This essay originally appeared on Medium.
Driving by the last of the shuttered Blockbusters in my neighborhood brought back memories of the best time of my life—the summer I spent working in a video store. It wasn’t glamorous work, not by a long shot. Back in 1999, in the heyday of the video store when Blockbuster was king, I worked at the Hollywood Video in Ypsilanti, Michigan. We were like the ugly stepsister to Blockbuster, and we knew it. A little less glamorous, a little grubbier. We didn’t make you pay your late fees. And we had porn.
The uniform was nothing short of hideous—a scratchy tuxedo shirt and black dress pants that I procured from the boys department of the local Meijer (the Midwestern equivalent of Wal-Mart). I had to pair these with a pre-tied bowtie and a tuxedo vest that was spattered with fluorescent film reels, slates, and other Hollywood detritus. I still shudder when I picture it, and friends who came into the store never failed to snicker at it.
As soon as my sophomore year ended, I’d fled Harvard and it’s high expectations for a “slacker” summer. No prestigious, resume-padding internship at Intel or Goldman Sachs for me. I wanted something that felt… well… normal. That didn’t feel stuffed full of Ivy League pretention. Hell, I wanted to get far away from New England and everything that came with it. I’d been lured to Michigan by the promise of a relaxed summer with my boyfriend living in his college house just off Packard Street in the heart of Ann Arbor.
Feeling every one of my nineteen years, I declared my summer plans to my parents—and they promptly cut off all financial support. My mom drove me to the airport in tears and tried to talk me out of going. She wanted me to get the above-mentioned prestigious, resume-padding internship. I dug my heels in and flew to Detroit anyway.
Broke, I needed a job. And fast.
I put in several applications at fast food joints (Mr. Spots, Pizza Bob), a few local shops, and two video stores—Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. After an awkward interview with the manager in a cramped closet, I was offered a position at Hollywood Video. It paid minimum wage—at that time a measly $5.15/hour—and I accepted right away. I didn’t see dollar signs; I had stars in my eyes. I was a film major, and it hadn’t escaped my notice that many of the greatest filmmakers had risen from the same humble origins.
Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery, practically gods at that time, had worked at a video store together when they wrote Pulp Fiction. Kevin Smith broke out with his low budget film Clerks about of all things… a video store clerk. I imagined that I’d have lengthy, thought-provoking conversations with my coworkers about Stanly Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Robert Bresson, or at the very least, dissect the latest trends in porn as if I were studying them for my college thesis like the characters in Clerks.
But the reality of my daily job was far different. As the newbie, I reshelved videos. Lots and lots of videos. Despite my Harvard credentials, I wasn’t trusted near a cash register. Television monitors festooned to the ceiling played movies day and night. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I got to select the titles we watched. Before noon, we were only allowed to play G or PG-rated titles, supposedly to protect young children from glimpsing racier fare, though I never understood why that was only before noon, since families routinely came in with their children on afternoons and evenings too. I slipped in favorites from my childhood whenever possible—The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, Bambi. But my manager required that we play a certain amount of Olson Twins videos (they were all the rage back then), so I got a healthy dose of Mary-Kate and Ashley too.
Sometimes exciting things happened, like the time a couple accidentally returned their amateur porn tape in one of our video cases. I got to call up the lucky patrons and inform them of their mistake. Needless to say, after retrieving their porn and returning our video, they never came back to our store again.
Eventually, I was trusted to man the cash registers, and that’s when the job really took off. I loved interacting with the customers, most of them regulars, and giving them movie recommendations, or hearing what they thought when they returned titles that I hadn’t seen yet. There was a definite sense of community in our local store, all built around the joy and wonder that only a great movie can bring.
There were perks to the job—mainly, free rentals. I’d work until 1:30AM closing up the store, check out my allotted two movies, and then stay up until dawn eating greasy takeout food as they flickered across the small TV in our attic room, snuggled into bed with my boyfriend. At the time, it seemed indulgent to watch movies all night, but now I realize that it rounded out my film education and cemented my desire to work for the companies that created all of these amazing pictures. The next summer I’d intern at Disney, of course.
Though I left Hollywood Video behind when the summer ended, never to return, and moved on to a career working for some of the biggest names in Hollywood and producing my own movies, I never forgot my time working in a video store. Over time, like most people, I stopped renting movies the old-fashioned way and graduated to ordering DVDs through the mail from Netflix, and then to video streaming. Now even my fancy Blu-ray player is starting to seem like a relic from a bygone era, almost ready to join the ranks of the 8-track player and the LaserDisc. It mostly takes up shelf space, quite a lot compared to the stylish and compact Apple TV that I use to stream content.
The death of the video stores seemed to happen gradually, then suddenly. I saw it coming from a mile away, but I was still saddened by the finality of this month’s Blockbuster closures. In some ways, the digital streaming world is a better world. Netflix and other similar services give us everything on demand when we want it and free us from the tyranny of late fees, but what have we lost?
From my time working in a video store, I’d have to say a sense of community, above all else. Renting a movie used to be a shared social experience, both for customers and the employees. It required leaving your house and venturing out into your neighborhood. Unexpected conversations would spring up. There was an element of discoverability and serendipity. Often you’d walk into the store expecting to rent a certain movie, and walk out with something different because the title you wanted was already rented, or the box caught your eye, or a fellow shopper or clerk recommended it. Recommendations didn’t come from faceless strangers—they came from people in your community.
And I may sound like a dinosaur here, but it saddens me that kids won’t spend their summers working in video stores anymore, even though I know there’s no going back. Aptly, I read that the last movie rented at Blockbuster was This Is The End.