Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Three Cheers for the Video Store

Watch these.
Whatever happened to the video store? Like the bookstore and the music store, the video store and the objects it houses is disappearing. And I think it’s disappearing for the same reasons the bookstore and music store are. The video store is important for many reasons. But it is especially important because of the people who work there. 

One of my favourite video stores of all time was The Celluloid Drugstore on Commercial Drive. It existed for a few years. And I loved it. I loved it for its vast and eclectic collection of titles, which rivaled the best video stores in the city; and I loved it for the organization of its titles by country, by director, by theme. But mostly I loved it for the people who worked there. They were so passionate about film and so knowledgeable, it was a pleasure to be in the store with them. 

The proprietor had a sense of humour but took film very seriously. And he expected that of his customers. He loved the classics and knew them inside out. He had high standards about the aesthetics of film. His ethos regarding this would make Proust’s characters look like philistines. 

Many of his customers were of like mind and shared his passion for film. Others merely wanted to rent an amusing movie to relax with. While these others were completing their transactions, the proprietor would sometimes utter, “You enjoy that,” in a withering tone. I often delighted at the confused and hurt expressions of the customers as they walked out of the store. I was not immune to this treatment either. But I didn’t care. One doesn’t object to being insulted by a great Master.

The thing I enjoyed most about going The Celluloid Drugstore was the opportunity to learn about film. I would walk into the store, choose my video, and after exchanging a few pleasantries, a conversation would start that went something like this:

Me: I’m not likely to take a course in film history, but I would like to learn. What do you suggest?
Proprietor: Well, of course, you have to start with Citizen Kane. After that I’d watch all the films of John Ford. Did you ever notice that all of Ford’s movies have a big dance scene in them?


Me: What’s your favourite movie about the Vietnam War?
Proprietor: Well, the thing about Apocalypse Now that impresses me is the use of Wagner music. You know Wagner hated Jewish people. The Nazis loved Wagner and played this music in the concentration camps. The American soldiers play this music to the Vietnamese. It’s the music of genocide.

I had many conversations like this with the proprietor. And not just with him, but with other employees at the store, and with the employees at other video stores. The British librarian Michael Gorman states that libraries are important because they are storehouses of the human record. And I think video stores are like this, too. And they are keepers of the human record because of the people that work there.

I think the video store is disappearing faster than either the book store or the music store. And not just the big ones like Blockbuster; or the venerable ones, like Videomatica. In the past two years, four independent video stores in my neighbourhood along a stretch of ten blocks have gone under. Only Black Dog prevails. Long may it live. You store clerks of Black Dog are preserving a treasure. And the former store clerks of Alpha Video: I will remember you with great fondness and admiration for years to come.


  1. We used to rent commercial films from Blockbuster. Now we can't. How are we now going to see movies that we don't want to go out and pay $12.50 for? I'm really not sure.

    We still have a great service from Videomatica. We can rent DVDs from them and they mail them to us. That's how we see a lot of cool but somewhat obscure stuff. We might find a new way to watch commercial movies, but if Videomatica shuts down its rental service as well as its store, I don't know how we would replace it.

    Things like Netflix and video-on-demand are going to have to get a lot better, or else it will just encourage more piracy (excuse me—"file sharing") than there is already.

  2. Applause Video by Commerical and 10th is also gone. As is Videomatica.

    And you know what? I"m guilty. I'm guilty of loving the convenience of the download. Of course I'm watching Fitzgeralldo (sp?) right now from the VPL - a whole different anachronistic system.

  3. I have a love/hate relationship with the more independent style of video store. As a film & media major and former teacher of Film Studies and Film History, I am interested in movies of all sorts from an entertainment and academic point of view, plus I think it's vital to support the underdog, but sometimes I feel like these stores can be highly pretentious, alienating people who might otherwise be drawn to learn more about film and expand their horizons.

    And sometimes you do just want to watch some escapist crap and you don't want to feel guilty about renting it, like you got it from the curtained off section in the back...