Video Store Memories

Sorry, misled voters of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Coal-mining jobs are not coming back in any appreciable amount. Never. Ever. And any presidential candidate of any party who tells you otherwise is playing you for a fool. But that’s the way of the world. Think of the poor harness and saddle makers when those Model T Fords started rolling off the assembly line. Shit outta luck. No one’s crossing the Atlantic on dirigibles anymore either, putting all those patriotic, hard-working dirigible technicians out of business. Industries die when times change. It’s a fact of life.

I can’t recall anyone carrying signs at political rallies when the humble video rental store circled the drain and gurgled out of existence not long ago. Maybe that’s because most video store employees are…excuse me, were…jaded Gen-X youngsters, not people with families to support and hoping for a pension after forty-five years of inhaling coal dust.

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Everyone knows the big video store chains. Blockbuster Video, with twelve locations still open nationwide as of this writing. Hollywood Video, which died screaming in 2010, never collecting the $23.00 I owed them for a way past-due return of I Love You, Beth Cooper. Less remembered are the independents, the hole-in-the-wall mom & pop places that sprang up all over, circa 1985. They occupied every third strip-mall storefront for a while, usually had a beaded curtain guarding access to untold triple-X delights in the “back room,” and were mostly forced out of existence a decade-and-a-half later by the aforementioned big chains and their corporate ubiquity. Even liquor stores and gas stations often had a small video rental section for awhile. But as the twin behemoths of Blockbuster and Hollywood scaled a mountain made up of the smoking corpses of their competitors, their time was running out, too. Streaming services became the order of the day, and with a little practice, even Grandma and Grandpa could pick a flick from Amazon Video without having to put on their orthopedic shoes and leave their house that smells of dishrags and old soup.

Physical media came with a lot of problems. VHS tapes could get mangled (or melted in a hot car). DVDs could get scratched. But streaming has its limitations, too. Your WiFi can get intermittent. It’s hard to casually browse. You have to actively seek out older movies to stream. You can no longer just randomly spot them on the shelves when you’re out with your friends in the video store, and then shame your friends into seeing them:

“Dude, you haven’t seen Mandingo? We are getting that shit and solving that problem TONIGHT.” So you would get Mandingo, maybe Big Trouble in Little China, and whatever the new release of the week was. And odds are, the rabid Mandingo fan would push to watch that one first, possibly to the total exclusion of the other movies, and to the enlightenment of all viewers.

In my multi-part look back at 90s music, I told a few stories about life behind the counter of a video store, but I didn’t go into the detail this vanished way of life deserves. I was an employee of First Run Video in Yuba City, California from August 1993 (age 18) to December 1995 (just turned 21). First Run was not a national chain, nor was it a standalone. It was a mini-chain, consisting of about six locations in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley. Redding. Red Bluff. Weaverville. Oroville, maybe? I know Yuba City was its southernmost location. I started there on its third or fourth day of operation.

I can find no web evidence of First Run Video. It closed its doors in 1999, I think. As far as the internet is concerned, it never existed. No archived local business articles or ads. No old storefront photos on Google Images. No bitmap image files of its logo (a medal that read “1st” with a forked blue prize ribbon dangling underneath). No YouTube video of its one local TV commercial (which featured the back of my head for .002 seconds). Except for those mentions on my own website, First Run Video is — in the truest sense — gone, even from the internet nostalgia machine.

So all we have left is my description of the place, drawn solely from twenty-plus-year-old memories. Take my hand, Gentle Reader, and I’ll guide you through it…

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A busy shopping center at a busy intersection. Anchored at one end by an Orchard Supply Hardware store, and at the other, a Bel Air grocery store. Just around the corner from Bel Air, facing the palm tree-lined side parking lot, is First Run Video…

It’s big for what it is. A lot of square footage. It seems like there’s an acre or more of alternating blue and white tiled floor. Walk in the double doors. On your left is the Children/Family video section, and the video games. On your right are all other genres. Lining the wall running across the back of the store, and curving around to the right, are the New Releases. If you walk straight ahead, you approach the counter where you receive your rented videos after you’d paid for them. There was a slot in that counter that would receive your returned videos. Above you are bright blue buzzing neon letters that spell out MOVIES. (I think. Maybe it said something else. All I know is that it was covered with a shitload of gnats and lacewings every summer.) But you pick up your movies later. Right now, pass by the Disneyland-style popcorn wagon (popcorn is gratis, but we only fire it up on weekends). Rows of little marquee light bulbs on both sides of the entrance lobby channel you to enter the rental floor to the right or left. Either way, you pass through our security gates. Metallic strips of tape stuck to each and every VHS cassette in the store will set those bad boys off, ensuring you don’t pilfer that copy of License To Drive. They’re also fun to stick on co-workers’ backs right before they leave for the day, so they can exit to the sound of a shrieking alarm system. (Best to pull that gag when the store is pretty empty.)

One employee, Doug, who bore a striking resemblance to the “Ogre” character from Revenge328ff3d500bd1af7297f0e2145245ead of the Nerds (but was much more good-natured) was actually simple enough to clean the dust out of an empty marquee light socket using his finger. The crack sound was audible, and Doug’s considerable bulk was sent sprawling. He later showed us the black fingernail and the spiderweb of reddened blood vessels that crept up his arm. Doug also once called in sick after falling off a local railroad bridge. He soon moved on to other opportunities.

The store shelves are not real shelves, they are those rubberized wire racks that you would normally find in a budget-line refrigerator. Light, movable, and above all, cheap. Apart from the Customer Service Counter (and the New Member Sign-Up table just to the side of it), everything in the store seems made out of these modular racks. Most people enter to the right, where they would encounter the New Member Sign-Up table with its stacks of membership info cards, and, for a blessedly short period, the “trailer machine.”

InnocentBlood-Warner1The trailer machine was a big console with a video screen, where customers could cue up a preview for an upcoming movie by pushing a button. If no one was around to push the button — and very few people exercised this option — the machine would simply cycle through all its trailers on a randomized loop. The problem was, the machine was loaded with far too few trailers, and each one would crop up every fifteen minutes or so. The first two lines of Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” which opened the trailer of John Landis’ Innocent Blood, became permanently embedded in by frontal brain lobe after four months of hearing it every fifteen minutes of an eight-hour shift. The other problem was that no one ever showed up to change out the trailers. The movies featured went from “Upcoming” to “New Release” to “Saturday afternoon on TNT.” The machine was finally removed in the name of employee sanity.

If you’re like most people, you would head right for the New Release section against the back wall. The VHS boxes shrink-wrapped around styrofoam blocks would be the “display models.” Any actual copies of the movie we have on hand would be behind those. How many people bring the display box up to rent, and leave disappointed? More than I’d care to count, despite the myriad of signs around the store explaining the system. No such confusion in the main rental area, where the videos older than three months go to be pretty much never touched again. The box is cut down and slid into the clear sleeve of a traditional plastic VHS case, and the tape goes right inside. When their time comes, a copy or two of the former New Release is kept for this area (divided by genre), and the dozen or so others–the ones we could barely keep on the shelves for those heady first few weeks we had them–are kicked to our Used Movies To Buy section. When they inevitably fail to sell after a few more months, they are shipped off to some mysterious video graveyard.

New Releases rent for $2.99, and go fast. People with far too much time on their hands hover around, and snatch them as soon as we put them on the shelf. They ask us to go out to the parking lot and check the dropbox, even though it had just been checked twenty minutes ago. Luck plays a big part in going home with the hottest new movie…unless you are a comely young woman, then your odds go up substantially. We always keep one copy of all the New Releases in the “Pretty Girl Drawer” behind the counter. (“One just came in…I was holding it for myself, but you seem nice…” No employee discount for New Releases, either. Once they are in the old movie section, however, they are free for us, and we can and do bring them home by the carload.)

If you are lucky (or attractive) enough to get ahold of your coveted New Release, then you might turn your attention to our back catalog, which takes up the bulk of the real estate. They are subdivided into an exasperatingly pointless amount of sub-genres, as indicated by a color-coded sticker. Here’s what I remember: Action (green), Adventure (orange), Children (light blue), Classic (light brown), Comedy (yellow), Drama (gold), Family (dark blue), Horror (pink), Thriller (red), Romance (white), Sci Fi (purple), Western (dark brown). There may be more. Documentaries and foreign films are over by the Family section, and sport a layer of dust the thickness of a rabbit’s pelt. This is Yuba City, after all.

Who decided what fit into each category? Someone up at the main office in Redding. And we were not. Allowed. To. Change. Them. Ever. Which sucked because the person who chose the categories up at the main office was sometimes an idiot. Often the choices were arbitrary. What distinguished Action from Adventure? Was 1963’s The Birds a Classic or a Thriller? What was the cut-off year for a “Classic”? It seemed like these things were decided by a coin toss. Which I was able to live with, until I noticed the 1949 film noir gangster classic White Heat classified as a Western. I couldn’t figure it out, until I looked closely at the cover, and realized whoever had categorized it had mistaken the gun-toting Jimmy 51RZYVNQB6L._SY445_Cagney for a cowboy! As a budding film buff, I found our corporate office’s complete lack of movie knowledge insulting (more on that later.) As a mere clerk, I was locked out of the store computer’s higher functions, but I got an assistant manager, Skot, on my side, and we changed White Heat from “Western” to “Classic” in the computer, and slapped the correct sticker on it. Why stop there? Skot and I got all the stickers out and went buck wild, changing dozens, maybe hundreds, of movies from their original categories to ones we felt were more logical. Someone higher up found out, we were yelled at, the multi-page computer print-out of “recent inventory changes” waved in our faces, and we had to change them all back. I “forgot” to change back White Heat, but no one ever noticed.

So you’ve selected your older movies. Odds are, you’ve picked five. Why? Because you could get five older movies for five days for five dollars. (Individual rentals of older movies were $1.49 for two days. Don’t be a sucker.) For reasons that were completely unfathomable, this permanent “promotion” is known as the “Fabulous ‘50s Party Pack.” It has nothing to do with the 1950s. (I guess the number “5” is involved.)

I suspect First Run’s rarely-seen owner, Jerry, got some kind of deal on a gross of generic “Fabulous ‘50s” t-shirts, and reverse engineered the whole thing from there. We were to wear them on Saturdays. Normally, we could dress how we wanted as long as we put on our blue “First Run” vest with the yellow name tag. But on Saturdays we had to wear these hideous t-shirts covered in a pattern of hot rods, rollerskating carhops, and neon jukeboxes. We did for the first few weekends, then never again. (The Holy Bee never liked t-shirts as outerwear, anyway. A gentleman wears buttons and a collar when seen in public.) We offered them for sale as well. Total t-shirt sales: 0.

rs_560x415-140730093056-bekindrewind560Owner Jerry worked up in Redding, and even the clerks could tell he was not a smart man, at least as far as movies were concerned. Come to think of it, he was also a pretty second-rate businessman. As part of the whole “Fabulous ‘50s” thing, he got hold of a bunch of ‘50s-themed scratch-off tickets that, for a brief while, we gave away with each rental. If you uncover three music notes, you got a free New Release, two you got a free video game rental or older movie, and one you got…a magazine rental. Read that again. Yes, it’s true. Owner Jerry had purchased a massive trunk of old magazines from some flea market or estate sale. He slapped some bar codes on them, stacked them on the counter, and offered them for rent. Take one home for a buck or two, bask in nostalgia and the scent of a dead person’s attic, and then return it so others could have the same privilege. Now…imagine you’ve scratched off a magic music note. You’ve won something! You take it up to the counter and are offered a forty-year-old Better Homes and Gardens that you can’t even keep. Old magazines hurt when they’re thrown at your head. That particular prize idea did not last through the third day. Even Jerry acknowledged, “I screwed the pooch on that one.”

He also had an idea for improving customer service. Every time a manager observed 134-1clerk giving great service, he or she was to blow a whistle they were to wear around their neck, and hand the awesome clerk a gift card to Baskin-Robbins or something. No one did this, ever. (Although Skot and I laughed ourselves into stomach cramps expanding on the scenario — not only the whistle and gift card, but also a fistful of balloons as the manager pulled the strings on one of those caps with the applauding hands…)

Getting back to Owner Jerry’s knowledge of movies, or lack thereof, the comedic highlight of our week was listening to Jerry’s latest First Run Video hotline message. You could call a number and get the scoop on all the latest new releases from Jerry himself. He was guaranteed to mangle several titles or actors’ names during the course of each recording. He also might run the table and fuck up everything. “Also on July 25, get ready for…Grumpy Old Man, starring Jack Lennon and Walter Matthews…” We would call and re-call the hotline, passing the phone around and giggling like fiends. Seriously, the guy knew nothing about movies. Compounding everything was Jerry’s pompous, W.C. Fields-like voice.

New releases and older movies in hand, now you have the hankering for a video game. You mvscross to the other side of the store, past the racks of candy and snacks and the soda refrigerators on one side, and the Customer Service Desk on the other. The Family movie and video game section is smaller than the regular movie section, with a couple of Neo-Geo arcade cabinets against the back wall, and a huge bank of twelve old-school tube TVs with 24-inch screens. Six TVs are attached to Sega Geneses, six TVs are attached to Super Nintendos. For a few bucks, you can play any game in the store, switching as many times as you want, for 30 minutes. Usually longer because video store clerks tend to lack time management skills. Parents shopping next door at Bel Air use this almost-free baby-sitting service all the goddamn time. Obviously, you can also rent the games for home use, and even rent the game consoles themselves. You would have to leave a credit card number for that last service, however. This is the cause of more screaming customer meltdowns than anything else. People genuinely can’t understand why we won’t let some unemployed drifter walk out of the store with a $400 piece of equipment without any deposit or security fallback whatsoever. You may also notice a hardcore cinephile flipping through our selection of laserdiscs — the ones the size of old vinyl LPs, with picture quality a hundred times better than tape. A small selection, to be sure, but the only one in town.

No video games catch your eye, so you wander back to the Customer Service Desk, passing by two doors visible behind the bank of TVs. One leads to the back office/storage room, with its yellow walls (they were once white, but Joe, our Head Manager, was a chain smoker), lone battered desk, shrink-wrap machine, and various boxes and bits and pieces of promotional detritus. The other is the one-toilet unisex restroom, for both customer and employee use.

I never used that restroom for (ahem) “sit down” purposes because for someone with as many deeply-rooted toilet hang-ups as the Holy Bee, doing my business when all that separated me from the general public was one of those fake-wood doors with the hollow core and the iffy lock was unthinkable. I would hold it until the end of my shift, or race home on my lunch break.

Before you got to the Customer Service Desk, you would have to run the gauntlet of the snack rack — we had as good a selection as any grocery store, but specialized in the more juvenile stuff: Laffy Taffy, Nerds, Sour Patch Kids, Jolly Ranchers. Next to them are the types of cheap toys you would trade tickets for at Chuck E. Cheese’s: slap bracelets, superballs, spider rings and, yes, pogs. Plenty of pogs.

Approach the Customer Service Counter and prepare to be waited on by a surly video store clerk (possibly the Holy Bee himself!) Behind the counter are four computers and their monitors, connected to recessed cash drawers. On a busy weekend night, each of these stations would be manned by a blue-vested clerk. Another computer on the other side of the work stations handled returns. The clerks would take your VHS tapes, guide a laser wand over the bar code sticker, ring up your transaction, and hand your movies to you on the other side of the counter after you walked around and passed back through the security gate. Always in a plastic bag. They really drilled that into us. Even if it is a single tape, the customer deserves their plastic bag. It was a different world…

Your experience is now over…you’ll be back…

Or maybe not. I remember one day about a year-and-a-half after we opened, we had to go through and cull all the member info cards from all the people who hadn’t returned since opening their account in the first week of business. It was in the thousands.

So what was it like for us, the folks on the other side of the counter, wielding the laser wands?

On busy nights, it was vaguely hellish. Holidays, especially. Not everyone watches football on Thanksgiving. Do you know how many people want movies on Thanksgiving? Multitudes. And it’s a long time between dinner and midnight on New Year’s Eve. Movies are great time-killers. We had to put an extra person on the rotation on New Year’s Day just to handle the returns. Those busy nights and rainy days, man. Lots of people angry that the New Releases were picked over. Lots of people disputing late charges. Phone ringing (“Do you have…?”), little kids switching out games, clerks leaving registers and going out on the floor to help people with no sense of “alphabetical order” in finding Fletch. (Hint: It’s in the F’s.)

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Despite all that, the most unpleasant regular task was given to the poor schmuck who worked the Sunday day shift: Calling the late list. Every Sunday, we would call the people who had movies more than a week overdue. We usually just got an answering machine, but we sometimes got groggy, profane streams of denial and abuse. This was Yuba City, after all. The Holy Bee, who had issues with toilet stuff, also had issues with calling strangers out of the blue, and with confrontations. When I worked those Sundays, I would check off that I had done the late list, without technically having done so. Who could prove otherwise? Those lowlifes just aren’t returning their movies, no matter how many times they’re called. 

New Releases came out on Tuesdays, and had to be processed Monday nights. I was very rarely trusted with the shrink-wrap machine (that was usually for Management), but sometimes I was pressed into service. 1) Unwrap the brand-new VHS tape right from the factory and slide the tape out of the box. 2) Apply the bar code sticker and security tape to the cassette, and place it in the clear blue plastic snap-case embossed with First Run’s name, address, and phone number. 3) Slide the VHS-size styrofoam block into the empty box and shrink-wrap it to create the display box — slide it between two pieces of plastic sheeting, seal it with a thing that looked like a cross between a crimping iron and school paper-cutter, then hold it under the attached blow-dryer, until the melting plastic shrunk itself around the box. Repeat if you fuck up and burn off the plastic, which you will every six or seven boxes.

On slow nights, a video store job was quite pleasant. Head Manager Joe was the only real grown-hqdefaultup there, and he worked the weekday 10-6 shifts (and until around noon on Sundays.) He always threatened to come back in the evenings to “check up” on us, but he never once did. We soon realized this (would you come back after working all day if you were Joe?), so the later the hour on a slow weekday evening, the more lax things got. The small army of “assistant managers” was mostly the same age as the clerks, with the same proclivity for breaking regulations. As long as the cash drawers balanced out and nothing was set on fire (for long), no one cared what we did on a typical Thursday night. The Nerf football often made an appearance. I helped Skot videotape his audition for MTV’s Real World. When the trailer machine was finally taken out back and shot, we were given a promo tape to play on the TV screen mounted above the Customer Service Desk. After a week or two, in the evenings at least, the promo tape was replaced by stuff we thought was cool. Ren & Stimpy. The Star Wars saga. The later it got and the more we became sure Joe wouldn’t be stopping by, the bolder our in-store viewing choices became. It became a parade of “soft” R-rated stuff like Blade Runner and Tombstone (just a little blood), Dazed and Confused (just a little profanity, keep the volume low), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (just a little blood, and a few boobs, someone be ready on the fast-forward button — we had the parts with the boobs memorized anyway).

As Quentin Tarantino (a former employee of L.A.’s Video Archives) would tell you, employment at a video store with a deep catalog is as good as a film school. From the age of 18 to 21, I gorged myself on the works of John Ford, Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa — all at no cost to me. I learned why Steve McQueen was cool, and why Audrey Hepburn was adored. Blow-Up…Vanishing Point…The Wild Bunch…I watched them all…and probably became insufferably pretentious for awhile.

Speaking of a deep catalog, when some out-of-the-way gas station went out of business, Owner Jerry bought their entire video rental stock for a song. We only kept the ones we didn’t have already, and ended up with just the sort of movies that would come from a rural gas station. Robot Jox…Critters 2…Going Bananas…And guess what? For random reasons, I was given the task of choosing the genre stickers! It was the greatest moment of my video store career.

187ab3e8e0df6a5e09c85e58a270b245The “witching hour” was 11:00 to midnight, and it’s when we got our most interesting customers. The lonely. The high. The toothless, desperate meth-heads. God help us, the Gutierrezes. The Gutierrezes were a downwardly-mobile family consisting of a father, mother, and a daughter who often showed up at odd hours. All three were roughly the size of a Caterpillar earth-mover.  Papa Gutierrez sported a mullet, a drooping mustache, puffy, infected eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, and a variety of offensive trucker hats. (He was evidently an Official Pussy Inspector. Nice work, if you can get it.) Mama Gutierrez wore the same house dress and slippers no matter what the hour. Teenage Daughter Gutierrez was an embryonic copy of Mama, and her black-soled, swollen peds could not be contained by any footwear whatsoever. There was usually only two of us left on shift, and when we saw them coming, there was a mad sprint to the back room. Last one to the door had to deal with them. Not because we were fat-shaming, or classist, but because they collectively generated the foulest smell known to man or beast. A combination of lack of bathing (b.o.), lack of wiping (feces), and random hot-garbage filth, it would permeate the entire store within moments. Whoever was left at the counter had to be polite while breathing through his or her mouth to avoid retching. They showed up roughly every week for the entire two-and-a-half years I was there, and we kept a can of Lysol air freshener specifically for their visits.

Witching hour was also when we rented out most of our “Special Features.” Owner Jerry proudly kept First Run Video “family friendly,” with no “adult” films, until my last few months there when the business started struggling a little, and Jerry realized how much money there was to be made in being a porn merchant. We built a closed-off room entirely out of stacked rubberized wire racks (appropriately replacing the Romance section, the contents of which were re-categorized as either Comedy or Drama). The tapes were pinup-vivid-video-girls-red-poster-AQU24804placed in blank cases, labelled “Special Feature” and referred to by number. Titles and descriptions were kept in a binder behind the counter. All the employees immediately went porn-crazy. Head Manager Joe was classy enough to go around to all the female employees and ask if it was OK if he kept Special Features running on the little TV in the back office. No one had any objection (the girls were bringing home just as many Special Features as the guys), so if you were to enter the office during weekday business hours, you would be treated to a wall of cigarette smoke, and the throbbing, coital moans of Vivid Video vixens. Special Features added an extra element of discomfort and drama to calling the late list.

We closed at midnight. We wiped everything down, swabbed the laser wands with alcohol and Q-tips, pushed around a big, fluffy broom that looked like a skinned Muppet, and “spot-mopped” any obvious spills or stains. One of us also had the massive task of shuffling the movies into a rough alphabetical order (this had to be started around 10:30). On each shelf, there were tapes in the middle facing out to the customer, and some flanking them on each side, showing only the spine, library book-style. We didn’t have an “employee recommendation” section, so this was the next best thing. I would face-out the movies I liked (or at least the box art I liked), and stick the movies I didn’t sideways.

We locked up, set the alarm, and were on our way to the nearest local 24-hour diner for coffee and fries with ranch dressing by 12:45. Lights out, until 10:00 am tomorrow.

Lights out forever now. Good-bye, video stores.

4 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, History, Life & Other Distractions

4 responses to “Video Store Memories

  1. Dianne L. Heryford

    Hey, I have been to that video store before. long time ago. Lived in yuba city.

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