Entry 675: Life Before Netflix

Once upon a time, before TVs were smart and presidents were dumb, when the words “stream” and “cloud” had something to do with water, just about every neighborhood in America had something called a “video store.”

Even the smallest towns had one. You could drive across America and pass through Main Streets that were one block long, and it would be gas station, bar, coffee shop, bar, video store, tavern, gas station. And maybe a pub or two.  Oh, and a saloon.

If you wanted to watch a movie, you would have to leave your house and go to this store, where you were a “member.” Maybe you even had a card. And this store had all the movies in the world, except the one you wanted to see, because it was “out,” which meant that someone else had it and, believe it or not, only one person in the neighborhood could watch that movie at the same time, unless your video store had a second copy.

If you were born after, say, 1995, you may be thinking, “But why would you have to leave your home to get a movie?” Well, first, you are an idiot millennial with no sense of history. And second, this was long before everybody had high-speed Internet and broadband and smart phones and wi-fi. We had the Internet, but only through dial-up modems that were measured in a unit called a “baud” because of how you felt while you were waiting for screens to load. If you had tried to stream a movie back then, you would have been able to make popcorn between each individual frame.

So, yes, you had to go to a store where all the movies were on shelves. “New releases” were in one area, and everything else was by genre: science fiction, horror, comedy, action, etc., but you could never find what you were looking for, because the people who worked in video stores had to swear that they did not know what “alphabetical order” meant, or that The Day the Earth Stood Still should not be filed under “t.”

There was also a special room where only adults could go, but, ahem, I never did find out what was in there.

So, anyway, you and your spouse or your children would confer about which movie you wanted to see, and you’d have to select a first choice, second choice, etc., and then you’d go to the video store and, after an hour, finally find the seventh choice, Beverly Hills Cop, in the action section, even though it was clearly a comedy.

You rented the movie you wanted on something called VHS tape, which were these big, black cartridges about the size of an iPad Mini but three times as thick, and you’d take it home and jam it into the slot of a player that was attached to your small, square TV, and sometimes it didn’t go in all the way because your kid had pushed his peanut butter sandwich into it.

Occasionally, the tape had not deteriorated to the point of being unwatchable, and you could enjoy the movie. Then you had to rewind the thing (we actually owned a separate rewinder), and remember to toss it into your car the next day so you could drop it off back at the store, and then you’d get home and realize the damn thing was still in your car, and you’d think “What the hell, the late fee is only a buck,” so you’d leave it in your car overnight, and it was hot and muggy, and that’s one of the reasons why your rentals had often deteriorated to the point of being unwatchable.

Sometimes, when your kid was sick or a blizzard was forecast, you’d go to the video store and rent six or seven movies, enough to get you through a whole day, but you’d only end up watching four of them (because binge-watching hadn’t been invented yet), and then you’d forget to return them, so you’d pay late fees on movies you never even watched.

The biggest video store in the world was called Blockbuster. At its height in 2004, it had over 9,000 stores worldwide and employed over 84,000 people, none of whom could alphabetize. But Blockbuster made a series of, shall we say, less than optimal business decisions, such as declining to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2000 (possibly because it didn’t like the color of the envelopes people would return Netflix rentals in*), and instead choosing another company with which to start a streaming video service. That other company was Enron.

If you’ve never heard of Enron, you might want to Google it. It’s a really funny story…

Anyway, the rest, as they say, is history. Soon almost all the Blockbusters had become auto parts stores, and all the independent video stores that had thrived in even the smallest towns had been turned into bars.

I bring all this up now because I noticed an article about one of the few remaining Blockbuster locations. It’s in Alaska, where the winters are long and the wi-fi is slow. So if you still have that VHS of Dirty Dancing that you rented in 1993, you can send it to Blockbuster Video, 11431 Business Blvd, Eagle River, AK 99577 along with your $8,745 in late fees. But hurry, the Eagle River Blockbuster is closing this month.

Oh, and don’t forget to rewind!

See you soon.

*By this time, videos came on DVDs. We were almost into the “modern era.”
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One Response to Entry 675: Life Before Netflix

  1. Barbara says:

    Uhmm theres still Redbox.

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