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What I Learned Spending Sunday Afternoon at Caufield South VideoBusters

​On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, VideoBusters in Caulfield South is the perfect emblem for the dying video store.

by Lee Zachariah
06 March 2015, 3:22am

All photos by the author

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, Video Busters in Caulfield South is the perfect emblem for the dying video store: a single employee quietly files discs away as a lone figure slowly walks the aisles.

But Video Busters is a rare thing purely by existing: in the middle of suburbia, it remains open as nearly every other video store — including its former competitor, a Blockbuster just around the corner — has gone out of business. Unlike the artisanal video store that caters to the collectors keen for an original French edition of an early Éric Rohmer film, VideoBusters is still mainstream. And it's still standing.

As poetic as the empty store may be, it's the worst time to come if you want to understand why this particularly store has managed to survive. With everything moving online, and options ranging from iView to iTunes, Netflix to Quickflix, YouTube to torrents, the idea of travelling to rent a physical movie has very quickly gone from being the norm to a quaint and archaic practice.

With most of the surrounding businesses closed on the Sunday, the store gets very little foot traffic. During the week, it's a hive of activity: local cafes and shops and a nearby school results in a huge number of walk-ins, and the place is reportedly brimming on a Saturday night.

But there are signs of a struggle.

The store is a temple of modifications: three internet terminals, currently unoccupied but reportedly popular, sit at the back of the store. Up towards the front is a drinks fridge, an ice-cream freezer and ex-rental DVDs. Nothing strange there. Further along is a rack of t-shirts. A display of glow-sticks. Second-hand CDs. A shelf of scented candles and glow-sticks. A table of random plastic toys and umbrellas and party poppers and a tea set seems like the very definition of "miscellany". A sign informs us it's 50 percent off.

Some of these ventures are more successful than others. A recent foray into off-brand iPhone charges was successful: they sold out almost immediately. And the $1 drinks are a big drawcard, with many people coming in off the street solely for this reason. The candles and dreamcatchers don't draw in customers on their own, but I'm assured they do sell.

At 3pm, there's a distinctly unceremonial changing of the guard. Elsie, currently in year 12 and studying arts, leaves as her replacement Donato comes in. Not a lot of changeover is required.

Donato has come directly from Sydney, where he also works as a production assistant on a popular reality TV show. He's been working at various VideoBusters stores for seven years, and part of the appeal is the flexibility that allows him to pursue his career but maintain a steady income.

Donato used to work at the Moonee Ponds Videobusters before it shut down. I invite him to speculate on why that one closed but this one stays open. "I don't want to stereotype," he says, "but I did notice there were a lot more younger people in Moonee Ponds than in Caulfield North. Younger people are more likely to download."

The customers back this up.

An older woman, one of the store's regular customers, tells me that she's not online, has no computer or smartphone, and no access to the internet. With her husband too sick to go to the cinema, the video store is the only option they have for new movies.

Another customer, Emma, is in the new release section searching for the Sin City sequel. She appears to be in her late 20s, but admits that she's technologically unadvanced. "It's easier to get DVDs than figure out how to download."

They serve to backup the assumed stereotype: pensioners and the technologically confused. There is accommodation for backpackers nearby, and a lot of young foreign students without steady access to the internet come in to rent movies.

But something does stand out in this store. Something that has not been satisfactorily replicated online: browsing.

Searching titles online is often tilted in favour of the popular and the recognisable. In the physical video store, algorithms do not automatically shift the less popular titles around. Here, nearly everything is more or less equal.

The Australian film Galore sits with equal prominence beside the Brad Pitt WWII film Fury. Australian horror hit The Babadook shares the new release horror section with a selection of obscure straight-to-video titles.

What's particularly surprising about this for me (as a film critic who tries to keep across everything both local and international), is how many titles have passed me by. I thought I'd seen or at least knew of every recent Australian film, but had no idea until I entered the store that Nadia Tass (Malcolm, The Big Steal) had made a film about the real-life scuba tragedy called Fatal Honeymoon, featuring Gary Sweet and Harvey Keitel. I did not know that the brilliant Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist) had made a new film, let alone that he'd done it a full two years ago. How many titles such as these had I missed in the years since I'd last set foot inside a video store?

It's hard to imagine what the online version of this would look like, how you could successfully replicate this particular experience. It's tempting to think of a virtual reality space where you walk down the aisles of a CGI store, pausing to examine covers. That overly literal 1990s idea of what the future would look like, complete with digital dreamcatchers and virtual candles.

The concept of the video store feels redundant, but its value hasn't evaporated completely. And not just for those yet to connect to the online world, but for those wanting to enjoy a sense of discovery that you can't get by downloading titles that have been pre-curated. The internet has been vital in expanding the availability of films and TV series we may never have been able to see, but it hasn't fully replaced the value of wandering around and browsing.

I ask Donato what he thinks the future of the store might be. How much longer can it keep going?

He mentions the recent crackdowns on piracy, and suggests that closing off access to torrent sites may draw people back to the video store. But even he is a little sceptical at his own idea: he knows that most people will be driven to streaming services and legal downloads, but knows that a small percentage may find their way back into the store.

A woman enters the store, flanked by her two children. They make a beeline directly to the Harry Potter section: they know what they're after. After confirming they've got the exact entry they wanted, they go to leave, then stop: something else has caught their eye. Three completely different things, in fact. The family temporary and silently disperses, each on their own brief journey of exploration.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah