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Missing the good old days of video

Date: 2/21/2011

By G. Michael Dobbs, Managing Editor


I was dropping our goddaughter off at school the other day and saw yet another Blockbuster Video festooned with store closing signs. It made me think of just how quickly an entire industry can change in a relatively short period of time.

I think Springfield may just have one video rental store in the city — perhaps two.

Home video started out as a business dominated by independent storeowners. Do you remember the first video stores from which you rented back in the 1980s? I received my first VCR on my 30th birthday in 1984 and I went to one at the "X" in Springfield.

That shop, like many others, required a membership fee and was divided into a section for VHS and another for BETA — BETA, now there's a trivia question for you.

VHS tapes were terribly expensive to purchase and the idea that a film fan could build a library was something only the most well-to-do — or dedicated — people could do.

Video stores soon popped up all over the place. There was a brake and muffler shop in Indian Orchard that took part of its space and created a video store. When you wanted to rent something, a mechanic from the other side of the shop would come over and take care of the transaction.

Video stores became part of a neighborhood, like the variety store or a gas station. They developed their own style: some were funky and some were mainstream. Film fans — like Pleasant Street Video in Northampton — ran some while others were operated by people who saw a business opportunity.

I spent many hours pacing the new release walls, picking up a film that was completely unknown to me and based on its cast, director or cover art, bring it home and would give it a try.

The studios and distributors soon realized that to sell their films, they had to woo the owners. The Video Software Dealers Association presented the trade show for the industry, which was known simply as "The VSDA." At the VSDA, old-time ballyhoo was practiced. Do you have a movie no one has heard of and you need to sell a couple thousand copies to make some money? Rent a booth, bring in the film's stars to autograph some photos and hand out some freebies of some sort.

I attended two VSDAs and the experience was amazing. At one in 1994, I saw people such as Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Luke Perry, Leslie Neilson, Fred Williamson, Cameron Diaz, Cynthia Rothrock, Kathy Ireland, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller and June Allyson, among others. These performers all interacted with video storeowners — and lowly journalists — in an effort to sell videos.

That year legendary producer Roger Corman threw a party — I managed an invite — and I had a great evening.

The advent of the national chain superstores, such as Blockbuster, killed the independent stores. Blockbuster could buy more tapes at better prices and made exclusive deals with distributors that actually prevented its rivals from stocking certain titles.

For many storeowners, the only way to compete with Blockbuster was to have an "X-rated room," but in many cases that was not enough to keep a store's market share.

Blockbuster and the major chain eliminated the need for a VSDA trade show as well. There was little "show" left in this part of show business.

And now Blockbuster is trying to compete with Netflix and Red Box, which had eliminated much of the overhead in video rental. There is some sort of grim irony in all of that.

It doesn't matter how many times I walk past a Red Box and look over its new release "wall," or spend time searching through Netflix's massive library, it's not the same.

I miss the experience of walking along those actual walls, looking for something I've not seen before, picking it up, flipping the box to the back to read the description and taking a chance on it.

The new way of renting has certainly made reaching a market more difficult. There was a certain democracy in the old video stores as a big Hollywood film sat next to some low-budget film on that new release wall. The box covers were mini-billboards advertising the film in oftentimes the most old fashioned form of hoopla.

I loved it.

Will those days come back? Will a new generation want some less virtual and something more real? Time will tell.

Hey, agree with me? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.

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