Saturday, March 29, 2014

Rewinding to the Best Days Of Our Lives

In 1987 I landed a part-time job at a video rental place (named, without much imagination, Video Place) in Crystal City, Virginia.  I was just finishing up college, looking at graduate schools, and wondering if my long-time college girlfriend was ever going to be interested in moving on to the, umm, next step.

That was a great job.  The store was a little hole in the wall in an underground mall, next to a liquor store and directly across from a Waxie Maxie's (where my exclusive contacts managed to hook me up with a copy of Zelda II just in time for Christmas for my eight-year old nephew.)  We rented portable VCRs and even sold a Goldstar on occasion (I'll probably have to do a few years in purgatory for that) but mostly we rented movies and music videos, $2.49 a night and a $1 fine if you failed to rewind (a fee I'm pretty positive we never once actually imposed- unwound tapes went into the car-shaped rewinder behind the counter.)  We watched a lot of music videos -- Tears for Fears (Songs from the Big Chair,) Genesis (Visible Touch,) Janet Jackson (Rhythm Nation,) etc.  We spent a lot of time assembling display stands- the one for Throw Momma From The Train included a computer chip which let you hear Anne Ramsey bleat "Owen loves his Momma, Owen loves his Momma" when you pushed a button, and some of us employees came pretty close to murdering the kids who would push it 100 times while their parents picked films off the shelves.  We always had customers who wanted us to give them the displays when they were ready to come down, and we were generally willing to do so- except that the ones for Disney films remained the property of Disney and had to be returned to the studio.  I sold 400 advance copies of E.T.  and won a television set for selling the most 4-packs of Kodak VHS tapes (turned out that the blind guy who purchased most of them was a bootlegger who finally got nabbed by the feds.)

One summer the prudes who ran Northern Virginia came down hard on video stores and our company decided that we could only show G-rated musicals and Disney films on the store monitor- we didn't have much selection at the time, so we watched Calamity Jane and My Fair Lady pretty much every day until we were ready to go insane.  Fortunately our regulars found it obnoxious too, complained, and we got back to music videos and PG films by Labor Day.  I used to be able to lip-sync An American Tail. 

I remember the Stock Market crash of 1987, the time volunteers for the Hart-For-President campaign tried to cut a better deal on bulk blank tape purchases, and the day my manager brought in his recording of Buster Douglas upsetting Mike Tyson and showed it for a crowd of people who were perfectly willing to be late to work rather than miss the ending.  I remember the 30 days we tried to be a TicketMaster outlet, and how the machines never worked.  I remember calling in credit cards to get authorization codes, and the time I had to stall an irate crook because the operator told me to hold his card until the police could get there and take him down.

In 1989 I became a manager, and moved to a downtown DC store.  I was robbed at gunpoint twice, and on another day opened bright and early in the morning to find fingerprint dust everywhere- my assistant manager, closing the night before, had been robbed.  I remember catching numerous would-be shoplifters and failing to catch many, many more.

In 1990 the owner of our 7-store chain decided to sell out, which meant the inventory had to be liquidated.  I turned out to be a pretty good salesman, so I was sent from store to store running close-out sales.  When I closed the store back at Crystal City I sold every single VHS tape we had available but one- a copy of Satisfaction ("starring" Justine Bateman- come on, Liam Neeson was in it too, and it wasn't THAT bad..)  One guy bought every Disney movie we had- about forty tapes- for $200.  Hope he enjoyed them.

In 1991 I left the video rental business for good, got my graduate degree, got married (not to that college girlfriend- she left for grad school without saying goodbye in 1988 and I never saw nor heard from her again) and moved to upstate New York.   I didn't know it at the time, but I had spent four years in an industry that was staring oblivion in the face.  In the following decade other chains would vanish, replaced by RedBox and Netflix and other online services, and the idea of puttering around a store trying to pick out a tape to watch on the VCR that night suddenly seemed as quaint and archaic as Drive-Ins.  Want to buy a movie now?  That's what Amazon is for.

Anyway, here's a heartfelt salute to an age that left us way too soon- and I think left us all a little poorer with its departure.  For every awful customer who didn't seem to understand that "OPEN 10AM-7PM" did not mean "OPEN 6:30 AM- 7:30 PM" or thought it was perfectly ok to call every fifteen minutes to ask if a certain film had been returned and could we please hold it for him, there were far more fun regulars and great co-workers and overall good times.  Even the robberies were fun after the fact.  So goodbye Erols, goodbye Blockbuster, and especially goodbye Video Place- your contribution to my life and American culture in the late 20th century deserves more recognition than I can give you in this little blog.   Every now and then, I'll rewind a tape in your memory.

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