Film, News & Commentary

Rundle: On the world's oldest video rental store in Boulder, Colorado

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The strip mall has no name, just a double-storeyed row of shops, with an improbably retro collection of services — a flotation tank outfit, a jazzercise studio, the glass gallery — in a place with no name. “We just call it … East Boulder” said the guy in the herbal healing store. It’s down in the lower part of the mall, beneath the retro sign “video station”, and it’s just as you remember it, even though you’ve never been there. There’s a poster for a film you’ve never heard of — Outdriven — a notice about new arrangements for after-hours drop off, and a printed-out opening hours sign, with scribbled on changes.

When you go in, the shelves seem to part in front of you, with new releases facing you on the wall on one side, comedy, with its white and pink and yellow covers going in another direction, action and adventure a swarm of black and red, foreign films classified by country France, Iran, Uruguay. Down the back, cult and classics. To the right, snacks, extra large, racks of bags of chocolates and boutique popcorn. The front counter and sanctum behind, racks of silver DVDs in plastic sleeves, the DVD polisher like a machine press, the whiteboard with titles coming soon, the old posters and the hipster jokes, a “rewind your DVDs” poster in mock-’50s style.
You get that feeling again, the one you remember as the same all your life, from different places: from a bar as an adult, from a toy store as a kid, and from a video store all your life, that sense of possibility and endless bounty contained within four walls. There have been changes; the DVD cases are too slim, there’s too many of them, the old VHS covers used to groan on the shelves like decorated bricks. Somewhere in here is the best movie you’ve never seen, the movie you will simply stumble across, and take you down a whole other path.
That was even better when you were 16, and there were no more Simpson/Bruckheimer films to watch, and instead you saw Chinatown or Charley Varrick or Persona or a million other things. Bookshops do that too, but there’s something about movies that makes it different, their capacity to surround and immerse, watched in a darkened living room, but now contained in a box. They are going now, going faster than bookshops, having just arrived. You could have been in your 30s in the 80s, your tastes and habits set, and easily never or barely ever have been into a video store — and now, as they are going, still be in your 60s, doing your tai chi and looking forward to another 25 years of life, by the end of which they will all be gone beyond a memory.
But for anyone in a rough band from the first cohort of Gen X to the tail end of Gen Y — poor old Gen Y, that really is a consolation prize ain’t it — it’s impossible to imagine growing up without it. (Hell, maybe even the millennials get a card). When they’ve all gone, this place, Video Station of Boulder, with its 40,000 titles and college town membership pool, may well be the last holdout. Which would be fitting, because Video Station was the first of them. It’s the oldest continuously operating video store in the US, perhaps the world, going strong since 1982. “Did you know this was the oldest video store in …” I said to Noah, the bearish mildly hipster day manager. “Yeah I know” he said “I’ve done the research”. Now, that’s a video store day manager. The sign, with its tear-drop lettering, redolent of I dunno, Leif Garrett and the messiah-break, is no retro, it’s an original, cuneiform survival.

History records that Alexander Graham Bell proposed a protocol for the new invention he had just stolen — when calling someone on the telephone, one should use the phrase “ahoy”. There was no dial-tone, no ring; picking up the phone you spoke directly to the operator across an infinite space. No-one knew what it was, so a hailing expressing distance seemed appropriate. In the late 1970s, when Hollywood studios began licensing a few movies for the three new video formats — VHS, Betamax and the mysterious third format which readers are invited to guess — they were distributed by mail.

In 1977, George Atkinson, a camera store owner, ordered a full set in each of VHS and Beta, and set aside a corner of the shop as a display, and began renting them out. The move attracted the immediate attention of Hollywood — in the form of lawsuits trying to prevent video rental, seeing the market as a high-end, purchase model, a sort of Playboy-advert-quadrophonic-stereo-ad luxury. Once that had been sorted (it’s a complicated story beyond even the obsessiveness of this piece), Atkinson began to loosely franchise the idea.
But what to call it? Was it a store? A library? None of these? It was a drop-in and pick-up sort of place, part of a change in the whole pattern of life. You weren’t going out to watch a movie, with strangers, sitting in front of a projector, at the whim of the movie house. By the mid-’80s, there were 600 Video Stations across the country, independent businesses using the brand. They were the largest stores in the pre-Blockbuster era, big beasts in the sort of Protozoic era of video stores, when they were often as not a set of 20 titles on a shelf in a milk bar.
But though they were ostensibly a brand, the Video Stations were individual stores, each conformed to the tastes of the owner — and they went the way of all independents video stores, that weren’t arthouse, when Blockbuster rose to prominence. Blockbuster, with its economies of scale, its unlimited quantities of big-budget new releases, and its thin backlist, was the death-knell of the Golden era of video, when each store was dealer’s choice — but also opened up a vista of possibilities that had hitherto been dependent on TV cycles and rep. cinemas (which, as I noted earlier, have their own pleasures).
Video stores thus, improbably, opened up the last great era of a relatively unified Hollywood movie production process, vastly expanding audience numbers over time. History may well record the cinema era as prelude to that last great gasp of Hollywood. But the other equally important thing it did was to change the process of self-formation in culture. For adolescence extended into the 20s, in the new style, a video store wasn’t just a place where you found a way to escape from life, it was a place where you found ways to enter it — different ways of being a self, different filters through which to view the world.
It was a way in which cultural consumption began to differentiate people into different consumer classes, different ways of being in the world, whether you saw the range of acceptable viewing running from Top Gun to Breakfast Club and back again, or whether you composed your own triple features, jamming together Thursday’s Game with L’Atalante and that James Belushi movie where he’s a cop in Russia, you know the one. Rep.
Cinema did that too, but video stores increased the speed and reach of that process, until it became a different sort of thing. The whole idea of ‘cult’ cinema — something between arthouse, classic, kitsch and obscure, drawing in parts of all four, but each differently assembled in each different store. The whole idea of cult cinema wouldn’t exist without video stores, and nor would the sort of pre-fabricated cult flick — indy film but not all of it — that succeeded it.
It was the distinct mix of limits and freedom that gave the video store its unique hold, and also its placefulness. At Video Station Boulder — two owners in 32 years — the customers came and went as I hung out with Noah, and browsed the place’s ‘staff picks’ section, a sort of wall of one-upmanship terror for cinephiles. You think you’ve seen staff picks celebrating the obscure, the perverse and the ironically obvious — the Video Station wall is like a joint seminar by Slavoj Zizek, Traci Lords and Professor Dr. George Steiner.
“We’ve got a pretty loyal base,” Noah said, as people came in not merely to change vids, but to get advice, a snap judgement — “my daughter sent me this, is it worth watching?” — and to get old DVDs polished up like precious stones. And then, mid-arvo, she came in, in a dark blue dress, a Bettie Page-black fringe, and matt-red lipstick, and drifted round the ‘noir’ section, which is sorted not merely by directors but also cinematographers. It would have been positively destructive to ask her any questions, she probably just ran the jazzercise studio.
She looked like a woman who had her husband’s body in the freezer, the hands removed, taken to a motel every couple of weeks to leave fingerprints, establish proof of life and a credit card trail, while she builds an alibi, before dumping his body in the Red River. While waiting, she watches DVDs. She got her movie, and kissed her fingers and placed them on the lips of Cary Grant in a poster on the counter.
Now that is a moment in space and time, entombed by the culture of a century, its fantasies and pretensions, impossible to know whether she had come in from the outside, or jumped off a cover and was making a break for it. “One hundred and six thousand,” Noah said, in answer to an earlier query. “We have issued 106,000 membership cards in our history. Call that, what, half a million people who’ve rented from the place?” The way we lived then, that way of pleasure going, like the electrophone and the rented Hogarth print, faded like old posters left too long in the window, like that copy of Moonstruck you took with when you moved cities, and still have.

12 responses to “Rundle: On the world's oldest video rental store in Boulder, Colorado

  1. The mysterious third format was…LaserDisc! Do I win a prize for guessing correctly?
    I know freako collectors with thousands of LaserDiscs. They have basements full of old LaserDisc players so that when their current players die they can continue to watch their collections. Or maybe it’s just that they like collecting LaserDisc players, and they keep the discs around to justify having so many players. You never know with these weirdos.

  2. It was only earlier this year I found a ‘throwback’ video and dvd shop in Bellingen on the NSW mid-north coast, where the collection was exactly as you say, eclectic and independent, somehow a reflection of its owner.
    I couldn’t believe my eyes, and found titles I had always wanted to show my kids, even if only for retro-historic cum cultural purposes. (yeah, whatevs)
    At least one still exists in Australia, sure it’s not huge like this one, but it’s from another time. Hope there are others, hope it’s still there next time I visit.

  3. Dr What in Bondi Junction is just closing down and I understand it was started around 1982-83.
    It had a huge VHS library of old movies, documentaries etc and subsequently DVD;s and Bluerays. I will miss it as there are not many places where you can access old movies.

    1. I am wondering whether Daily Review mentioned the closing Dr What? It was genius, and lasted way longer than anyone expected.

  4. Seems to be an awful lot of nostalgia coming through Guy’s articles lately..
    There was the Nirvana tribute, now the video store? What’s next, vinyl records? The Game and Watch? Even to a Generation X’er like myself, the recent articles are not really adding much to the conversation. A far cry from the 2008 presidential election notes which were generally insightful.
    Are you that depressed that the Republicans will win the mid terms?

  5. I think they should close this store. It is the digital age era and all video stores have been dead gone over the last 10 years. So yeah, don’t how long they will keep open. I think also because their are so many Walmart stores that are taking over the video industry. They carry CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays really cheap now. No one wants to rent no more! They rather purchase items! Renting is dead!

  6. The ne plus utlra of video stores to end all video stores was the now dead Kims Video in Lower West Village. They opened a couple more stores on Manhattan island and they were fine but it was Kims VIllage that was the place to be. Every year or so the staff (some possibly more cineliterate than me, or maybe just more easily bored than me) would re-arrange the 40000 to 80000 titles (this was pre DVD.) from Director, to Genre, at one point in 1994 to Crew, such as DP(Laszlo Kovacs) , or Production Designer (Henry Bumstead). I had just picked up the last two Laserdisc copies on the planet of Sternberg” Docks of New York and Underworld on two Japanese lasers taken from Jap vertically subtitled16mm prints held by a Texan professor of American Literature at a Japanese University) Only a place like Kims had these on the shelves! While there I heard a couple near me explode with frustration. “Oh Shit”. she cried. “Where the hell can I find Blade Runner?”
    “Ehh” I said, under “C” for Cronenweth.” (Jordan Cronenweth DP.)
    This place brimmed with the sort of rare off air, or telecine, or with videocam from 16mm or kinescope transfers of rarities so obscure you can now only find them at one of two extremely recherché p2p sites. In fact the sources are more or less exactly the same battered VHS and Betas I used to see 30 years ago at Kims.
    When Kims finally died a few years ago it passed along with all the rest of old Manhattan history – the 8th Avenue hookers and the drug dealing pimps at 45th St, the Times Square sleaze in the neon lights, the working (and not working) people, cheap lofts in Nolita, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company at Sheridan Square (they could no longer afford the rent.)
    Life aint the same.

  7. No ‘Billy The fish’ and ‘Yclept’ – the mysterious missing format that Guy is talking about is the V2000 which was a tape format invented by Phillips and Grundig. It’s main unique characteristic was that, unlike VHS and Beta, it was double sided, so you could turn the tapes over and record on two sides ala the audio cassette tape, which Phillips also invented of course.
    It had some following in Europe and South America but was the first of the 3 formats to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

  8. Well thanks to Video Station, Lancaster Video isn’t the oldest running video store but it sure is close. Same Route 6 location in New Bedford, MA since 1983 via the same owner. I’d elaborate more but I’m at [my current] job.

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