is just half an inch wide, and if one person a year rents a copy of the weird little 1980 cop comedy The Black Marble, then we’d ride that out because enough employees went to bat for it. Even the decision to cut loose an insignificant, frankly abysmal little comedy like Jury Duty was agonized over — before it would end up in the sale bin, that movie had to pass through any number of filters.
The final filter was the pull list. Every so often the list would appear, a printout of movies and shows that hadn’t been rented in a long time, typically a year or more. Any titles crossed off the list were saved. Any still there at the end of the week were out.
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By contrast: Netflix routinely adds and removes films at a whim based almost exclusively on licensing agreements.
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4) Customer loyalty won’t save you
Videoport had loyal customers, customers who didn’t abandon us, even at the end. Sensing the air of growing unease at the thinning lines at the store made some regulars come in even more, sometimes dragging friends along and extolling our virtues. There was an elderly couple who loved my recommendations so much I’m genuinely worried they’re just staring at a blank screen right now. But video stores — like bookstores, record stores, and arthouse theaters—have died as the lure of online convenience overcomes even the most stalwart patrons. In the final days of the store, we saw a lot of once-familiar faces as they showed friends the great video store where they used to rent. A few had the decency to look sheepish, but the depressing, infuriating, majority offered nothing more than platitudes about us lasting longer than they’d expected before taking a few photos.
The dwindling number of employees who stayed through the ever-leaner years did our best to stem the tide. Being overeducated, underemployed movie geeks, this meant counting on the power of passionate reason to counter the flood of fleeing customers. I started a weekly blog/newsletter for the store. I intended it to be a place for customers and staff to continue the ongoing movie conversation through movie reviews, debates, and think pieces about the store and movies in general. In theory it was, apart from being a chance for me to exercise my brain and writing skills, a way to bind customers to the store by giving them a sense of ownership in the place. In practice, as the customers drifted away, it became more like a running, increasingly desperate 10-year argument as to why our video store deserved to exist, written by me.