The website of Dan Erdman
Video-rental stores are cool again. As a recent Kickstarter for a Baltimore outlet puts it, “A great video store is so much more than a place of business. The best video stores offer an immersive experience in every era, genre, and region of film culture. Like great bookstores and record stores, video stores are centers of entertainment, learning, and discovery; a record of our cultural history; and an exciting social space where friendships, ideas, and collaborations are born.” I remember when they were blamed for the destruction of rep houses (often by me); the person reading this in future likely has an axe to grind over whatever it is that has wrecked streaming services.
Like evidently most people of my approximate age, I can drone on about how my, uh, cinematic, er, “education” was formed by video stores (though to be pedantic for a minute, I learned as much from trading tapes through the mail – god bless the Media Mail postage rate, and Priority Mail Box 1096L – with the various serfs of the greater NTSC kingdom), and also weep over the fallen greats. Tributes to Kim’s are plentiful, but who will join me in pouring some out for Champaign, Illinois’s That’s Rentertainment, or Bowling Green, Ohio’s Video Spectrum? There are sites devoted to dead movie theaters and drive-ins, but where’s the tribute to video stores, especially those located in places without many other especially robust cinematic options?
Happily, this is a report from a live video store. I can’t seem to find confirmation of this anywhere online, but I’m fairly certain that Four Star Video Heaven in Madison, Wisconsin actually began life as a used book store – I have several of their store bookmarks that came stuck in the binding of volumes that had been bought, sold, bought, sold, and eventually found their way to me – before becoming a video store. When I first visited the place as a freshman in 1994 I was overjoyed to find all the titles that I’d been reading about for years but hadn’t had easy access too: canonical European and Japanese art films (a very few of which were admittedly available at the Blockbuster in Wausau, Wisconsin, credit where it’s due), whole shelves of Italian horror, Hong Kong action, silents of all types, lucha libre films, you name it. Some asked more commitment than the typical $2 / 2-day rental: I know their copies of Eraserhead and the Bosomania Russ Meyer releases required a $50 deposit. I also found countless offerings from mailorder companies that I’d read about but never taken the plunge on (these were the days of $39.99 tapes) like Something Weird (my first encounter with what would prove to be a major influence), Video Search of Miami, and Sinister Cinema. Best of all was the collection of, shall we say, unofficial releases, wrapped in simple pastel cardstock bearing only title, director and year. These were most plentiful in the foreign section, and hungrily grasped at by me – where else was I going to ever get to see The Adversary, or Crazy Thunder Road, or the version of Apocalypse Now with the plantation scenes? I also went saucer-eyed for the PAL tapes on the shelves – admittedly not very many, and probably there for the sake of aspirational exoticism (true posers would’ve had SECAM or M-PAL tapes).
Much of this bounty was negotiated with the help of my other favorite campus-area business, Pic-A-Book. This was a gigantic newsstand, carrying every newspaper from Ha’retz to The Racing Forum (though not, curiously, The Washington Post, to my extreme chagrin during the Unabomber extortion crisis), and a deluge of small-press and fanzine publications. If you were there at the time, you know the titles: Psychotronic, Asian Cult Cinema, Video Watchdog, Ecco, Shock Xpress, to say nothing of the more professional Fangoria, Film Comment, etc. (and, as long as I’m up, it carried all of the non-film publications that were as essential to life as vitamins and indoor plumbing: Screw, Roctober, Ugly Things, Spy, Lingua Franca, the Loompanics catalog, New York Press, Jack Kirby Collector, Carbon 14, Motorbooty, argh, I could go on…) Pic-A-Book is no longer there, and neither are most of the above titles. Print culture in all its various forms has been there for me since virtually the moment I learned to read, and its collapse annoys me still, like a phantom itch on a missing limb.
Whenever I visit Madison now with my girlfriend, the lucky lady is treated to the predictable wailing about how the place has changed (she went to school at the University of Texas, so I get as good as I give when we travel down south). But Four Star remains. It’s changed locations, moving into a two-story space that once housed (sigh) an excellent used bookstore (one of several that used to line the…oh, all right). Now known as Four Star Video Cooperative, it was bought by a group of its workers in the dark days of 2014. When I read about that deal, I predicted doom and ruin for all involved. As usual, I was wrong.
In addition to shelves and shelves of discs, they offer VCR repair (I didn’t ask how often anyone takes them up on that). A laserdisc player rests on a shelf near the entrance, claiming to be for sale. A pair of Super 8 projectors sit nearby – when I asked the clerk if these were for rent, he became slightly flustered, and then tried to negotiate with me (I wasn’t interested, just curious). The print reference library remains, and has even expanded; I’m glad to see that they’ve added Pete Tombs’s immortal Immoral Tales.
Most of the massive collection is in the basement, reachable by a spiral staircase. In the 1990s, much of their business came just before the bars closed on Friday and Saturday nights, as drunk students mobbed the place in search of some vaguely-remembered movie from their past that they simply had to show their (also drunk) friends. I can only imagine how many times, say, The Last Unicorn was rented and then stopped at the 25-minute mark as the last person to pass out hit STOP before surrendering to alcoholic oblivion.
Like any great video store, the movies in the foreign section are alphabetized by the definite article.
Very little remains of their once-great VHS collection; what’s left behind is for sale cheap. I rescued Midnight Lace at Kristin’s urging, very little of which is required for me to buy a Doris Day movie anyway. I also picked up a used DVD of David Holzmann’s Diary. I noticed with pleasure that it was for rent when I last visited two years ago; I guess there aren’t many Jim McBride fans in Madison, as it had been moved to the for-sale shelf in the meantime. No more deposits on anything, as near as I could tell, so those of you wanting to swipe* the Fantomas Fassbinder discs or out of print Criterions now have an easy hook-up.
Thinking back, the generic Four Star experience in my memory consists of me wandering quickly through the shelves, desperately trying to find something on my mental “to-see” list and get out as soon as I could. The worst possible thing was to run into friends there – bad enough if another lone person, total disaster if a group – as it would highlight the fact that I was there by myself renting movies on a night when I should have been out…what, socializing? Chasing women? Despite a stupidly encyclopedic knowledge of movies, I never applied to work at Four Star, where my otherwise pointless expertise might have been useful; I never saw my relationship with the place as a social one. I was a grim, scopophilic loner, not a member of a community, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be one. I suppose I ought to be fine with the current state of affairs, then, where one not only has easier (if not necessarily wider) access to a broad sweep of cinema, but the whole exchange can be done anonymously.
I wouldn’t say that I’m nostalgic for video stores exactly, but it is nice to remember a time when I didn’t have to be in a constant state of stupid distraction, and it was nice to have an index of the level of general concern for the popular art of the past. If the store felt it had to put up a bootleg of Wheels on Meals or I Only Want You To Love Me, that at least showed a broader commitment to some kind of cinephilia, even in a purely performative sense. Like Van Halen’s brown M&Ms, it was a meaningless gesture that bode well for the bigger picture, back when there was such a thing.