Discovering the Simple Pleasures of the Video Store, Years Too Late

A man cannot live on Netflix alone.

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A man cannot live on Netflix alone.

For most people, moving away from New York City would mean a marked decrease in your film consumption. If the city you’re moving to happens to be Austin, however, that decrease comes with a string of caveats. Sure, you’re not going to be able to swing by your local movie theater any day of the week and discover an impressive mix of repertory and themed programming; no matter how delightful a theater chain like the Alamo Drafthouse may be, they will never demonstrate the brazen indifference towards commercial exhibitionism that is shared by venues such as Film Forum, Metrograph, and the revitalized Quad Cinema. What you do gain, however, is an emphasis on cult and genre cinema that ranges from the multiplex to the video store, and for the first time in my adult life, I find myself suddenly a delightfully ecstatic member of a local video store.

It seems like we’ve been writing about the death of the video store in one form or another for years now. From wide-ranging features on the death of the industry to questions about VHS conservation and archiving, the undercurrent has been one of selection: how can we encourage people to broaden their movie horizons if they are limited to the same half-dozen new releases featured on most other streaming services?

It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for myself thanks to Vulcan Video since settling in Austin. For the past several weeks running, I’ve made a point of wading through some of my own personal movie backlist — titles like The Burning, Terror Train, and Runaway Train — while simultaneously forcing myself to forego the newer releases altogether. I finally have access to the kind of video stores my colleagues and friends have been lamenting since pretty much day one, and it’s not an opportunity I want to see go to waste.

To be blunt, even in the early ’90s, I never had access to the type of films I can find at Vulcan. In the years before video streaming, my quiet little northern hometown managed to support anywhere between four and five video stores, but those numbers only tell half the story. Two of these stores were franchised Blockbuster Video locations; one was a 24-hour convenience store that happened to feature a half-decent collection of new releases. The other two stores were mostly kept afloat by a combination of late fees and adult videos kept behind a beaded curtain. While both Downtown Video and Valley Video did offer a more diverse selection of genre and foreign film than their competitors, they were also run more emphatically into the ground due to questionable business practices; by the time I was old enough to stop being terrified and start being intrigued by VHS covers like Def-Con 4 (1985) and House (1986), both locations had either condensed, closed, or condensed before closing shortly thereafter. Therefore, at a time where many my age were delving into the most delightfully trashy corners of their local VHS market, I was almost entirely reliant on the middle-of-the-road tastes of my nearest Blockbuster Video. It certainly helped shape my taste, albeit probably not for the better.

To that end, Vulcan Video has been a godsend. Without even resigning myself to buying a VHS player so I can access the store’s database of VHS recordings— this will require a discussion with my wife that I hope to save for a special occasion when I’ve built up some capital to spend — I’m finding myself able to take a much deeper dive into some of those movie titles I’ve been jotting down for the better part of the decade. More reliable (and less expensive) than streaming, this video collection also allows me to reenact some of the video store’s classic thriller of discovery. I’ve taken to seeking out the opinions of a few of my favorite genre critics — Film School Rejects’s own Rob Hunter included — whenever I come across a half-remembered title or a particularly interesting piece of cover art. And should all else fail, as it did with my selections from the Friday the 13th films, I can draw on the opinions of Vulcan’s enthusiastic staff, who assured me that it was perfectly fine to skip Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and go directly from Part 4 to Part 6.

And rather than pay a premium to support the format, I’m actually saving a fair amount of money in the bargain. Films come without the ‘surge pricing’ that often affects Amazon and iTunes releases that bear a thematic or franchise similarities to upcoming theatrical releases. I never have to choose to buy a specific film rather than rent it. This makes pleasure watching a blast, of course, but it’s especially important when you’re working on a new feature or listicle and need to crank through a bunch of featured titles on the cheap.

Want to revisit the collected works of a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan? You’ll do much better at a video store than you will sorting out the different rentals and fees that come with VOD. None of this should be new information for the cinephiles among you, of course, but what’s so surprising is how this changes your entire perspective on rentals altogether. Finding your title at a locked-in price is far more fun than resigning yourself to an incredibly expensive new release. Rentals, even the most basic ones, are suddenly quite fun again.

I’m not sure how long stores like this can honestly last in our modern area — not without operating at a loss or, like Scarecrow Video, switching to some hybrid subscription model to keep revenue steady — but it’s taken me 30+ years to finally have the kind of video store experiences that most critics take for granted. So let this serve as yet another reminder that if you’re lucky enough to have a strong video store in your city, one that works with local non-profits and communities and emphasizes film education about Marvel late fees, you should probably find some room in your budget to support that. After all, man cannot live on Netflix alone.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.