I Loved You, Blockbuster

You could bet that if you went to a certain video store at a certain time in the evening, you'd see someone you knew.
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flickr/Dave Dugdale

One day soon, all the Blockbusters will be gone, along with the Hollywood Videos and independent chains. Blockbuster grew and grew during the gold rush of the video age, when tens of thousands of videos stores dotted nearly every town. Then, they contracted and contracted, buffeted by changes in video distribution and a vicious competitor in Netflix.

Blockbuster will close their remaining 300 retail stores in the near future, the company announced today.

By the time my son knows what a movie or store is, almost all the video stores will be abandoned, some converted into Century 21 offices or deluxe nail salons, others left to sit, their glass walls and empty shelves fossilizing. 

Maybe we'll drive by the the video store all my friends went to when I was a teenager. And I'll try to describe what these places were for, that is to say, what they felt like back then.

Well, son, back when your dad was a kid, if you wanted to watch a movie, it came in a package called a VHS tape. Later, they sometimes came on discs called DVDs. There were really big ones called Laserdiscs, too, that were bigger than your face. But in the glory days of the video store, it was VHS tapes that dominated.

Watching the low-resolution movies at home was fine, but the real experience was going to the store. We'd all pile into our cars from the rural exurbs and the close-in burbs and we'd drive to the corner of suburbia where they kept the media. 

I can still remember the smell. Stale popcorn, industrial carpet, plastic. Did they pipe in the popcorn smell or just make it in a dingy microwave at the back out of plundered bags of Orville Redenbachers from the point-of-sale?

It was the best during the summertime, when you hadn't seen your friends from school, and you could bet that if you went to the video store at a certain time in the evening, you'd see someone you knew.

What relief from the crushing boredom of '90s adolescence?! The planned serendipity was intoxicating, addictive. Maybe you'd see your crush, or someone you hated, or someone from another school that you met one time at a basketball game. You just didn't know

flickr/schuminweb

The strangest thing about the video store was how they made it seem like a movie theater with just the barest of theater like trappings. Hollywood, Blockbuster. Some fonts. The words popcorn. New releases (that were rarely new). It was like an emoticon, or an emoji: a few little details could suggest a lot. Because movies were still glamorous, still are glamorous now, actually. Everyone still thinks of Marilyn Monroe, even if they couldn't come up with her stagename. We were huffing the nostalgia of the '50s, even as everything that generation had built fell apart, institutions, infrastructure, ways of thinking. Our forefathers invented a term for the feeling, fin de siècle, and it seemed to apply, even if the creepy and creeping newness of the dot-com era provided a welcome distraction for all.

Mallrats. That's how we lived. Office Space. That's where we'd end up. Austin Powers. That's how groovy it had been. Titanic. That's how we used to love. The Matrix. Sort of a best-case scenario for one's future. Fight Club. Same.

This was our version of the great communal gatherings of the theater! This was our attenuated version of public space! We didn't even browse the objects themselves, but avatars of the cassettes. Remember? All the tapes were stored behind the counter, and you'd carry this empty box that represented the movie up to the front register and they'd pull it out of their archival cabinet and load it into a clear plastic container for you. Josh Greenberg wrote a book about the creation of the home movie industry, From Betamax to Blockbuster, and he highlights how strange that was, "In the video store, customers browsed movies, represented by boxes that contained nothing more tangible than the experience of watching a movie itself." For the industry, it was a way of helping you forget you weren't watching on the silver screen, but the 22" TV your parents bought at Walgreen's. 

flickr/fanofretail

The tape-return ritual was one of life's great subroutines. It structured time because there were fees associated with being late. It put you on a schedule the second you walked out the door.

There were even dedicated machines for rewinding tapes! And there were stickers on the tapes that read, "Be kind, please rewind." With a smiley face. Even the process of bringing the movie back and handing it over, or of missing closing time and having to go to that metal bin stationed outside, sticking it through the slot and hearing it clatter in the digestive system of the video rental system. 

The worst was when somebody else in the family rented a movie, brought it back late, and then when you went to get yours, there was a bill due that you had to pay if you wanted to rent something else. Although one of the glories of life was when someone behind the counter, maybe because he or she thought you were cute, would bypass the system and let you rent anyway, without paying the piper. That was their privilege to bestow. They could wave away the past just like that. Jubilee! At least for a while.

There are so many things to remember about a process that our kids will never know. The medium has died and so has the second-growth forest that grew up around it. Pulling on my best shorts and speeding along the backroads to the store, I never imagined that the rental store was built on the husk of a previous industry, and on back and on back. That it had been a scavenger industry first and only later the apex predator I encountered. And that later, it would fail to grow and therefore die because the next generation of hormonal teenagers would choose to do something else. It all felt so normal back then, just how it was.

During a time when there was precious little public space in the 'burbs, when we made friends at malls, before social media layered new connectivity over these landscapes, the video store was exactly what we needed it to be: a place to go. 

I can almost imagine Fellini's daydreams, the ones that coalesced into Amarcord. The glories of the past, seasons passing, everything always ending, humans desperately trying to fill in the beginning and middle. 

To get that movie, or any Fellini, we had to go to a different place: Movie Madness in Portland, which stocked all the great directors, and organized their store according to their last names. They Respect the Auteur! None of this genre crap. And they will survive. They will survive. 

Then I'll look up and we'll be standing in the parking lot across from Izzy's pizza and it will be raining. My son will be like, "Yeah, whatever, Dad. You're old." 

But maybe he'll remember one of the movies I mentioned, and when we get home, he'll bring up Netflix3000 and say, "Let's watch Mallrats." And then I'll realize I've said too much.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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