What I miss most about the video store

Netflix will never be as good as the humble video stores it put out of business

It has been nearly a year since two Blockbuster stores in Alaska shut down, leaving a solitary location in Bend, Oregon, as the chain's final storefront — and that lonely outpost continues to fascinate. It's now the subject of a forthcoming documentary and a business-sustaining streak of nostalgia tourism.

I miss video stores, too, though my pining isn't for Blockbuster's blue and yellow. We had an account there when I was in elementary school, but my formative video rental years were in high school and on summers home from college, when I patronized a mom-and-pop shop in walking distance from my house.

Going to the video store was a careful ritual that shaped almost every weekend. Speed was crucial, and stakes were high. Arrive too late or choose too recklessly and your entire weekend entertainment agenda unraveled. The weighty moment of a Friday night rental decision would determine the 48 hours to come, demanding what felt — at 15, anyway — like painstaking exercise in willpower and calculation of future feelings.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Our local video store crammed thousands of titles into a small storefront, priding itself on range of selection over Blockbuster's gleaming, homogenous rows of new releases. Where the big chains would bring in 20 or 40 copies of a popular movie, our video store might offer three or four. This limit was offset by an analogue reservation system involving clipboard lists and voicemails, but for the immediate weekend, missing those four copies meant missing that movie.

Victory required strategy. It was wise to arrive as early as possible, especially if aiming for a particular title. (A Main Street lined with minivans come straight from after-school sports was always a bad sign.) Once inside, a possessive approach to browsing was prudent: If you thought you might want a movie, you'd physically carry it around while making up your mind. Obnoxious and petty, sure, but the disappointment of seeing your selection snatched away at the last moment made the tactic obligatory.

Then there were the budgetary decisions. We rented movies using money from our spare change jar, which on a typical week generated enough for one new release or three older movies — but not both. Rare was the single film that could alone outweigh the lure of six to nine hours of entertainment in the pre-binge era, and the quest for a well-balanced trio that could survive parental scrutiny lead me to a thorough examination of every genre on offer. I worked my way through 1940s drama, 1950s musicals, 1980s camp comedy, and 1990s rom-coms, developing an equal devotion to Monty Python and Fiddler on the Roof.

My teenage film tastes were eclectic — in fact, far more so than my tastes are now, a time in which I am seriously contemplating whether it is too soon to watch the entirety of 30 Rock for the fourth time. In theory, the instant availability of endless streaming options ought to make me more adventurous, a movie omnivore. Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube, I can watch just about anything I want at anytime, anywhere, and on any screen I want.

It's all so convenient! And it's exactly why I've nearly stopped watching movies altogether.

There is something deeply tedious about browsing from my couch, clicking right, right, right to see what else the algorithm imagines I'll like. Were I doing my high school movie exploration today, I would never come across titles as different as Ed Wood and The Bells of St. Mary's, or Down with Love and The Thin Red Line. I would never burrow that deep in the digital rabbit hole.

Gone is the chance meetcute with some hitherto unknown flick, the "Wait, what was that?" on the way up to the checkout counter. Comparison is difficult — there is no Netflix counterpart to holding two VHS boxes next to each other, studying the back matter for some definitive insight. Video store picks were a commitment built on meticulous scrutiny and schedule, so a movie that started slow or otherwise failed to immediately appeal could not be lightly abandoned. Now, the ability to instantly drop anything I don't like is a constant temptation. I can click "back" at any moment, though more often I never click "play" in the first place.

Instead of movies, these days I watch and re-watch a narrow roster of TV shows, almost all on the clever side of comedy or the lighthearted edge of drama. After the initial vetting process, these become signposts of easy familiarity in a limitless array of options I have no compelling incentive to inspect.

The online video store never closes, has infinite copies of everything, and is never crowded with soccer moms. There's no rush. There's no ritual. I don't need any strategy to pick. I don't need to pick at all.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.