Thursday, December 13, 2018

The last video store in town

The last video store in central Auckland - a city of 1.6 million people - is closing down at the end of the month, and even though that day has been a long time coming, I'm more gutted by that than I thought I would be.

I honestly thought it would last longer, and that its focus on arthouse and film festival movies would keep it running with a loyal cinema-literate clientele, but it's been eaten up by the same entropy that has wiped out the entire video rental industry.

Like almost everyone else on the planet, I moved away from renting videos a few years ago, but it's still a bummer to see them go.

My life spent prowling up and down the video store aisles ended in 2015 when the store around the corner shut up shop. That was a genuinely shocking closure, because it was always packed and Steven, the excellent owner, still couldn't get the numbers to add up enough to keep it open.

Since then, I've kept up on the latest films through satellite TV service, getting my film fix from the six movie channels they have to offer. I have zero interest in streaming content, which means I'm missing out on a lot of great films by some of my very favourite creators, but the internet into our place is inexplicably munted, and it's impossible to watch a film without it getting stuck in a buffer zone, or restarting all over again.

Still, it's all so convenient now, with the sum total of cinema history available on my fucking phone, and able to be transmitted through the air to a giant television in the living room.

But it's not the same.

I still have an incredible fondness for the video store that'll never go away, because I literally spent hundreds and hundreds of hours cleaning out the shelves of shops in multiple cities around New Zealand. Getting through at least half a dozen films a week for years and years, getting through every single film in the arthouse and horror and science fiction and documentary and action sections.

And no algorithm based on previous viewings is ever going to match the enjoyment of wandering around a store, grabbing things at random, judging them by their lurid and often beautiful covers, trying to figure out if it's any good, based only on the breathless blurb and blurry photos on the back.

There was the straight-up joy of finding a film hat I'd been keen to see for years - I can still remember the thrill of a new store that opened in south Dunedin and had an impressive selection of Hammer horror classics - and there was the even bigger joy of getting into some random shit, or trying out my first John Carpenter or Sergio Leone or Tsui Hark films.

My favourite video store of all time is the Video Ezy housed in the lobby of the old Majestic Theatre in central Timaru (a cinema where I saw everything from Who Finds A Friend Finds A Treasure to Speed until it was replaced by the home video option.)

It had the best choice in town, and it took me years to get through everything they had to offer. When it first opened it had a fancy machine that would play any trailer you could want - a big fucking deal in the early 90s - and it as the only place in town to have The Killer and Withnail and I and Turkey Shoot and Doctor Who videos.

It closed down a few years ago, but nobody has moved into its spot yet, so the last posters put up by the Video Ezy team are still showing out on the street, and everybody in Timaru has now seen the poster for Outlander, the vikings vs aliens films with Jim Caviezel, more than any other movie poster in the town's history.

Video stores used to be a big business when there weren't so many entertainment options coming down the phone line. Some stores would do tens of thousands of dollars in business on a Saturday night, especially if it was rubbish weather outside.

But the lack of those Saturday night crowds got more and more noticeable over the past decade, until the internet finally started delivering on its promise of endless content, and nobody bothered going out in the world to seek their film entertainment, when it could just come to them.

There were some small advantages in all these store closures, because anybody looking to build up their own collection could get dozens of titles without paying huge amounts. Liquidated stock would be going out the door for crazy low prices, and no shop ever had the exact same stock as everybody else, so there were always gems to find.

Half my DVD collections, which numbers in the hundreds of discs, came from these sales. Ex-rental discs were sometimes scuffed and scratched, but when they were only a couple of bucks each, it wasn't hard to pick up rare classics and that piece-of-shit film you always had an inexplicable fondness for.

This last closure of the last store is one last chance. While the last few closures have been stores that were full of the same shit as everybody else, this is the place to get the really rare stuff - old pastoral horror films, early Argento and Cronenberg, and silent films from the 1920s, all for five bucks each. I couldn't let those go.

I'm mourning the loss of the entire industry, but I can celebrate that some of these films are going to a good home.

But still, it's all over now. There are no more video stores in town, and while there will always be more movies to watch, there won't be a specific place to go to and get them.

No more wandering down the aisles, looking for anything to stave off terminal boredom. No more scanning the new release shelf, to see if that one film you've been waiting to see for ages is going to show. No more hidden gems brought out into the light through the power of browsing. 

We've all moved on, and left video stores to history. But they'll always have a special place in my heart, as somewhere I could go and get lost in an entire history of cinematic excellence and shlock, all on the shelves together.

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