Obituary for the Video Store

By Daniel Herbert

Released in January, my book Videoland has turned out to be something of an elegy, even an obituary, for the video store. Although certain stores and chains continue to flourish (Family Video in particular), the greater brick-and-mortar video rental business has largely vanished. Even great specialty stores that seemed to have strong community support are faltering. Le Video, the immense and venerable store in San Francisco, is currently conducting a fundraising campaign to prevent closing on May 15. Many other fantastic stores, including Scarecrow Video in Seattle (featured prominently in my book), are in imminent danger of shutting their doors for good.

Lately, I have been struck by the wave of nostalgic affection for video culture that has attended the disappearance of video stores. Numerous articles and online think pieces lament the loss of these places, and not one but two feature-length documentaries about video culture have been released, Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector. The trailer for Rewind This! gives a good sense of its accomplishments.

In telling the story of video’s impact on the world, Rewind This! focuses particularly on the way video facilitated the production and consumption of low-brow, “trashy” movies and genres. Along these lines, Adjust Your Tracking is not so much about video stores as it is about a subculture of VHS collectors who mainly collect obscure cult movies. One segment from the film details a collector who created a video store in his basement, like a model train collector who builds tiny villages full of plastic people.

Here, the affection for video goes hand in hand with an affinity for the space of the video store. Yet most of the subjects in this movie don’t celebrate video stores as much as they celebrate the size and breadth of their personal collections; indeed, a number of these people seem to have acquired many of their VHS tapes from video stores that were going out of business. In many ways, their veneration of the video store and video culture would not be possible without its demise.

With their shared interest in cult cinema, Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking paint a picture of video culture that seems strangely informed by the current decimation of the brick-and-mortar rental business. Simply put, the trashing of the video store has prompted some people to reflect on the trashiness of video as a medium. And the sense of nostalgia found in these movies also seems specific to this historical moment. Their retrospective celebration of the 1980s, of VHS tapes, and of the video store appears like a rejection of the present conditions of media culture, where Video-on-Demand and internet streaming services dominate.

These movies are just as much about the present moment as they are about the past. And, soon enough they will become historical documents in their own right. They will not only provide records of video culture, but will illustrate how the story of video was told at a particular time. It will be interesting, as time goes on, to see how this sentimentality for video will evolve and to see what new things we will become nostalgic about. While Videoland tells one part of the history of video, I am excited to see that history continue to unfold – even as it incorporates its own historiography.

Daniel Herbert is Assistant Professor of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Read a review of his new book Videoland on SantaCruz.com and listen to an interview with Herbert on Wisconsin Public Radio.