A Life In Indie Video Stores

By Dennis.

In my life I’ve worked in two video stores for a total of nearly twenty years. One for about seven years just out of college and the other for the last dozen or so. There was a gap in between, so you do the math. (I may not be young.) Apart from, one might realistically speculate, a singular lack of career ambition, there’s a simple reason why I’ve chosen that particular employment for so long. I’m good at it, and I’m at home there. For as long as I can remember anything about myself, I’ve been drawn to movies. I don’t have any unique insight into why that is—it’s just a fact. And so, like the kid who, for whatever reason, discovers he likes to read early and therefore is afforded undue praise for having read more books than his peers, I’ve always been one or more steps ahead of everyone else I knew when it came to movies. I’d seen more, read more, and spent more time thinking about them.
And so I fit right in when the two brothers who, despite seeing their startup Maine video store as more of a business opportunity (not a crazy idea in the early 90s) than any labor of their collective love of cinema, saw me renting more movies than anyone else in the first year they were open, it was only natural that they’d ask me to be their first employee. And only natural that, newly-minted English degree aside, I would leave my chain bookstore job to work the counter for them. As I worked there, they gradually ceded much of the ordering for the store to my advice, especially when it came to the indie/foreign/weirdo stuff that was my passion (and their calling card in a decade packed with nondescript chain stores all trying to pull in customers with nothing but the newest-latest). It was a good time, even if I (and another, younger movie geek they hired) cajoled them into never selling off a single title even as the already cramped store became clogged with never-rented VHS copies of Rainer Werner Fassbender films and obscure 70s forgettables (the James Caan/Sally Kellerman flick Slither, “from the writer of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension!” somehow sticks in my mind). It was less good when business began to slow (largely due to the chain store glut), and devastating (at least to me and the other film geek) when the brothers announced they’d accepted an offer to sell out to the truly second-rate Video Galaxy chain (of the Minnesota Vikings formica color scheme and the notoriously huge porn room) when representatives told them that, buyout or no, the chain was opening a branch in an abandoned restaurant a block away. Rather than risking their kids’ college funds on a business already in decline, and for which they never had the passion of their employees anyway, they moved over, managing the shiny, garish new chain store and convincing us to come along with vague promises that we could still do things they way we always had.

Of course, that wasn’t how things were. I remember us faxing page after handwritten page of title info to Video Galaxy HQ because fully 50% of our library titles were unknown to the hundreds of stores in the chain, our heretofore beloved library of movies mouldering in the boxes we’d mournfully packed them in months before until someone, somewhere, did the data entry to make them rentable again.
I lasted a few months, studiously not wearing the embarrassing yellow-with-checkered-flag polo shirt uniform (and no doubt costing our bosses countless secret shopper demerits in the process) and trying to convince our wary erstwhile customers that we were still us, even as we clearly, and increasingly obviously weren’t. (I remember getting into a screaming fight with some guy who dared to suggest that we’d sold out, chasing him out of the store with my defiant words even as I knew he was right—if an asshole-about it.) When I couldn’t take it any more, I gave my notice, hid some huge, fancy beers in the soda cooler on my last night, and tried to leave a parting message (carefully considered for maximum snottiness) on the stupid letter-board under the stupid glowing neon store sign in the parking lot. Except that I, never adept at using the extendable pole-and-suction-cup thingy to change the sign, was unable to spell out “MOVIES STILL MATTER,” before the cup broke off, leaving an even more meaningless, vowel-less Scrabble rack of nonsense to confuse passers-by the next day.
Years went by, with a marriage, a teaching gig, a divorce, the dissolution of the experimental school I’d given my all to (anyone sensing a pattern here would not be inaccurate), until I found myself, post-divorce and post another almost-marriage, cast, bewildered, broke, and shattered, personally and professionally down the coast in Portland, Maine.
Where, inevitably, I found work at another video store. Videoport. It was the larger, more-established, and all-around more respected granddaddy of the startup I’d worked at before and I saw myself, as much experience as I’d had in other areas of my life, like an aging prospect finally being called up from the minors into The Show. With literally nothing else going on and my confidence and self-worth down to fumes, I threw myself into my new job with renewed enthusiasm, and optimism. I loved and looked up to my new coworkers (even though most were younger than I) and felt, for the first time since everything’d fallen apart, at home again.
I still work there, some decade or more later (I’m not good with time). And sure, many of those initial peers have left, although a surprising number remain—it really is a good gig. And yes, most definitely, I had (and have, to a lesser extent as time goes on) the occasional, if figurative, head-butt with customers I feel insufficiently respect what I feel we’re trying to do here. And certainly business is not remotely what it once was, when the guidelines for getting hours was so magnanimous that it could be summed up as, “if you want hours, just come in as long as you’re actually doing some real work” to a rigidly micromanaged skeleton roster ever redesigned by The Boss to squeeze every necessary buck by never having a superfluous body, ever.
We’re battling against Netflix, Redbox, cable, streaming on the internet—who knows, probably some other alternative methods of entertainment I don’t even know about yet, but we’re hanging tough. The Boss, steering the ship from his office sanctum in the back, has been doing this for more than a quarter-century, and we are at his mercy. A carefully cultivated remove discourages direct queries about the store’s future, and, frankly, I think we remaining employees are okay with that. We just keep our eyes forward, work our asses off, and generally try to make the whole enterprise as successful and sustainable as possible, hoping that our efforts will overachieve enough each day to keep our store viable—for at least another year. We like The Boss, although his signature combination of toothy cheeriness, aloofness, and inscrutability is, by design or not, a perfect recipe for keeping us all on edge. The Boss is a weird guy (and yes, I know he’ll eventually read this), but he’s been doing this a long, long time, our fate is in his hands, and, for as much as it can be a daily challenge to guess what the hell he’s thinking, we trust him.
For, as much as it’s clearly and indisputably a labor of love to keep an independent video store (“DVD store” just doesn’t have the same ring) afloat these days, it’s also a business, the primary source of income for him and his family. And The Boss, for all his indisputable, if largely unexpressed, movie love, is a f***ing shark when it comes to business ruthlessness.
I look at it like the Faulkner quote: The Boss is prepared to kill his darlings. And while we of the clerkish unwashed might imagine that his hour-and-paycheck shrinking means we’re his darlings, what that really means is that The Boss is willing to let some movies go. While co-clerk and bully and I successfully kept the brothers from ever selling off a single title ever (“But someone is gonna come in looking for Three the Hard Way and we’re not gonna have it and then they’re gonna think we suck”) even thought he shelves were packed to groaning, I was aghast at the beginning of my tenure in the major leagues when I saw the sale bin peppered with titles that meant that the store didn’t own them any more!? Sure, most of them were marginal-to-negligible (I remember marveling that the store had ever owned that Woody Allen/Mia Farrow TV biopic in the first place), but occasionally there would turn up something I saw, in my never-diminished movie absolutism, as indispensable. I vividly remember being in the throes of a full-fledged anxiety episode when I saw a few shabbily-packaged (possibly of shady origin) Mike Leigh TV movies go into the bin not long after starting there and asking a coworker, shakily, if “this sort of thing happens all the time.” Said coworker (who’d briefly worked in the brothers’ store years before, and knew my feeling on the subject) said, with admirably concealed pity, “You know—this store is never going to have the sort of collection you want.” I, perhaps not at my best (my life being shattered as it was), took this gentle reminder of the way the world works absurdly hard. I remember actually thinking about quitting. (Again- Dennis not in a good place.) But gradually I came to understand the way the world, or at least The Store, worked, and still survives to this day.
Now it’s not that The Boss was thoughtless about letting movies go from his collection. It’s just that, well, there are a number of factors that a hard-headed video store boss learned to deal with over the years, which is why The Store is literally (apart from a tiny concern that’s also an ice cream parlor and a post office—and no, I’m not kidding) the only video store, chain or otherwise, left in the not inconsiderable city of Portland.
One is, of course, a matter of space. The Store is big enough-a cramped and dusty basement, sure, but ample shelf space for some 40,000 movies (at least since the mercifully thinner DVDs have supplanted bulky VHS). But, well, they keep making more movies, (and TV shows, the long-running of which can take up the space of 50 or more movies), and some stuff has just got to make way. Sure, The Boss, for an admirably long time, kept an ever-growing stockpile of never-renting obscure VHS in the back room, unseen and waiting for that one customer to request it like the one-eared puppy at the pound. (For

We have it on Criterion now.

We have it on Criterion now.

some reason this time it’s Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman, of the terrible VHS transfer and nigh-unreadable white-on-black-and-white subtitles, that sticks in mind.) But fester they did in the small storeroom until even that unused space was filled up and they, at least those who never even got a single pity-rent, hit the sale bin (from which I, literally, averted my eyes on bad days). Eventually the practice ended, without a word from The Boss, entirely. His motto, let loose on a rare occasion, was that “a movie has to pay its rent.” Those that didn’t found their way onto the shelves of nostalgic, or delighted, cinemaphiles. Where they gathered dust.
As The Store has marched (and eventually limped) on, the pattern has continued, and we of the front counter have developed our own strategies to cope with it. Every once in a while, according to an irregular schedule only The Boss knows, a printed list shows up out front. Marked “pull list,” causing us (well, me definitely) to clench up and peer ruefully at the names of the damned. It’s unclenching all around when we see that it’s just time to cull extra copies of the last year’s declining multiples (adios all but two copies of Pirates of the Caribbean 4!), but glances askance when we see the dreaded real title pulls, which mean that that’s the last we’ll see of some things. Such a task was anathema to me when I first started, but as I became used to the rhythms of The Store and The Boss, I’ve come to accept these cleansing rituals as a part of life.
Not that we don’t have our own little schemes to undermine the process should the need arise, of course. At first I was surreptitiously fanatical about subverting this (as I saw it) outrage: I’d deliberately overlook some titles I wanted to spare and then, when that didn’t work, I’d just cross out titles directly on the list itself, thinking The Boss would think he’d done so. When that didn’t work either, sometimes I’d just slip the recently shrink-wrapped tapes off the sale rack, unwrap ‘em and put them back out to rent, assuming he’d never notice, at least until the next batch of underachievers was up for the chop. That worked better, but eventually I came to concede the point and pick my battles. Simply put, there was no place to save every movie The Store had ever stocked and, as I grew older and theoretically wiser (and perhaps wasn’t any longer tying my sense of self worth into a video store as my post-life-annihilation me had done) I came to, still ruefully, accept the fact that, perhaps heretically, some movies just don’t deserve to be saved. (We’re currently lock in an unspoken war over Love Jones, one of the only decent black-cast romantic comedy/dramas—I’ve unwrapped and snuck it twice. We’ll see how it goes…)
(And of course The Boss knew what we were doing: the guy has been intimately involved in every aspect of his business for 26 years—you think he’s not going to notice that this is the third time he’s seen The Black Marble turn up on a list because it hasn’t rented in two years? I remember when our inventory guy, a backroom-only little troll about whom there are way too many stories to go into here, had himself pulled two VHS-only Robert Altman films [Come Back To The Five And Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean being one, as I recall] and Altman disciple I, thinking that The Boss had ordered the outrage, asked him directly to spare them. He said to me, with that unreadably toothy smile, “I assumed you’ll just do what you always do” before striding back to his office again.)
As reserved and, yeah odd, as he can be, The Boss is no dummy. He knows that his loyal customer base is that loyal through the years because they respect the selection and look for the different. So when it’s time to let things go, he, as unsentimental as he may seem, will inexplicably allow a few complete under-performers to escape the shrink-wrapper. We of the front will see something like Out Of The Blue disappear out back with a box full of crappily-packaged foreign nonentities (goodbye, The Wounds) only to see it reappear on the shelf sans explanation in a week or so. Sometimes he’ll shift it, if remotely applicable, to another section to try its luck there: a nonstarter in the “Assorted Asian Exploitation” section like The Demon might get a reprieve in the Foreign section proper. Or Bury Me An Angel (with Joe Bob Briggs commentary track!) might shift from standard “Action” to our “Incredibly Strange Section,” at least for another year. Sometimes The Boss’ decisions seem to have no reason behind them: Then we wonder if that seeming VHS bootleg of Zontar: The Thing From Venus has some secret sentimental value to the man, or if its just escaped his notice for a decade. He’s that kind of guy.

And so we of the front make our little stands and sneak our little schemes according to our own soft spots, our own personal reasons. I’ve saved Manny and Lo (a lightly charming if forgettable indie starring a young ScarJo) more than once because it’s included in Kenneth Turan’s book Never Coming To A Theater Near You and I want us to have it in case someone else reads that (very good) book of overlooked movies and asks for it. Because they’ll be impressed, and they’ll become a loyal customer. And my friends and I can keep on working with each other in this weird, increasingly-anachronistic store until we want to leave, and not because some goddamned vending machine in a convenience store parking lot finally saps away that last customer that breaks The Boss’ spirit. That’s why.
It’s a unique function of the lowly video clerk (we’ll never be “DVD clerks”) to determine what entertainment lives and what dies. Sure, it’s only on the smallest of scales on the surface of things, but if you’ve been around this world as long as I have it’s not hard to see our deceptive impact. Of course we recommend movies. As customers get to know us, or even if they don’t, we have a surprising amount of sway over what people take home. What they come to love, and tell their friends about. And then they come back to us for more. Any video geek worth his free rentals is adept at delving—at gleaning just enough information about what exactly a customer is in the mood for—that we can shape the course of not only their evening but their developing movie taste. It’s a delicate art, and not everyone is good at it—just imposing your own taste on someone guarantees disillusionment and eventual averted glances.
I’m great at it. It’s not that hard: You just have to listen to the operative words and often implied sentiments in the customer’s descriptions and then you let your knowledge open doors that they haven’t seen before. You know, because they don’t spend every damned day of their lives thinking about movies almost to the exclusion of all else. Match your tone to theirs, really listen to what they’re asking for, and then start recommending things that match those criteria, even if only at right angles. They’ll love you for it, and they’ll come back. To you, and The Store, forever. When that happens, it’s like ink dropped on tissue paper: You can actually feel your influence ensuring some films remain in the public consciousness while others, unloved by those out front, sink into oblivion, and eventually that bargain bin from whence no copy of Kickin’ It Old School returns. For insignificant lowest cogs in the vast entertainment machine, ours is a stealthy, gradual, grassroots marketing influence, but as the years pass by and some films and TV shows fade in the public consciousness, it’s our collective (if disappearing) hectoring, cajoling (and don’t forget simple “facing out”) that makes the difference for the marginal. When a video clerk vanishes, so does his/her championed arsenal of those “interesting, little indie movies” that, when people are looking for things of that description, he/she always has at the ready.
I’m why we still carry Police Beat. That’s why Choose Me goes out, I’ m guessing, more at The Store than at any (remaining) video store in the world. That’s why we carry two copies of Local Hero, because when people ask me what my favorite movie of all time is, I hand one to them and just say “Trust me.” I’ve been thanked for introducing couples to The Wire like I’d delivered their first baby in the back of a cab, and my colleague Regan*, hater of all sport, but especially football, leverages that fact to twist people’s arms into watching Friday Night Lights (for which they are, ultimately and effusively, grateful).
If I were an indie filmmaker, I’d cultivate relationships with stores like ours. Okay- maybe a bunch of opinionated wage slaves (note: The Boss actually pays us quite well) isn’t going to make any difference to money machines like James Cameron, but I know for a fact that Andy** talks to people about Sisters more than Brian DePalma does at this point. There was a time when we were the only store in the Northeast that carried all of Russ Meyer’s movies, and Meyer, since he distributed most of his films himself, would regularly call and make sure that we had them all in stock. (They lived, and live, happily disreputable still, in that Incredibly Strange section.) We of the independent video store continue to care, continue to champion. We love what we love, from that ubiquitous billion dollar smash to that straight-to-DVD sleeper that, somehow, sometime, maybe inexplicably moved us, touched us, made us feel all funny in our swimsuit area at just the right time, and we can keep those movies alive. We pass them on, our secret loves, our secret shames, the scruffy little underdogs that, sometimes just for a brief, flickering moment, made us feel in a way that only a movie can do.
And so we hang on, hoping against hope that the inexorable march of technology will spare us for yet one more year. We watch, we talk, we laugh and write and recommend, and sometimes we just say, “trust me—this one will change your life.”
For all it’s silliness, it’s mundanity, and people who just won’t stop touching the shiny side of a goddamned DVD…
It’s not a bad way to make a living. You should come and check us out sometime.

*Regan doesn’t work here anymore because you didn’t rent here enough.

**Andy hardly works here anymore because you didn’t rent here enough.

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Published in: on September 30, 2014 at 3:07 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dennis,
    There are tears in my eyes as I type. As an Videoport alum of 7 years (1992- 1999) I know just where you’re coming from. (And by the way, keep on recommending Local Hero – one of my favorites too!) Living away from Portland now I don’t get in as much as I’d like to, but just knowing that you guys – (and OFL – that’s what we used call The Boss – stands for Our Fearless Leader) are still there, still fighting the good fight gives me hope that even in the future there will still be actual humans helping other humans with their entertainment choices and not algorithms.
    Thanks for the piece and thanks for still being there to help those films that need it get the appreciation they deserve – for whatever reason!
    One of my special cases, actually sort of passed on to me by one of the original employees was Zatoichi, and I’m still a big fan. Just got the Criterion Collection of the entire series.
    Peace
    #23

  2. I never liked culling the VHS either while I was there, but I knew Bill and I were going to get along just fine when in the midst of going over the “pull list” we got to “The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck” starring David Keith and he said something like “No. That one stays. That one always stays.” I imagine by now it’s probably been de-cased and shrink-wrapped for sale like the rest of ’em, but maybe I’ll just pretend otherwise; what’s it gonna hurt? For reasons that remain somewhat unclear, I kept trying to save a VHS of “Butterfly” starring Pia Zadora and a very drunk and sweaty Orson Welles, but it too eluded my protective grasp eventually.

    I loved everything about this post. And thank you for introducing me to “The Brother from Another Planet”.

    #85

    • You remain my hero. Thanks, man.


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