VIDEO STORE MEMORIES: THE GOLDEN ERA OF GOOD TIME RENTALS
Written by Dan Budnik For Bleedingskull.com
Aren't DVDs great? I mean, come on. They look great, sound great and have all those great extras on them. And, what about that internet? Have you been on that? Isn't that something? All the things you could ever want and just that little bit extra. Convenient, expansive and loaded. Why on earth would someone who is currently using the internet spend any of his time writing about old video stores? Why not write an article called "My First Six Months on Netflix" or "I Just Download It Now!"? Seems more productive. Well, Halloween is a holiday. Holidays are for fun. One of the places holidays acquire their fun from is through the concept of "accumulated nostalgia" and --
Good Lord, do you folks know the guy in the last paragraph? Friend of yours? What was he talking about? The purpose of writing this article is to spark the memory. Many of you reading this have been to some really great video stores in your lives. We hunt, collect and accumulate so many of these strange movies. Now, the internet can make the search much easier. But, I'm here to send out just a whiff of remembrance your way. To take you back inside those great movie shelters of our youth (or not youth). I'm going to sort of ramble through the great video stores I remember frequenting at one time or another. There was much more structure to this article when I first wrote it but why? The video store journeys I took weren't structured, they were fun and exciting. So, put your good pants on, grab your membership cards and let's travel.
There were two ways I remember acquiring movies (Beta) in the first half of the 80s. One was mysterious and exciting and completely above board. One was a bit on the sleazy side. Both of them were kind of erratic. We'd never know what we were going to end up with. All part of the experience, however.
I'll start with the sleazy. Although it was the first place I remember getting movies from, it wasn't technically a video store. It was a place I like to call: Jack's House. Or maybe his name was Steve or Ted. I think Jack suits him just fine. Maybe he'd welcome me calling him Jack, wherever he is now. I don't know. But, Jack was a guy that my step-dad Frank (I'll call him Pop) knew. Jack would provide us with the newest releases several times a month. Sudden Impact, National Lampoon's Vacation, Christine, The Dead Zone, The Bitch…you name it, Jack got it for us. The problem with Jack was the Movie Pick-Up Procedure.
He was a divorced gentleman with a son named Jack Jr. I always seemed to be the one who went along with Pop to pick up these things. Jack would welcome us into his house and say "Jack Jr., show Dan your new whatever-the-hell-you-kids-play-with-now." The awkward thing was that Jack Jr. was two years younger than me. I was around eleven at the time and, for kids, this is a hell of a gap. And, I used to read a lot and write. Jack Jr. did nothing but watch TV. I remember sitting silently for long periods of time. It wasn't fun.
Meanwhile, Pop and Jack would sort through the latest batch of movies. Jack had made copies of them from somewhere-or-other. We'd generally walk away from there with two good ones. The general sleaziness of Jack's place, however, was nothing I could articulate but it was palpable. He'd get too close to me when we talked. He had dozens of Playboys stacked in a cabinet in the bathroom. His shorts were too short. You know him now. One of those guys. I never liked it but, as I was the oldest, I always seemed to be the one to go along.
The end of our time with Jack happened quickly and was a sweet relief. One day, we went over there for Krull. I was anxious to see Krull (what kid wasn't?) and was very willing to make the visit this time. It was summer; it was hot. Jack and Son were in bathing suits with towels draped around their necks. My Pop, being a genial sort of fellow, accepted their offer of stepping into the backyard.
"Come on in, Frank and Dan! The water's fine!" Jack was gesticulating wildly for us to join him. Jack Jr. was waving too. In my mind, anything that these two endorsed so heartily must be creepy.
I was not proven wrong. "No thanks, Jack! We'll just get Krull and go," my Pop said. "Anyways, we didn't bring our suits!"
"Suits?!" In one quick movement that has slowed to a crawl in my mind, Jack and Son dropped their trunks, smiled and dove in the water, in full regalia, enjoying the fresh air.
"We're gonna take off!" Pop could move fast when required. We were in the car in seconds.
"Holy God, Danny! Let's never go there again."
I never did.
The mysterious way of renting I mentioned involved the earliest sort of Mom-and-Pop video store. After a time, chains began popping up and things become slightly more systematic. But, around 1984 or so, every enterprising person seemed to be opening up a store offering all the videos they could. "Retail Price: $79.95" "Have you been to one of these places? You put down a deposit of $50 and you get a tape for $3 a night. You can bring a movie home!" These stores were usually in little strip mall areas and attempted to encompass the whole of creation. "Video Universe", "Video Galaxy", "Video Dimension". The employees were generally one person. I remember more moms than pops in these stores. They would rent to you but always seemed a touch wary and more than a little surly. Microwave Massacre is not a diamond necklace but at 80 bucks it sure must have felt like it to these folks. So, I remember occasionally feeling uncomfortable in these places. You'd get the "Stink Eye" a lot.
All of this flew by the wayside when you were in the aisles. Shelf after shelf of wonder. Some funny, some action-packed, some scary, some sleazy and some as unknown as The Unknown Comic (before we found out who he was). The big boxes would leer at us. Since most of the films weren't first run or well-known at all, it was box art that sold it. In fact, the only spot of the video store that sold itself was in the closet-like area in the corner. Usually covered with a curtain or blanket or whatever they could find in an old trunk from the attic. I remember one that used a shower curtain and one in Canandaigua, NY that had a curtain with toy boats on it. "Our good one tore yesterday!" "Did that one have He-Man on it?" "If you'd like to be asked to leave the store, you're talking to the right guy!"
Because I was absolutely terrified of horror films that were in any way modern, I could only look at the box art. My Uncle Mike and a girl in my class, Pam Adamski, would give me all the details on the latest slashers. But, I could only stare at the boxes. I was too frightened. The big boxes didn't help with the fear of the dark thing but I couldn't stop looking.
What in the name of the Bright & Shiny One could be in that basket on the Basket Case box? I stared at that box for quite some time. I was at the Drug Carnival (?) in Irondequoit, NY around 1984-5. It was in that spot where the Walmart now stands. Off the 104. You know the spot. The Drug Carnival shared the plaza with some sort of department store, possibly Two Guy's. They had mostly drug store stuff but there were videos in the corner. And, we occasionally rented from there. But, not Basket Case. That would be later on. The gruesome pictures on the back gave me the Screaming Strawberries so I wasn't even considering that. (Although, if it gave me nightmares, isn't that sort of like getting the movie for free?) Then, I saw the box for Blood Feast.
"Ma, can we rent this one?"
"My God, no! You'll have nightmares."
"The lady has no tongue." The actual movie poster is cool but it doesn't beat that huge close-up off the de-tongued woman. What is this movie about? Blood Feast! What a title! It's unrated! What does a film do to be unrated? My mind boggled.
This was one of the first places that gave us a "List". The stapled together series of papers that listed the movie titles, genre and rating. All very orderly. Pop would call the kids round the kitchen table and say "What movie do you kids want? Pick two in case the one you want is out." I'd sit with my sister and, sometimes, my step brother and we'd peruse. So many choices. It was always more fun to look around inside the store but we didn't always get to go so you tried to make a good choice. At this time, I was renting Zucker brothers' movies (or similar stuff like Ricky), Benny Hill show tapes or Mel Brooks's comedies.
As long as there was no visible T&A in the area, they'd rent it for me. I remember being so disappointed at Transylvania 6-5000. So unfunny. And, I thought this when I was a dumb kid. That was a really big "New Release" I was after for some time. Man, I had to watch Kentucky Fried Movie twice to cheer myself up. At that point, my parent's sex rule became something I could get around for the next few years of renting. We picked up KFM that night with no problem from the parents. "It's made by the guys who did Airplane!" And, it's loaded with boobs! Goodness. I sat there with my eyes wide open and my jaw dropping. I realized that as long as there was no T&A implied I could rent anything. That meant two things: 1) I could come across boobs and such with a little subterfuge and 2) I could rent almost any horror film I wanted.
The implications were startling. But first, I had to get over my complete terror of anything horror related.
It was a little later (86'-'87) that my sister and my Pop began watching horror films together. Well, A Nightmare on Elm Street at least. We used to go to Shows-To-Go right up the street. An actual huge-ass video store with everything. They would hang out in horror and I would be in comedy. I bought a copy of Top Secret on Beta for $4.99. Awesome! The store had its cash register in a round in the center of the store. All videos were surrounding it on the walls. Occasional shelving units were spread about. Hours spent scanning up and down walls looking for the right one. And then, hours spent scanning horror and wondering.
It wasn't until my freshman year of high school in '87-'88 that I got over it and the mania began. Eric Zydel leant me a copy of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Now, granted, there's no gore in the theatrical version but the night I sat in our family room and watched that film was a revelation. The movie kept me on the edge of my seat but I watched it. And that night, I slept well. Evil Dead 1 & 2 followed. I was primed and ready to go. The only problem was that Shows-To-Go had recently closed down. A new store that, frankly, catered too much to the family for my tastes opened up next door: Blockbuster. These family leanings were rather restrictive. I was only 14.
So, I found somewhere else to go. Wegman's Supermarkets. Great places. I used to work in their parking lot, pushing shopping carts, for a while. ("I've called this meeting for all the Parking Lot guys to discuss safety. Bob got hit by a car again." Bob got hit by a car a lot. You'd see him pushing a cart, a car would pass to close and he'd drop. A moment, later, he'd be back up. Solid fellow.) Epic stores with…wait for it…video sections. Last time I went to Wegman's Video was December 2004. No fun. Everything you'd expect. If there was something there that you didn't know about, as with most DVD release, it was because you weren't paying attention. At the end of the 80s, however, Wegman's was caught in the middle of the Trash Flood. I'd pick 2 or 3 every week and still have so many I had to get to next time. (I once contemplated alphabetical renting but that always fell apart quickly.) My Ma would make a disapproving noise ("Dr. Butcher, M.D.? What is this about?") and rent them. Pop loved them so he didn't have a problem. These were mostly VHS by this time so I'd copy them over to Beta for easier viewing. (We were a Beta family until the last possible moment.) Every week my Ma went to Wegman's and, until I could rent on my own, I would go too. With a list.
Back then, it was gore. Now, it's strangeness. Funny how your tastes mature.
Eric Zydel was the gentleman who introduced me to the Old Church Mall Video store. We spent many hours, circa 1987-1991, enjoying some of the sleaziest and stupidest films you could ever want to see. We were always looking for new and exciting places were we could browse round and find new and crazy trash. He drove us there in his big truck, which was always on "E". "I've got to put gas in the car. How much change do you have?" "75 cents." "All right. I have 45. We'll do that." Anyway... The Old Church Mall Video store was in a mall and the mall was in a church. Well, it was a church. Now it was a mall. The whole shebang was in downtown Webster, NY. It had been a church that they put a couple of floors in and opened up as a little mall. Local merchants, knickknacks, bootleg CDs and, on the top floor a majestic video store. If you think about a church real quick, you can imagine what it looked like. This was a big, rafter-filled, almost-Gothic church. You went up, up a wooden staircase. When the walls were suddenly covered with movie posters, you were almost there. A few more steps. Then, you entered the worship place. There were huge wooden rafters stretching all over. A lot of space. The two side nooks where the confessional booths and side pews would have been (down below) shelved sci-fi and documentaries. Horror films stretched all the way up the back wall. Almost to the rafters. The Church of the Video was open for business. (Pretentious or portentous? You tell me. I've been writing too long to know.) A lady with glasses and an attitude ran the whole shebang. Her name was Mrs. Barnaby. (I don't know for certain but that's what I'll call her.) She was very nice to the fellows who rented porn. But, she was always snippy whenever I approached her.
"Hello. These two please."
"Zombie? Bloodeaters? Why do you want to rent these?"
"I like horror movies."
"I don't." A gentleman would lean in, talking loud. "Hey! Have you got Three Nude Sisters and Their Hot Gramma III? Or Horny Old Men?"
"We have both. Would you like me to see if the first two Hot Grammas are in stock?"
"Ummm…Could I get these two movies, please? I was here first."
"Look at the movies this kid is renting, Rod!"
"Kid, why do you want to watch those?...Oh, Mrs. B, when you're back there, could you see if Grampa's Got A Boner is in stock!?"
"That's a good one!"
The horror section was formidable. The films rented so stores stocked them. The larger the video box, the higher up the wall it went. What is that up there with the jack-in-the-box? Blood Fury? No. Blood Frenzy. Awesome. They've got Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! We'll get a pizza, throw some logs in the fireplace and enjoy. With great strain, I'd get the boxes off of the wall. "Ahhh!! Just give me the number! The number!" I'd turn and see Mrs. Barnaby pointing at a copy of The Goonies. She wasn't lying. There was a small white sticker with a number scrawled on it on the front of each box. So, I strained the boxes back onto the wall, memorized the numbers and got handed copies of Sex with a Smile and Ride in A Pink Car.
"I think I got the wrong numbers."
"Marty Feldman's in this one."
"I wanted The Prey."
"I should have known." In the winter time, sitting before the fire, with this weird, weird trash was the best. It still is. Without the joy of the hunt though, it wouldn't have been the same. The Old Church mall might, possibly, be my favorite of all the stores. Just the feel of the place. Even Mrs. Barnaby's complaining didn't blunt anything. Face out and startling, the horror section was a sloppy bath of sweat and joy. It also had that great musty smell that you really don't get anymore. Blockbuster Videos are like Subway Sandwich shops. In a pinch, the sandwiches are OK but it's all very antiseptic. Every once in a while you might get an awesome sandwich but they really aren't built for that. It's convenience and volume. Blockbuster is the same. They get you the new stuff. They get it for you now. But, that isn't what the adventurous movie renter is after. I don't want guarantees when I rent. I want things to be as lawless and as musky as the Old West. There had to be a corner of the store (documentaries, kids, softcore) that felt like no one had been there in years. I want to be able to rent Carnival of Blood or not, depending upon availability and human whim. The Old Church Mall was wonderful. Unfortunately, I found it too late. I was going away to college soon. The Church Mall would be visited on vacations only. And, because I had to work whenever I was home, there wouldn't always be time to stop by. The memories are strong, though. I still have my green, laminated membership card somewhere. (A word in Blockbuster's defense: I haven't been in one for a while but, when they first opened up, they carried some decent horror films. There was a brief period where they seemed to be moving from "Largest Chain of Video Stores" to "Largest Chain of Videos Stores for the Whole Family". Burial Ground, Buried Alive, Pigs, Microwave Massacre, Boarding House (for Heaven's Sake). They used to have some good stuff but, apart from the rare exception, nothing that other places didn't have.) Shall we go to Ithaca, NY for a while? Ithaca is sort of in a valley between two large hills. My Alma Matter is on one: Ithaca College. My wife's is on the other: Cornell. As you hit the bottom of the hill, there is a lovely town with plenty of good time video stores scattered about.
The first place I discovered was Video Ithaca. Large and spacious with lots of corners. Sci-fi and horror were in a musky nook but the New Releases were in a spot with a great, big window. They seemed to specialize in more artistic stuff (I think folks call them "good movies".) But, they had wonderful, wonderful trash. The Wizard of Gore was the first film I rented from there. That night, a bunch of us were renting Woody Allen films, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and, somehow, H.G. Lewis. How'd that happen? I couldn't tell you. I did get some looks that night. "Why is there plastic sheeting under that woman? Is that so when her guts falls out she doesn't ruin the floor of the restaurant? Or is this all part of the illusion?" In the end, folks enjoyed it. I am always surprised at how folks can profess to love the popular and the good but be perfectly willing to slog through the grime when given half a chance.
Video Ithaca had a slightly sweet musky odor. They used to have a big, big rack of candy and two entrances. So there were extra smells and a cross-draft. Probably the nicest musky odor of all of them. It was the sort of smell that encouraged one to go that little bit further. I remember asking them when Black Belt Jones was going to come back in stock. The big box was there but the movie never was. I was told it was damaged. So, I asked "How much for the box?" "We can't sell you that." When I pointed out that if they were getting another they'd get a new box with it, I was told to stuff it. When I pointed out that if it was permanently damaged what good was the box to them, I was told to cram it. The fun we had. One weekend, Kevin J. Jolly (the J stands for Jolly) and I took it in our heads to become more sophisticated movie viewers. So, we took to wearing bath robes over our clothes. We called them "smoking jackets". We'd have in-depth "salons", which were immediately enhanced by our generous, cosmopolitan attitudes. One fine afternoon, we decided to pick up some films. We drove into town and visited Video Ithaca with our smoking jackets on. Were there bon mots aplenty on this journey? You can bet your big, square ass there were. Oddly enough, no one who saw us mentioned the odd vestments we were in. We expected "Hey, what are you two doinks doing in your bath robes?" Maybe because it was a college town? I don't know. I remember we rented Girls Nite Out and Weekend. Cosmopolitan conversations were afoot that night I can tell you. After a few semesters of nothing but Video Ithaca, I drove down the road a bit. I saw a sign with a little man wearing a crown and smiling. What's that in his hand? A VHS tape! Oh yeah! He's the Video King and this is his domain. Mondays and Tuesdays were 4 for 3 Day. You could rent 4 good ones for $3.25 and have them for three nights. What a selection! Twisted Nightmare? You bet. Winterbeast? Right here. Mark of the Devil, you are my friend.
Video King was a bit grimier than Video Ithaca but it was large and they always seemed to have strange new releases that we'd never heard of. (Winterbeast, The Dead Next Door) It was a big space that had a wall extending down the middle of it almost cutting it in half. Horror and sci-fi on one side; new releases and random odd stuff on the other. I never met the King but I imagine he is a happy man.
The final Ithaca joint was, I believe, a Shows To Go. (I actually think that's wrong but I can't quite remember the name.) They had two locations. One was a block or two away from the King! The other was halfway up the hill near Cornell. Both were smallish, musty places. One of them had their horror section up against the back wall. The sci-fi section was in a shelving unit in front of it. You had to squeeze by the sci-fi to get to horror. If I remember correctly, when Ernest went back to School, there was a large pencil that jutted out of the cardboard display for the movie. It sat in the corner and it would goose you when you went into or out of Horror. You didn't bring ladies.
Real quick: This was the video store were I rented Don't Go In The Woods for the second time. I went to the counter, handed the lady the movie and smiled. A moment later, she stared at me, a little cross. "Where'd you get this?" "Horror." "This isn't one of ours." "Sure it is." "I don't see it on the computer." "Well, it's one of yours." "Oh, I see. Here it is. Congratulations. This film has been here for ten years and it's never been rented. Enjoy." I felt like a foster parent for wayward videos.
All three of the video stores in Ithaca had great character and charm. You couldn't beat a town where if you needed a movie you just traveled. One of them would have it. Of course, that's not necessarily true but I always thought it might be. It certainly put my little "K" car through the ringer. Those hills got pretty steep and the car was always on the verge of collapse anyways.
That makes me think… I love digital technology as much as the next guy. I like the proper aspect ratio and some neat extras. But, these stores with their skuzzy tapes and anonymous movies had so much character and they smelled so much neater. I would always go the extra mile to get something from one of these places. One winter, I hopped in the car and drove to the distant Shows To Go. You drove down the hill into town and then back up another hill with a two-lane highway road that had a grassy median that dipped in sharply. Normally, it was pretty safe but today a blizzard was coming down. Visibility was getting pretty bad. The roads were getting slippery. But, dammit, I needed to get some trashy films. They had Satan's Blade and The Slayer at this one. I had to go. You'll be happy to know that I got the movies. The lady in the store was quite surprised that someone had come out. "I thought the police had advised folks to stay off the roads." That's no deterrent. The drive back, though, had one shaky moment that I'll never forget.
I was driving back down the hill towards town. The grassy median was now a white triangle shape dipping into the ground. White falling. White being churned up on the road ahead. It looked like the police warning had been ignored because the highway was packed with cars moving slowly but steadily. I was in the right lane, focusing on my driving and thinking "We'll order pizza, watch movies and this'll be great." At that point, I turned and looked at the woman driving next to me. She was probably in her mid-40's, bundled up warm. As I looked at her, she looked at me. Her face was kind of sad. I wondered why she looked like that. It's a blizzard. We have these all the time out here. Then, her face started sliding away from me, leaving my line of sight. Her melancholy face never changing. I heard a horn beep and snapped out of it. She had rolled off the road into the median. I looked into my rearview mirror and saw her car at an awkward angle, still. I like to imagine she had the same look on her face. Oh, the dumb things I'd do to get these movies. You won't find me doing something that crazy on EBay when an original VHS copy of Tales from The Quadead Zone comes up for sale. Well, don't hold me to that.
After Ithaca, I moved to Los Angeles. The only video store I've found here that has the thrill in it (or had) was Super Duper Video in North Hollywood, CA. They've been a Hollywood Video since late-2003 but I still remember them fondly. When you walked in, it looked and smelled like a Blockbuster. But, then you'd start looking at the tapes. They had quite a few movies I'd never seen or found before. I began to loosen up here and start diving into sci-fi, action, softcore nonsense. All fun stuff. Eventually, I realized that the place did smell musky. It had just been a while since I'd encountered the smell. When they closed, I sighed audibly. The whole San Fernando Valley sighed with me.
Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee is great. They are in North Hollywood and have tons of VHS and DVD. Not everything but quite a large selection. Unfortunately, a lot of genres are mixed together so there is never that overwhelming horror/trash rush you'd get elsewhere. Movies are spine out because they have so many, so the visceral thrill of accidentally spotting something is gone. And, rentals can get a little pricey compared to the cheap Super Duper Video. All these things shouldn't discourage you, however. I go there almost every weekend and find something exciting. It's just the layout that doesn't completely grab me. Searching here takes a bit more. But, you can find it.
I don't know. I think, at the end of the day, that the old-school video store was just more fun. All the gross and offensive box art was its proper context. It was being used to sell the movies. Now, it's historical. Still great to look at but something is lost. I keep an eye on recent direct-to-DVD, low budget stuff and most of it looks so desperately uninteresting. Pictures on VHS boxes were usually hilarious and banal or overly gruesome. DVD pictures always make me think "Oh look, a Jeff Stryker-wannabe and Honey ‘Big Boobs' McGee emoting like nobody's business. Boring!" I can't help thinking, though, that even these films might have some interest in the old time setting. We used to rent anything that Video King put out and, as I mentioned, they kept Nekromantik and friends readily available. The modern day stuff just isn't appealing and I think part of that is the setting.
I mean, who was Mrs. Barnaby? Why was she surrounded by trash and porn all day long? In the winter, why did we never see her breath? And, what were these films about? Who made them? Were they all insane? You're not going to think this in the Blockbuster where they offer you 400 copies of the latest release with Lindsay Lohan or Rob Schneider. And, although the old employees could be surly, they had some stake in the place themselves. Go to a Blockbuster or somewhere like Best Buy and all the employees are in their twenties or younger and could, sincerely, not give a crap. You always feel like they've got the wrong people in the movie sections. "Yeah, I'm normally in office supplies. I'm working movies today because Bob is out." The people in the old video stores seemed to actually like movies. Maybe they didn't like you but if they could answer your questions what did it matter? I've had employees at Best Buy stand right in front of a movie and tell me they don't have it or they've never heard of it. That sucks.
Maybe it's impossible to describe the thrill of the old video stores. It's like trying to describe the innocent romantic excitement of a roller skating party. You need to have been to one. Are there still musky-wonderful video stores out there? I believe so. But, they're all selling their VHS stock. So, now is the time. Get out there. Maybe you'll find something no one's ever heard of. Good luck. Make me a copy.