Reflections on a floundering video store chain

Liquidation Sale

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Nothing brings out my baser instincts quite like a going-out-of-business sale. I morph into a vulture, and instead of hunting for dead flesh, I scavenge for the best deals. When I went into the closing downtown Blockbuster Video a few weeks ago, I was looking for The Wire, and I found a copy of the first season there for $20. But I couldn't buy it yet. I had to wait it out, man. It could get cheaper. Unless someone snapped it up first.

According to The New York Times, Blockbuster, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2010, has "agreed to sell itself to a group of creditors for about $290 million as a way to jump-start an auction process that could yield a higher bid." In the process, they're closing more than 600 stores across the country, including the one in downtown Charleston and one in North Chuck. While branches in Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley, and James Island will remain open for now, the East Bay Street location is hawking its last remaining scraps, from Twilight posters to boxless DVDS to bags of candy, until it finally shuts its doors on April 10.

For 25 years, Blockbuster was an institution, mostly because there weren't many other options. I grew up a five-minute drive from one, with another just five minutes away from that. We had an indie video store in the neighborhood, but it only lasted a few years. I also bought my first CDs at Blockbuster Music, but that's an entirely different tragedy for an entirely different section of this publication.

And you've got to give the place credit. Blockbuster adapted to changing movie formats, shrinking their VHS collection to make way for DVDs, rendering the term "be kind rewind" useless. But then came Netflix, followed shortly by RedBox. Blockbuster finally learned a valuable lesson: You can't charge people $5 for a rental that's due the next day, then charge them exorbitant late fees if they don't bring it back on time, when the customer can get a monthly, unlimited membership with Netflix for just a few bucks more than what your single rental costs. The chain could no longer compete.

For a wondrous year and a half, I worked at a video store. And not some chain like Blockbuster, where I would have been forced to wear a polo shirt and watch a constant terrible loop of crappy film promos. It was an independent one, and not only that, but it was run as an employee cooperative, so technically, I kinda owned a video store. It was the best job I've ever had, and yes, that even includes this one at the City Paper, which pays me to blabber about how I used to work at a video store.

It's called Video Rodeo, and it's in Gainesville, Fla. As of February, it's the only video store left in that town. Now that Blockbuster's gone, and with Hollywood Video disappearing long before it, Video Rodeo's seen an influx of new customers. My old boss, Roger Beebe, an experimental filmmaker and film professor at the University of Florida, just doesn't know how long it'll last.

"Like all bricks-and-mortar video stores, our business is down significantly from its peak, and the decline has actually been pretty precipitous in recent months," Beebe says. This is nothing new. Within a month of me getting hired at Video Rodeo in September 2008, there was talk of the possibility of going out of business. Heck, there was always talk of it. Being in a college town, we relied on a dangerously fluctuating community, which meant business was good when the students were in town and bad when they weren't. We did profit sharing, splitting whatever we made month to month by the amount of hours we worked. The best I ever did was $9 an hour, the worst close to $6 and maybe below it. And that's before taking taxes out.

But since the closure of Blockbuster, Video Rodeo has been doing a little better. And Beebe's really encouraged by what people are renting. "It'll take a little while for us to figure out if this new business is sustainable," he says, "but it's enough of an uptick to suggest that we may have a future after all."

When I worked at Video Rodeo, the chain stores were our enemy, plain and simple. We let people bring in their Blockbuster or Hollywood Video cards and cut them up for a free rental. We had a fish bowl's worth of the things on our counter. (You can see a picture of it at videorodeo.net.) Recently, the store threw a "vigil" for Blockbuster, complete with keg.

Technology, and therefore the film rental business in general, has changed. Even DVDs and Blu-Rays are no longer as desirable as they once were, with Netflix, Hulu, and tons of weird Asian bootleg websites offering incentive to people who want to watch exactly what they want to watch right this minute. And I get it. I use Netflix. So did most of the other Video Rodeo kids. I once came into the store to relieve a co-worker from his shift to find him watching Law and Order: SVU. We didn't carry Law and Order: SVU. He got it from Netflix. But that can only take you so far. Netflix might only stream random seasons of the TV show you want to watch (for example: the fact that they only stream two seasons of Degrassi: The Next Generation has been a constant problem for me), and more underground films aren't going to show up either. "I'm also hopeful that people will realize the limitations of a Neflix/Redbox-only world before it's too late, and maybe the Blockbuster closures are enough of a shock to help them realize that," Beebe says. "Even if people only do a date night/movie night once a month, they still do assume that they'll always have a place to go when that night comes around."

No kidding. I bitched about the same issue for our What's Your Beef issue.

Still, you won't find me mourning the East Bay Blockbuster. I stopped by there more recently, and as expected, the sales were better. As for that copy of the first season of The Wire, someone had already bought it.

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