-Jack Torrance, as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in The Shining
Everything I learned, I learned from the movies.
That scene in Swiss Family Robinson. The one where Father takes Mother to her treetop bedroom and cranks open a trapdoor in the ceiling to reveal a night sky with a spill of stars – that scene captivated me every time I watched the movie. I wanted to be shipwrecked in the South Seas. I wanted to sleep in a tree house, ride on ostriches, swing from vines, and fight pirates. I desperately wanted a monkey for a friend. There was a period when my brother and I begged to rent that video every time we went to Movie Max, a store with rows and rows of child-height gray shelving constructed so that each video box could face outward. We watched it so many times, the tape wore out. There were other videos I loved and rented repeatedly – The Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, The Witches, all the Ernest movies, and later, Monty Python. In eighth grade, my best friend and I rewound The Meaning of Life at least fifty times to try and write down the lyrics to the Universe Song. I’m saddened by the thought that my son will never waste time in this way, thanks to The Internet. I’m also saddened by the thought he will probably never push a video tape into a VCR and experience mild annoyance at the realization that previous viewers didn’t rewind it.
We don’t own a VCR. We own a DVD player, but I can’t remember the last time we used it. But there was a time when we still went to Blockbuster to rent DVDs. I loved the ritual of picking out a movie. Perusing the aisles, picking up the boxes to study the pictures and read the descriptions, and trying to convince my husband to rent something with subtitles, is an entirely different experience from sitting on a couch with a remote and clicking through the offerings on Netflix. Sure, it’s a lot more convenient just to sit down and pick up the remote. But it’s less of an engaging experience than going to a physical store, talking to the employees, or just letting something catch your eye. Which is why I decided to go down to Video Fan last Wednesday, the last independent video rental store in Richmond.
Video Fan is on Strawberry Street. It is dark inside, as video stores should be. On the day that I went, it was at least 200 degrees outside, and it was only a few degrees cooler inside the store. Squeakers was strapped to me in his baby carrier, his head mashed into my sweaty shirt. He is a serious napper. Had he been awake, I would have introduced him to my favorites as though they were old friends (Weekend at Bernie’s! Harry and the Hendersons!). But he can’t walk, or process complex thoughts yet. So for the time being, Squeaks stayed sweaty and asleep while I talked to Video Fan employee Andrew Blossom, who sat behind the rental desk next to a computer that still runs DOS. I started with the obvious: It’s 2015. Why the video rental store?
Blossom grew up in a time when video stores could be found in every strip mall, and visiting them was an integral part of his childhood. “When the opportunity came for me to work here, I jumped at the chance. I had never worked at one, so it struck me as kind of a dream job in a way, and also as a last chance.” Now more than ever, Video Fan is struggling to stay relevant in a dying market. Blossom is heading the charge to recreate the store as a nonprofit. They used a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay the lease on the store for a year, and are now raising money for a second year. The goal of the nonprofit is to maintain the store’s collection, and to seek more opportunities for screenings in the community. So far, the store has sponsored movie screenings and special events at different locations around Richmond, like Hardywood Craft Brewery and The Byrd Theater. They also screen films at Strange Matter on Grace Street. Blossom said, “We’re coming to an end, but in the time we’ve spent working here, we’ve seen how important this place is to our customers and to the local community. It’s one of the last bastions of a type of culture that has been so important in our lives, and we’ve made it our mission to keep it going as long as possible.”
Video Fan has VHS tapes and DVDs, and Blossom said he’s actually seen an increase of VHS rentals in recent years. “I think kids are really getting into it, the ones who were either really young when it went away, or the ones who never had it. There’s kind of a renaissance of celebrating VHS culture.” Blossom said that Video Fan should still be considered relevant in today’s culture of streaming, because the store still has everything it’s ever bought, with the exception of a small purge of VHS duplicates when the store first started purchasing DVDs. “We’ve been collecting for 30 years, so there’s an incredible resource here that’s not available on the Internet, no matter how the Internet is sold to you.” He said that streaming options don’t have the same variety of offerings as the store, and that in the future, when physical media is no longer used, he worries that online sources such as Netflix will not provide access to everything as they’re promising. He points out that movies appear and disappear monthly on Netflix based on contract negotiations with film companies, and he worries their collection will end up being splintered.
Beyond providing access to a complete collection, Blossom has built relationships with people in the community, and he’s seen first-hand how important the store is to its customers. “Video stores have always been a source for community interaction, and I think as we remove those sources, we won’t see anything coming in to replace them. When we lose them, we lose them forever.” As a kid, some of his favorite rentals were the Mad Max movies and Weird Al’s UHF. “My friends and I would get that about once a month and quote it to each other all the time.” He said he recently re-watched UHF in the store. “That’s the great thing about having this resource. It’s very easy to go back and revisit things that were important then, and see if they still hold up.”
Originally from Alexandria, Blossom moved to Richmond in 2004 to study writing at VCU. He says Richmond is a city that supports independent businesses, has great restaurants, and buzzes with the creative energy to keep those things going. In addition to Video Fan, he works at Chop Suey Books and teaches writing at VCU. When pressed, he lists five films that are very important to him, stopping short of calling them his favorites: The Shining, Fitzcarraldo, Alien, Blade Runner, and Touch of Evil. He credits the video stores of his youth for the launch of his film education, and if he has anything to do with it, Video Fan will continue to offer that same service to customers in Richmond for years to come.