Recently, while strolling up the main artery of my downtown New York neighborhood, I noticed that there was a metal grate over a familiar storefront. Peering through the security bars, I saw that the store space was suddenly empty, as if a vacuum cleaner had sucked out its contents. Cinema Classics was gone! I can’t say that I was surprised. Even in the age of the vanishing DVD store, it was a defiantly eccentric and homespun venue, a true hole in the wall (the entire place probably measured 10 x 15 feet), with DVDs stocked and organized into eccentric little movie-buff categories, making it next to impossible to locate anything without consulting the clerk. You could search, but you couldn’t look to find; in reality, you could only browse. And that was the store’s quirky glory.
The real surprise, of course, is that Cinema Classics lasted as long as it did. (For the time being, it will be a website only.) At moments, the store, which had maybe one customer at a time, reminded me of that Scotch-tape mall boutique in the old Saturday Night Live sketch. It was an anachronism that had turned into an absurdity.
I will, however, miss my occasional visit there (my last transaction: I purchased a copy of Earthquake — in the Charlton Heston section! — last year), and the fact that I’m saying that isn’t merely nostalgia. It’s really about a time-honored way of curating one’s own tastes, a way of shopping as living. I’m very lucky that there is still one great, and in fact awesomely comprehensive, DVD store in my neighborhood — the stubbornly titled World of Video. Even in the instant-order-up age of Netflix, I do the majority of my DVD renting there. It’s a connoisseur’s paradise, with a vast archive of old and new releases, including the entire Criterion Collection. I love to debate movies with the ardent cinema buffs who work there (one of whom, Sean Gallagher, is a good friend). I love to hold the DVD boxes, look at the posters, peruse the sections devoted to cult films and action films and movies from Denmark, and, when I have the time, walk out of the store holding a movie I had absolutely no idea I was going to rent when I walked in.
I realize that I’m describing a vanishing experience in our culture. Yet when you consider, say, the stubborn persistence of bookstores, large and small, even in the age of Amazon, my affection for video stores doesn’t, perhaps, sound quite so Paleolithic. For a lot of people, choosing a movie to watch at home is far from a neutral consumer activity. It’s a kind of ritual, encoded with pleasure, and doing it in what is, in essence, a modern-day town-square public-library setting only adds its own special dimension.
The DVD store’s chief asset, of course, is the invitation to browse, which as far as I’m concerned the Internet simply can’t replicate in the same way. That very word, browsing, speaks to the relaxed information flow and greater leisure time of an earlier era, and that’s one of the reasons that I look for any opportunity to indulge in it. “I’ll put it in my Netflix queue” has become one of the signature phrases of our time, but whenever the movies in that queue start to pile up, as much as you may want to see them those movies can start to feel like homework. Whereas going to the DVD store is never work. It’s play, it’s movies-as-drugs, it’s instant gratification. It’s what-do-I-want-to-see-right-now. I also love to observe what other people are renting. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had to bite my tongue — or, rudely, haven’t — when I’ve seen someone walk up to the counter holding a copy of The Grudge 2 or The Astronaut Farmer and thought to myself, “My God, in this store, couldn’t you do better?”
In a New York City (and, perhaps, a world) that can no longer support even Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore, the mom-and-pop movie shop is, by now, a quintessential museum piece. And that’s just how Michel Gondry paid tribute to it in Be Kind Rewind, with its magical grimy video store (pictured above) run by Jack Black and Mos Def. As for the corporate chains, your average Blockbuster outlet now feels like a fluorescent-lit ghost town, with tumbleweeds rolling down the aisles past the multiple displayed copies of Harry Potter and Step Brothers and Transformers. To me, though, the lure of great DVD stores, and the lore of them (Tarantino, etc.), remains as potent as ever. And I wonder if I’m alone…or not.
I’d like to ask: How many of you still have DVD stores in your neighborhood, and go to them? And for those of you who long ago lost the opportunity, do you miss it? What, if anything, is your favorite video-store memory? And can you think of a movie you love that you discovered there, one that you probably would never have gotten to see otherwise?