Sunday, February 6, 2011

Video daze

In the summer of 1985 I worked at a video store in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a chain store called National Video. National Video was a precursor to the Blockbuster chain, which was in its earliest developmental stage in 1985. At that time, National Video stores could be found throughout the U.S. with some communities having two or three situated within blocks of each other. But, in '85, most video rental stores were Mom n' Pop owned, independent and not under movie studio scrutiny.

National Video homogenized the video rental process and required renters to place a $50 deposit in either check or credit card. New releases were $3.00 a day, "oldies" were $2.00 and late fees were $1.00 each day late. Pricing did not vary from store to store.

The format was VHS - no Beta - and each cassette had a sticker on it that said "Be kind, rewind." If renters returned a tape that wasn't rewound, they got socked with a .50 cent "rewind" charge.

National Video carried popular titles and didn't dig too deeply into esoteric obscurities, cult films, horror, science fiction, foreign or art films like the indy-minded Mom n' Pop video stores. While Mom n' Pop stores relied on sheer volume (hence loading their shelves with anything ranging from the highest art to the lowest grindhouse), National's attempt was to be 'family friendly,' though they did carry R-rated movies, some cult films, a handful of blaxploitation titles, some horror/sci-fi and, discreetly, adult movies.

Adult movies (which rented at a whopping $5 per day) at National Video were listed in voluminous notebooks hidden under the front counter as opposed to Mom 'n Pop stores, which tended to stock their adult stash in roped off rooms. When someone rented say, "On Golden Blond," at National Video, it was an embarrassing process. First they had to ask for "the book." Then they had to tell the clerk which film they wanted, not by title but by a corresponding number, which always ended in "X" (i.e., "I'll take number 4327X, please."). Discreet? Hardly. And timing was everything - as St. Pete was predominantly a retirement community, the dirty old men that rented this stuff typically came into the store around 10:00 a.m., when they knew the place would be empty of other customers.

Mainstream tapes were kept on shelves behind the counter with their boxes standing in front of them. Renters browsed by standing in front of the counter, squinting to try to read titles. They had to ask clerks if they could look at a box for a movie's details. Smooth work flow was next to impossible.

New releases always came out on Tuesdays and were placed on shelves centered behind the counter for optimum sight lines. But what happened, especially on weekends, was that customers crammed elbow-to-elbow against the counter trying to see what was available. They either did so by rubbernecking to see if the tape they wanted was behind the box that looked intriguing or by asking a clerk if a title they wanted was available. The newest releases were almost always checked out on weekends so customers usually left unhappy or with some crappy movie off the "oldies" shelf.

Every title a month older than when released on tape was relegated to the oldies shelf. Didn't matter if it was "Risky Business" or "Casablanca." And all oldies were placed alphabetically, without genre consideration.

My boss, who was an attorney by day and bought into the National Video chain to give his wife and daughter a "business" to give them something to do that might be "fun," emphasized to staff that there was "no such thing as a bad movie."

What this meant was that it was our duty to praise the cinematic quality of every film, even movies like "The Slugger's Wife" (okay, so "The Slugger's Wife" was written by Neil Simon and directed by Hal Ashby. But Ashby was on his notorious downward slide due to poor health and the aftermath of long-term drug and alcohol abuse. He had been fired during the final stages of the film's production and Simon was reportedly devastated by Ashby's strange vision of what the director thought the film should be. The result was an incoherent mess - not a masterpiece like, say, Ashby's "The Last Detail.").

I got called out when a customer asked me what I thought of "Desperately Seeking Susan" and I said it was no better than junk food and who the hell was this Madonna chick anyway? The owner promptly escorted me to the store's backroom and gave me a verbal lashing: "Are you crazy? Every one of these movies is our bread and butter! Don't ever bad mouth a video!"

I did point out that customer ended up renting something else, a video I suggested called "Forbidden Zone," (directed by Richard Elfman, with a musical score by his brother Danny, and based on performances of "The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo").

"But that's one of the oldies!"

The light bulb went on. "Forbidden Zone" was a two buck rent rather than a premium 3 bucker such as "Desperately Seeking Susan." I never thought about the art of the "upsell."

But I couldn't help myself. I developed a sort of sign language if the boss was in the backroom listening as I was helping customers. I'd run my forefinger across my Adam's apple when they'd ask if I liked something I actually hated, but I'd say, "Oh yeah, it's great!" while handing them "Switchblade Sisters" (obviously it didn't take a detective to figure out my game - you just needed to look at the receipts to see what was going out during my shift).

Certain customers started to come to me for my take on movies. I gained a kind of "cult" following of renters who gravitated toward horror, sci-fi, blaxploitation and the occasional raunchy teen flick (think "The Pom Pom Girls" or "The Van").

One customer requested I choose a handful of  action flicks he planned on showing at a party on his boat. I handed him a stack of tapes that consisted of "Mean Johnny Barrows," "Foxy Brown," "The Exterminator," "Black Belt Jones," and, just for kicks, "Dr. Butcher, M.D." (all of which were in the oldies section).

When he returned the movies, which were all late (I didn't charge him late fees), he was thrilled with my choices and said his party guests loved the wall-to-wall "kick-assedness" of the movies I picked out for him. "Anything you ever need," he said, "let me know."

He handed the tapes to me and when I did a spot check to make sure they were all in their correct cases and kindly rewound, a half dozen joints fell out of the "Dr. Butcher" case.

His way, I guess, of thanking me.


  1. You really brought back the memories of renting movies! I remember keenly the problem of having to a get a movie you didn't want because the one you wanted was already gone. I hadn't really thought about how much has changed until I read your post. We have subscribed to Netflix for quite a while and watch it instantly over the computer or Wii - we don't even have to leave the house!

  2. Thanks Anonymous! We do indeed live in a wonderous age of technology...yes its hard to believe that there was a time when you had your heart set on renting THE SLUGGER'S WIFE only to find it checked out!