Thursday November 21, 2013
Technology Killed the Video Store: Remembering Minneapolis' Last Blockbuster
The last video store in Minneapolis, a Blockbuster in the Uptown area, is closing. My friend Jim Walsh wrote a good article about it for MinnPost.
It's hard to get nostalgic about a Blockbuster but I went to this store a lot when I lived in Minneapolis from 2005 to 2007. It was only about six blocks from my apartment. It's where I rented some of the old Superman movies that allowed me to write this Op-Ed for The New York Times. If they hadn't had them, I wouldn't have had it.
But I only went there because Minneapolis didn't have any good video stores. I arrived searching for something approximating Scarecrow Video in Seattle, and friends steered me to a place called Discount Video a few blocks south on Hennepin, which, every year, invariably won “Best Video Store” in the local alt weekly.
The place was smaller than I'd imagined. Outside there was a sign trumpeting its 15,000 titles, a fraction of Scarecrow's, and inside it was cramped. At the time, I was writing an article about political thrillers, so I searched through their thrillers section but couldn't fathom a method. I turned to a clerk, a tall man in his 50s, who may have been one of the owners.
“Are these in alphabetical order or ... ?” I asked.
“We can’t do that.”
“You can’t ... ?”
My eyebrows shot up.
“Look, here’s what happens. Someone comes along and they’re thinking about renting a video and, oh no, they decide not to get it, so they put it back—in the wrong place. Now it’s out of order. We’ve got 15,000 titles. It would be impossible to alphabetize them all.”
I nodded and thought: Except everyone else does it. Scarecrow, with its 70,000 titles. Libraries, with their hundreds of thousands of titles. Volume, in fact, would seem to indicate a greater need for alphabetizing rather than a lesser need. But I just went back to my search.
That's when I noticed something else. Not many DVDs; mostly VHS.
“Is there a special section for DVDs?” I asked.
Oops. Another sore spot. I later learned Minneapolis hadn't adopted the DVD readily; many people, particularly video-store owners it seemed, nostaligized VHS cassettes as if they were LPs. As a result, even though it was 2005, this store was still mostly VHS. The clerk explained all this to me in a slightly impatient tone. Then he complained about the upcoming high-def format. New technologies kept swamping old ones, he said. In such a world, what was the point of keeping up?
At this point I just decided to ask outright. I was looking for ”The Kremlin Letter,“ a 1970 movie directed by John Huston. One problem: I couldn't remember the name of the movie. Second problem: it had never actually been released in any video format. But I didn't know that at the time.
“I’m looking for a political thriller,” I began.
“We’ve got those,” he said.
“It's from 1970 and directed by John Huston.”
“Uh ... I think that came out in 1974.”
“Well, that’s close to 1970.”
“Right. But Huston didn’t direct it.”
“Yes he did.”
My eyes shot up for the third time. What I was about to do, for movie buffs, was akin to correcting someone on the name of the president of the United States. “I think Roman Polanski directed 'Chinatown,'“ I said.
“Well, John Huston was in it.”
“True. He was in it.”
But I'd had enough, thanked the man, and fled. I never went back. I went to the Blockbuster instead.
Unsurprisingly, Discount Video went under in 2006. Now it's Blockbuster's turn. Eventually, it'll be Scarecrow Video in Seattle with its 70,000 titles. New technologies keep swamping old ones.
In his piece about Blockbuster, Jim writes:
When it’s all gone, something else will be in its cavernous place, and a couple generations’ ritual of going to the video store to physically pick and choose and congregate with other customers or employees will go with it.
I have no love for the ritual of the video store—even when the clerk I'm talking to knows who directed ”Chinatown." But here's to congregation in all its forms.