“People come in and they’re just amazed,” says Tony Nitolli, who works behind the counter at Eddit Brandt’s Saturday Matinee video rental shop in North Hollywood. “Some young people, they’ve never grown up with a VCR… Seeing something that’s tactile, that you actually put in a machine is weird for them. It’s like we’re in an Amish place and people are watching us churn butter.”
Much like an Amish person hand churning butter, you probably don't see video stores all too often in your day to day life. You might not have even noticed. First came Redbox, then Netflix, then the other 3,000 streaming services that are currently available.
Brick-and-mortar movie rental locations are something that used to be ubiquitous, but fell out of favor so suddenly and completely that it’s difficult to imagine a time we even wanted them. Like phone books, AOL installation CDs, or those velcro walls you throw yourself at from a trampoline.
There are areas they’re still going strong (mostly rural areas that lack the high speed broadband needed to stream movies), but in most, they’re not. In 1989, there were reportedly 30,000 video rental stores in the US. As of last year, that number had fallen to about 2,000.
Which, for reasons I can't fully put my finger on, makes me sad. It's that same feeling you get when a business you never used gets gentrified out of your neighborhood, or a website you no longer visit shutters, or a singer who hasn't made anything you enjoyed since 1985 dies. Would I ever buy anything from my local milliner, or visit Rotten.com, or listen to either of the albums Prince released in 2015? No. Am I sad that all of these things are now gone? Definitely.
It's easy to see why the majority of people no longer visit video stores. You have to put on your clothes, get to the store, physically find the movie you want, deal with an actual human being, pay on a per-movie basis, and deal with late fees if you don't return it on time. You can find a movie to stream through Netflix in under ten seconds, naked, while using about three of your muscles.
Which isn't to say there aren't areas in which video stores are superior. If we can learn anything from Soylent, it's that more efficient doesn't always equal better.
Surprisingly, only one of the eight video stores I visited in the process of writing this article was devoid of customers.
A middle-aged customer called Jim I spoke to at Santa Clarita's Video Depot told me he'd been visiting the store for the last 30 years because he liked the owner. "[She] always has great stories," he said. "I like to deal with people, I don't like dealing with machines."
And it's easy to see why. The owner in question, Gina Lee, was almost certainly the nicest person I've met so far in 2018. It seemed to cause her actual physical pain when I rejected the multiple offers of free soda and candy she extended to me while I was taking photos of her store.
Another thing a real human can offer you that a streaming service can't is actual useful recommendations.
While in Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, I overheard a customer asking for What’s Love Got to Do with It. The guy behind the counter explained that someone had borrowed it in 2007 and never returned it, but suggested the guy might like Waiting to Exhale, "even though a lot of people dismissed it as a How Stella Got Her Groove Back kinda thing."
Which is not the kind of advice streaming services can currently offer. I just searched Netflix for What’s Love Got to Do with It, and it also didn't have the movie, but suggested I might want to check out titles including Law and Order SVU or a Netflix original movie where Noomi Rapace plays sextuplets.
While the internet almost certainly knows more personal information about me than the average video store employee (and probably also most of my immediate family), Netflix's algorithms don't yet understand the nuance of art in the way a human can. They also, presumably, are going to try and make me watch their Noomi Rapace sextuplet movie no matter what I search for, because they have a vested interest in me watching it.
And it's not just What's Love Got to Do With It that turns up no results on Netflix. Netflix's selection of movies has been shrinking, and many, many important movies aren't available on the service. I just searched for a bunch of important movies on there and saw that Raging Bull, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Do the Right Thing, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, every movie ever made by Alfred Hitchcock, 2001: A Space Odyssey, most Disney movies, Chinatown, Spirited Away, Pulp Fiction, Apocalypse Now, and Titanic are currently unavailable on Netflix streaming.
"Netflix doesn’t show all the classics," John Lee, the owner of Video Depot in Santa Clarita, tells me. "If you come to us, we have all the new different titles and stuff."
Once a video store has something, they have it. (Well, unless someone rented it in 2007 and never returned it.) It's not going to disappear or move as the result of licensing negotiations, or because a rival streaming service gets introduced, or because of a new strategy to focus on original content.
Video Depot, Santa Clarita
"Because we dealt with the big giants like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, we always had specialty stuff, we always had things they didn’t have. And then when DVDs came around, everyone dumped their VHSs and we didn’t," Nitoli explains. "So we had things that didn’t come out on DVD, or things that came out on DVD with different music. I remember John C. Reilly came in, and he wanted to get the original Star Wars so his kid could see it, he didn’t want the one that had been messed with by Lucas, he wanted the one he saw as a kid."
Which isn't to mention all the terrible movies.
Don't get me wrong, from A Christmas Prince to Naked (which seems to be Groundhog Day, but starring a naked Marlon Wayans?), there is a ton of garbage on Netflix.
But when you rented a terrible movie from a video store you were stuck with it. Especially, if, like me, you grew up without a huge amount of disposable income. It would've taken death or complete societal breakdown to stop me from watching every fucking minute of Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows that I paid for.
I guess "it prevents me from having to watch awful movies" is a pretty terrible criticism of an entertainment platform. But there are nuggets of gold buried within terrible movies. Like the wire death scene in Ghost Ship, or the bit where Samuel L. Jackson dies in Deep Blue Sea. There isn't a person alive that would stick around for 93 minutes of whatever the fuck Undercover Grandpa is to find its hidden brilliance.
There are efforts to preserve video stores. Multiple video stores have gone nonprofit, like Seattle's Scarecrow Video, Portland's Movie Madness, and LA's Vidiots.
But that, presumably, is only a viable plan for the kind of video stores that appeal to hipsters and film nerds and can position themselves as an important historical resource.
The unhip strip mall kind, like the ones featured in the majority of these photos, will continue their slow fade out.