Farewell to Blockbuster and the magic of video shops

Kate Winslet may have found a youth spent “just looking… trying to choose” frustrating - but an outing to the good old fashioned video library was all part of the experience, says Paul Jones

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Farewell to Blockbuster and the magic of video shops
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The gradual collapse of Blockbuster, which went into administration on Wednesday, continued this weekend with the news that 129 of its 528 movie and games rental shops are to shut down.

That announcement comes in the same week that (if my Twitter feed is to be believed) a nation mourned the planned closure of HMV’s flagship Oxford Street store (it may yet be saved, but things remain bleak for the company).

The loss of jobs aside, I suspect the demise of Blockbuster won’t be met with quite the degree of sadness as HMV’s passing – renting movies is just not as cool as buying music and Blockbuster’s 23-year UK history can’t match the century or more that HMV has been selling records. For me, though, video shops hold just as much nostalgia as record stores.

In a recent TV advert for Sky’s online movie streaming service Sky Store – one of the authors of Blockbuster’s destruction – Kate Winslet regrets a youth spent in video shops “just looking… trying to choose.” But when I was a teenager, sifting through DVD and (let’s not kid ourselves here) mostly VHS titles was the uncool version of flicking through vinyl in a record store, trying to deduce from the covers and limited synopses whether you might have unearthed a hidden gem or a piece of badly-produced schlock, or both.

And how do you pick just one?” asks Kate. We never did. Me and my dad would often return home with three, four or even five titles on a Friday or Saturday night: a banker, a couple of unknown sci-fi or horror quantities that might just become Jones classics (but would probably be crap) and one to watch on Sunday, to hold off that soul-sucking day-before-school vibe for a little longer.

“Imagine if you had your very own movie store, at home,” says Kate. But back then the outing to the video shop was an important part of the experience. There was the anticipation during the short drive, when I scoured last week’s free video magazine for ideas. Then there was the critical time spent browsing – wandering from shelf to shelf holding empty VHS cases as insurance – in either the strip-lit vastness of Blockbuster or the magically dingy confines of the independent video store up the creaky backstairs above the hairdressers. And then there was the excitement of the drive back, often via the Chinese take-away, with a stack of videos on the back seat, sweet-and-sour pork balls warming my crotch and the scent of prawn crackers in the air.

Like many music fans (I strongly suspect) who mourned the passing of HMV, I haven’t set foot in a bricks-and-mortar store for some time. There are no video shops anywhere near me and I don’t have a car, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m basically part of the problem. I think movie streaming services are great, just like downloading music (even if I'm not convinced by e-readers yet). Times change – if they didn’t we wouldn’t have nostalgia (and I look back fondly at nostalgia). All I’m saying is that video rental stores are on their way out, and I loved them once, so that's a bit sad. 

Next time I'm in a pub, I’ll make a final toast to the video shop – and tell myself that I bought that pint with the money I saved all those years ago by always rewinding my VHS cassettes before returning them.