What's a video store? That might have been the reaction of kids to the news that Dish Network was shuttering the last 300 Blockbuster Video stores. Yet these rental shops - both chain and mom-and-pop operations - once littered the landscape.
I worked in a small store during the late 1980s, the heyday of the video-rental era. Movies-to-Go in Fair Lawn, N.J., competed against Blockbuster and regional chains. Located next to a major grocery store, we saw a good amount of traffic.
In the early days, we stocked new releases in both VHS and Beta, and the Beta-owning customers gleefully selected that weekend's big new hit, Fatal Attraction or Lethal Weapon, maybe, after all the VHS copies were gone. Like many stores, if an empty box was on the shelf, that meant a movie was available. On Saturday nights, the shelves - particularly the New Release section - were pretty bare.
Near the back of the store was a louvered-door opening to a small "Adults Only" section. Those were virtually naked on weekends, too.
Back then, owning a video might cost you a hundred bucks retail, so renting was the only option for most people. At a wholesale price of about $70 apiece, stores had to think long and hard about which titles to stock deeply, and what they could skimp on while not alienating customers. Four copies of Outrageous Fortune might be sufficient, but God have mercy if you stocked fewer than 10 E.T.s.
It was always a juggling act. At $70 a pop, a movie had to go out every night for three weeks to break even. Some customers asked how many copies there were, usually when the movie they were looking for was out. If you couldn't report a "reasonable" number, they'd go elsewhere and never come back.
Like many places, Movies-to-Go once charged a membership fee to join the rental club. A gold membership was $100, silver was $50, and bronze was $25. Each had its own level of perks and free rentals, and employees earned a commission for each one sold, so we pushed them hard. Customers without a membership paid a higher rental fee, were forced to provide a credit-card imprint, and were shut out of reserving the big hits.
Renting also carried a lot of responsibility. Aside from promising to return the tape - eventually, if not always on time - renters had to "Be Kind, Rewind." Late fees were the bread and butter of these stores, but we also charged 50 cents for tapes that weren't rewound. This was more deterrent than income source, and I'm not sure why it was a big deal as every store had multiple rewinders.
Customers couldn't rent another tape unless previous fees were paid in full. This led to incendiary, and sometimes heartbreaking, exchanges. Teens would look to rent a horror flick on a Friday night, only to learn that Mom had a $6 outstanding balance on the account. Or a parent would have to pay off a $3.50 surcharge because their progeny dropped a tape in the night-return slot after closing on the due date. We always knew when some kid's allowance was about to be docked or rental privileges rescinded.
On weekend nights, there were always lines. It didn't help that Movies-to-Go had software that was agonizingly slow to print a receipt. With antsy customers looking on, we'd thrum our fingers on the glass countertop while telling the customer (again) how much she'd enjoy the movie she would (eventually) be watching.
Our store also gave away free popcorn with every rental. We all learned how to make it in the antique-style kettle popper, and it was usually up to our discretion whether we liked someone enough to give in to their plea for a second (or third) bag, even if they were only renting one tape.
At one time, our store had a cross-promotional deal with a local Domino's Pizza, which meant employees could get free pizzas from time to time. I'd order a pie sometime before the end of my shift, and when it arrived, that popcorn machine made a great spot to keep it warm before I headed home.
Another kind of discretion was called for as a video-store employee: We had each customer's rental history on our computer, and it was to be protected. Even without the records, we knew our regulars' rental habits and often used that knowledge to recommend movies. Some people exclusively rented pornography. One such customer was a sheepish middle-aged woman. One busy Saturday night, with a line of customers waiting for our computer to churn out receipts, this woman came to the counter with a mainstream hit, and a young female employee noticed.
"Hi, Mrs. Harrison," the employee said loudly, trying to be friendly. "I see you're getting a regular movie tonight."
I've never seen a grown woman blanch the way Mrs. Harrison did at that moment.
Perhaps the best part of working in a video store, besides free popcorn and free rentals from whatever was left at the end of the day, were the movie posters and cardboard stand-ups we were allowed to take home. My bedroom was decorated almost exclusively with movie one-sheets, some of which I framed and many of which I still have.
For consumers, video-rental stores represented a trip out with the family and heated debates over what movies to take home. There was the thrill of the hunt, either finding a new release still on the shelf or discovering a little gem in the Drama section because your first three choices were gone. Streaming videos online just doesn't offer those feelings of community or satisfaction.
For a college-age movie buff, working in a rental store with popcorn was a dream job. Even though my recent visits to Blockbusters were limited to going-out-of-business sales, the rental store holds an iconic role in our collective entertainment history - late-night trips to return a movie and late fees be damned.