This piece originally appeared in No Friends Magazine. Parts have been edited for clarity.
VIDEO STORE DUST MEMORIES aka A WALK DOWN THE AISLES aka TERROR IN THE AISLES aka A WALK TO DISMEMBER aka EVERYBODY KILLED THE VIDEO STORE aka POSTCARDS FROM THE VIDEO STORE’S EDGE.
I wish I had a time machine to go back and see what the first video I rented was. I wouldn’t stop any fascist rulers, I wouldn’t make any bets on the World Series. I just wanna see what that first tape was.
Although I remember us watching a lot of videotapes as a family in Chicago, I don’t actually recall going to the video store until we moved to Southern Illinois. It was a college town, and it was the late-’80s/early-’90s, so naturally, there were several video stores to pick from. One of the first ones I remember going to was Stars and Stripes Video (101 S. Wall St.).
It was a cramped mini-dungeon full of tapes, posters, and fluorescent tube lighting. Dark carpeting and red walls. Entering the shop, you’d pull open the front glass door and descend a mini staircase into the belly of the beast. Immediately to the left was the counter where a worker sat in front of a wall of VHS tapes waiting to be checked out. On the counter to his right was a television playing fuzzy violence; this was also being pumped from another television which was braced in an upper corner near the ceiling, adjacent to the counter TV. Continuing to the back, you entered a single constricted room where all the rentals were available, spread out among the walls and two long racks in the center. This was the first time I saw the poster for the movie Pledge Night. (I’ve never seen the movie, sadly, but the image of an arm popping out of a toilet—flashing a peace sign while holding a banana—has been forever-branded upon my brain. The image fascinated me as a kid and still does to this day. I mean, seriously: the fact that this movie could occupy shelf space alongside Disney films and Academy Award winners? That’s more motivating to a young cinephile than any words of encouragement from an educator.)
One final strange aside about Stars and Stripes: years later it would be shut down and converted into several offices for adolescent therapy—offices I would frequent in my tumultuous early teen years. It was surreal going back into a building I remembered from childhood under completely different circumstances. Obviously, all traces of the former residence had been wiped clean; everything was white and sterile.
The other video shop we’d visit during that same era was Video Mania (1301 W Main St.). It was much bigger and more spread out than Stars and Stripes, but they were almost identical in the fact that this, too, was a dimly-lit cave you could only access by descending a mini staircase. I remember inside the store—near the front, where the counter was—was brightest because it was directly in front of the only windows in the whole space. As you walked further toward the back, it actually got darker. This was the first time I saw the cover for Scarecrows. Not as interesting or as memorable as Pledge Night, but the concept of “killer scarecrows” was enough to pique the interest of a six-year-old me and have me continually return to the video box and examine every detail. This was another movie I regrettably never rented.
Video Mania also had a bin full of cassette tapes (like stereo tape deck type of cassette tapes—not VHS tapes) located behind a vertical support beam near the exit. This was the first time I saw Metallica’s self-titled release (aka The Black Album.) I looked it over and thought: who is this? Where is the artwork? Why’s it all black? I couldn’t understand why someone would buy something if they couldn’t tell what it was.
A few years later we would start frequenting what would become our go-to video store, Movie Magic (833 East Grand Ave.). It was run by a young guy named Brian, and only employed a few people, two of whom were lifers: a young, gangly guy with a greasy ponytail and Jeffrey Dahmer glasses, and a heavyset guy with a soft raspy voice that made him sound like he constantly had laryngitis. Movie Magic was average-sized but it did the trick—and the fact that it was on the same road as our house didn’t hurt, either.
They had a giant, wall-sized TV screen right next to the check-out counter; one of my favorite things to do was stand as close as I could to the massive screen and try to make sense of the interlacing greens, grays, pastel oranges, the brick reds…and then slowly step backward until all those blobby colors started to blend together to create a cohesive image.
At some point, Movie Magic seemed to reign supreme over the other video shops—not only for us as a family, but for the town in general. Stars and Stripes closed up, as did Video Mania. There was a rental place on the same street as Movie Magic called Silver Screen Video & Tanning. I can’t speak for their selection or their tanning beds because we never set foot in the place. I remember walking by it often and looking in the window, but for whatever reason, we never gave it a shot. It eventually dried up, too.
As I headed into my teen years and began appreciating film more and more, I became a regular fixture at Movie Magic. I talked at length with Ponytail Glasses about the burgeoning independent film scene which was composed of wild fringe characters like ex-video store jocky Quentin Tarantino and human lab rat Robert Rodriguez. We talked excitedly about the potential Freddy vs. Jason film that, at the time, was still six years away from actually being made. Raspy Whispers would add his two cents, and before you knew it the three of us were laughing and arguing and agreeing passionately about our favorite topic: movies. Every time I set foot in Movie Magic, I came prepared—full of the freshest tidbits I’d just absorbed from the latest issue of Movieline, of which I had a subscription.
But at some point, I started to feel as if I was wearing out my welcome. This was mainly due to two specific reasons: Every Wednesday they would set out all the movie posters they no longer had any use for, rolled up, rubber-banded, and leaning against a handrail, ready to take. After inquiring one day about the pile of tubes sitting in the corner of the store and being told they were free, I eagerly snatched them all up. And when I figured out that they were replenished every Wednesday, I stopped in like clockwork to round up the latest collection. Sometimes I wouldn’t even acknowledge the guys at the counter; I’d walk in, grab the tubes, and split. Eventually, I was told to maybe ease up and let some of the other customers have a chance at them. Needless to say, this crushed me. I thought I had carte blanche there, like I was VIP, like I was royalty. Suddenly, I felt like just some nameless customer who only mattered when he had late fees.
The second blow came when I tried applying for a job there. I was 15, I had never applied for a job anywhere, but I felt like this was my calling. Those cliche fears of having some miserable first job flipping burgers and hating my life were miles out of my brain; this would be a job that I could call home. I had put the time in there, formed friendships with the workers. I was a loyal customer for fuck’s sake! I still remember walking up to the counter one afternoon and asking Brian, the owner, if they were hiring. He looked at me quizzically and gave a kind-of disbelieving chuckle as if I’d asked him to sign over the property to me. There I stood—a fragile fifteen-year-old weirdo who had found a fun, accepting place where he’d bonded with fellow weirdos—putting himself out there, trying to take the next logical step. And instead of a warm, welcoming embrace, I was greeted with a cold aloofness. He hesitantly handed me an application while still smirking and saying they weren’t hiring. I left, destroyed. It felt like exile. I went home, filled it out, and eventually—reluctantly—turned it in. I never heard back from them, and that was pretty much the end of my appearances at Movie Magic.
Around that same time, I’d also hit up a shop called Discount Video (100 N. Glenview). One day when I was walking over there I came across one of those huge industrial sized dumpsters in someone’s driveway, the kind you get when you’re gutting or rehabbing a house. Being the weirdo I am, I hopped inside and started digging. I quickly came across an orange prescription bottle filled with dimes. I continued on my way and used it rent some movies. Discount Video would close a few years after that, and I bought many tapes from their going-out-of-business sale, some of which I still own today.
(While I don’t ever remember renting from Crazy Video, the location would eventually be turned into the aforementioned Discount Video.)
There was also a video store called the Varsity Movie Store (418 S. Illinois), which was located inside a vintage movie theater named, aptly, the Varsity Movie Theater. It was such a beautiful little nook of a room, tucked off to the side. I just remembering the redness of the room, most likely due to the cherry-colored carpeting. The room was intimately lit and the walls were lined with videotapes, and there were a few video game cabinets (maybe even a pinball machine, if memory serves me correctly—though I’d find it surprising if they actually housed such a noisy console there in the lobby area of the theater). The Varsity Movie Store opened in 1987 and closed in March of ’96.
The next two video stores that occupied my time were the curiously similar-named Circus Video (600 E. Walnut) and Carnival Video (Kmart Plaza, E. Hwy 13). Circus Video was housed in the Fox Eastgate Shopping Center (a mini-mall of sorts) and Carnival Video was on the other side of town, next door to a Kroger. Oddly enough, only Circus Video really took their name literally, employing several funhouse style attractions at their location, including red and yellow pinstriping on the awning alongside their smiling clown mascot, a popcorn cart inside so you could snack on some free popcorn while you shopped, and a ‘kids kave’ where the kids could play while the parents perused. I loved Circus Video, but mainly for their video game selection. It was Carnival Video that really won me over with their movies, especially their horror section.
Carnival Video had an absolutely massive, sprawling inventory: every wall was covered with boxes, from floor to ceiling, and the entire floor was lined with row after row of tapes. So much material for my teenage brain to consume. I loved it. Carnival Video was also the first time I remember seeing an adult section in a video store, discreetly hidden behind a curtain (a curtain that I’d often pray would be left open a little too much during one of my visits. A young teenaged boy can dream, can’t he?)
At some point, a Blockbuster Video opened in the same lot as Carnival Video. And as you know, corporate entities don’t want to play nice and make friends with their neighbors; they want to devour, destroy, annihilate, gut, and raze the competition. And that’s exactly what Blockbuster did: after a few years, both Circus and Carnival shuttered their doors.
Blockbuster was fine. I mean, it was the video rental chain store —it had to be fine. Always a shitload of new releases, and an okay selection of older stuff. But not weird stuff, y’know? The obscure stuff they lacked, and intentionally so (Blockbuster really prided themselves on their “family-friendly selection”). For the time being, Blockbuster did the trick. I once again reverted to renting mostly video games, but it was still a good stop for new releases.
Eventually, both Hollywood Video and Family Video opened. Once that happened, I pretty much stopped frequenting Blockbuster. Hollywood Video’s selection was vast and tremendous, and Family Video had the sort of old-school mom and pop video shop vibe, just under a slick coat of newness. They had a fun corner section for kids to play in and they also had an adult room in the back. Their rentals were dirt cheap and they had a decent selection.
However, it was Hollywood Video that made the biggest impact on me. They had opened while I was in high school but I didn’t really start renting from them regularly until I was about twenty-years-old. I was out of school and barely working at that point, and really just watching movies as much as possible. One day, Hollywood Video started offering this special deal where for a one-time fee (I think it was either $20 or $25) you got a special card that allowed you to rent up to three videos at one time—for free—as long as they weren’t new releases. I don’t know how they decided what an ‘old release’ was, but movies usually wound up in this special section after only a few weeks of being first released. In fact, about 90% of their inventory counted as ‘old releases’. You could just go in, grab three old releases, and walk out. Boom, free. And there was no expiration on the card; that one-time fee signed you up for this special account indefinitely. Naturally, I took full advantage of this deal. But here’s where it gets insane: I soon discovered an amazing loophole where if you finished those three movies, you could return them the same day…and rent more. For free. So after renting three movies in the afternoon (for free) and watching them, I’d return that night and rent three more for free, go home, rinse and repeat. I was watching upwards of six films each day. If I had nothing to do that day, I watched even more. Despite the fact that this video store was literally geographically across town, I would drive back and forth multiple times a day just to take advantage of this deal. Just so I could watch more. This period was the most prolific consumption of celluloid I’ve ever been able to pull off in my life, before or since.
A year later I moved back up to Chicago. Trying to find a video shop in the city to call my own was near impossible. I occasionally rented from Facets and I think I rented from Odd Obsession once. But with a full-time job and the daily commute, the easiest thing for me to do was join Netflix. I hated to do it, honestly. Soon rental kiosks, DVD-by-mail, and eventually streaming would dominate and video rental stores would mostly become fodder to ramble on at length about.
In honor of all those fallen shops with bright blue carpeting, sickening fluorescent lighting, and beautiful VHS boxes that contained worlds of undiscovered mysteries; in memoriam of the handful of rental hubs that occupied those vital, formative 15 years of my life—this one is for you. If only life had a rewind button.
Honorable mentions go to shops I have only a vague recollection about and could find very little info online for, like Island Video and an apparent video shop inside The Country Fair grocery store.
(And now please enjoy these other random newspaper clippings featuring the video stores mentioned above.)