To paraphrase Madonna:
“We are living in a digital world. And I am a digital girl… or boy.”
Quite honestly, I think the digital age of media that we are living in is amazing in many ways. Any and everything we want/need is at the click of a button and most of the time we never have to leave our nice, soft and comfy sofas. Then, if we do need to leave the comforting warmth of our homes, we can just download media to our mobile devices to enjoy on the move. Movies, TV shows, music and games, we have everything we need for hours upon hours of entertainment. Just give me a beer (or seven), my smart TV/phone or game console and I’m good for a few days. Happy as a pig in… well you know.
The convenience of the digital age, the speed and the sheer variety of things we can watch and play is astonishing. You’ve got ‘yer Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and many others. All services that offer all the movies and so much more besides at the touch of a button. But I want to take you back to the dark ages, before digital media and to an age when we actually had to leave the house if we wanted to watch a film at home. The age of the VHS rental shops.
Now, I’m from England and yes we had the likes of Blockbuster Video over here too, they were everywhere at one point. Blockbuster were the kings of VHS rentals, love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny they were the best of the best until their inevitable downfall. But I don’t want to talk about a giant store like Blockbuster or their fall from grace, I want to cover those smaller, independent rental shops. Those tucked away, grubby, sticky-floored, stale popcorn selling shops that we older generation went to before Blockbuster became king. I also want to try and paint a picture with words (and a few pictures) to show just how great these places were and try to explain just why I miss them so.
A nice little history lesson for those too young to remember or know the excitement of VHS rentals or even a trip down memory lane for those old enough to remember or care and those who miss the whole rental experience, as I do.
My local VHS rental place was in Kings Norton, Birmingham – where I grew up in the eighties. It was just opposite The Navigation Inn pub on Pershore Road. Can’t remember what it was called, but they all had generic and forgettable names like Bob’s Rentals or VHS Village, etc. They were never impressive places, often dully lit, stains on the carpet and had that weird and hard to place but very unique odour. They were grim depressing places and yet, they were the highlight of the week at the same time.
Yeah, they looked like that, complete with carpet stains and dozens of movie posters plastered everywhere. The VHS rental visit would always be on a Friday night after school and this was something you looked forward to from Monday morning onward. Spending all week during break-times between classes, chatting to your school friends about the films you watched over the weekend, swapping stories, film suggestions, talking about the trailers you saw. Sometimes even during class if and when you got bored.
Those five days from Monday to Friday seemed to go on forever and ever. Then, Friday afternoon at 3:30 pm, the school bell would ring and it was the sweetest sound you’d hear all week. School was done and what lay in wait was two days of watching movies, just hours away and that weekly trip to Terry’s Tapes (or whatever it was called) was on the horizon. But first, homework, something to eat and tidy your room just to build that an-tici-pation. Once all the annoying time-wasting stuff was out of the way, sometime after 5 pm, it was VHS rental time.
As you’d make your way to the shop, you’d be thinking about the films you wanted to watch and remember the ones you and your friends were talking about at school over the last several days, looking forward to the posters you might see hanging in the window or stuck to the walls via Blu-Tack. Then before you knew it, you were there, standing outside the door of the shop and just like Father Merrin standing outside the MacNeil house, you’d stop, look at the windows and pause just staring at the shop in wonderment.
After the pause, you’d eagerly push open the door while your eyes darted between the many posters on display and that smell would hit your nostrils. That stale, stagnant odour only independent VHS rental shops had and one I’ve not smelt for decades. It was a strange mix of body odour, the plastic of the VHS boxes, cigarette smoke (as people could still light up indoors back then), finished off with whatever the hell was staining the carpet. And trust me when I say that the distinct aroma was even worse during the summer. Then you stepped inside and you were finally there. The annoyances and frustrations of a hard week at school just melted away. Had a painful and laborious double science class on Wednesday? Fugetaboutit. You were standing right in the middle of your own personal nirvana and loving every single second of it.
Four of your five senses kicked into overdrive. Your sight was almost blinded by the images on the posters and the rows upon rows of VHS boxes. Your hearing was bombarded with the sounds of films and trailers being played on the 12 inch TV resting on the shop counter. Your smell took in every last whiff of that horrible, yet familiar odour. While your touch was put into practice as you held and caressed the VHS cases, as you browsed the impressive collection. Your fifth sense, taste, would just have to wait until later when you bought some of that out of date Toffee Butterkist sitting in a wire basket/shelf near the counter, as no one ever bothered checking the use-by date did they?
Merrily making your way through the labyrinthine rows of VHS tapes and heading straight to the horror section that was always at the back of the shop, away from the front door and windows. Not necessarily because you wanted to rent a horror film (though you mainly did), but because you knew that the very top row of the highest shelf of the horror section was where the shop owner always kept the ‘discreet’ porn section (we didn’t hide our VHS porn behind a curtain in England). You’d intensely look at the wide array of horror film covers as you walked back and forth along the horror section pretending to be really, really interested in. Hellraiser, Demons, Dawn Of The Dead and so on. But, you’d then quickly flit your gaze upwards, toward that top shelf in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of some Russ Meyer movie cover. Maybe a little side boob or censored nipple, this was the equivalent of hardcore porn of today to a 14-year-old in the 1980s.
Your hands were at the point of breaking into a clammy sweat as you picked up the numerous empty VHS boxes and your eyes soaked up in every little detail of the cover art. Awesome box art like: The Terminator, Mad Max, Highlander, Big Trouble in Little China as well as numerous others. Images that still bring a smile to your face even today. You’d flip the empty box over and read the synopsis, see who was in the film and look at the tiny and grainy screencaps as you thought about renting the tape out. But even though you were browsing… you already knew what films you wanted to rent. One of them was always the holy grail of VHS rentals in the eighties, Back to the Future. Even though you saw it seven times at the cinema, you wanted to watch it again at home. However, every time you tried to rent it, all copies were already out as the shop only had two tapes and the waiting list was around seven to eight weeks. Still, you’d always ask anyway in case someone brought it back early... they never did.
So, you’d pick your three or four films for the weekend, one of which would probably be Raiders of the Lost Ark for the eighth time that year (and it was only March). Taking your arm-full of empty boxes to the counter and picking up a couple of bags of that several months out of date Toffee Butterkist too. The shop owner would ask for your membership card despite the fact you’ve been going in every Friday night like clockwork for the last five years and he knows you by name and your address better than you do. As the server frantically searched the wall of VHS tapes behind the counter for your chosen rentals, you would glance over at that 12 inch TV, most probably showing a trailer for Death Wish 3 or maybe Breakin‘ 2: Electric Boogaloo. That’s when you’d notice the ex-rental basket where older VHS tapes were being sold off cheap so you could own them yourself. I still remember buying the Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller tape for 75p… bargain.
If you were lucky, if you were a regular and if the owner liked you, then they may let you rent one for free or even better… the behind the counter stuff. The banned or fully uncut versions of The Evil Dead or The Exorcist that were not readily available back then. You see, in the eighties here in England, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) went a little mad and created the infamous video nasty list. A lot of (mainly) horror films were either cut to shreds and censored to the point of being unwatchable or they were just outright banned. So getting to see these films intact in the eighties was an even more sought after holy grail than a VHS copy of Back to the Future (it was never in stock). You didn’t know how they got these films and didn’t care either. All I knew and cared about was that I got to see a fully uncut version of The Evil Dead in 1984, which (if you know anything about the infamy this film had in England at the time) was simply impossible. Still, ask no questions, tell no lies.
There were no real age checks back then either, no ID required as long as you were not renting out porn, everything else was fair game as long as you had a membership card. Yeah, blood-soaked violence, horror and swearing were okay but nudity and sex? That was a major taboo. You may have been only 14-years-old but if you wanted to rent out John Carpenter’s The Thing… okay. I quite honestly think I saw more horror films as an underage teenager in the eighties via my local VHS store than when I was legally allowed to and after becoming an adult.
Then after paying for your rentals, the guy behind the counter would thrust your chosen VHS tapes into a plastic bag with that, not at its best, Butterkist and hand it to you along with your by now very used, slightly torn and curled at the edges membership card. You’d step out of that odorous, stuffy VHS rental shop into the fresh air which provided an instant hit like no other legal high could manage, that smell of freshness that indicated it was almost movie time.
Hurrying home and thrusting your rented VHS tapes into that monster of a top-loader player (about the size of four Xbox One consoles combined… and I don’t mean the slim version). The loud mechanisms and servo motors would whirl into action as the top-loading tape tray eagerly swallowed the VHS tape and digested it. You’d have to adjust the tracking (look it up), sit through direct to VHS trailers of so bad they’re good action films that most probably starred Chuck Norris and were produced by Cannon Films. Movies that most people have long forgotten about or secretly still admire to this day, those guilty pleasures all us VHS enthusiasts love to watch but don’t tell anyone about, like the Missing In Action trilogy. Then the main event began, the film(s) you have waited all week to watch. You rented out Best Defense only because Eddie Murphy was on the cover and he was the big comedy star of the eighties. Yeah, the film was terrible… but you still enjoyed it, not because of the film itself but because of the entire experience of choosing the film previously and an experience you couldn’t wait to repeat the following weekend.
Then after the weekend of watching films. One of which was probably Raiders of the Lost Ark… again, while eating that stale Toffee Butterkist. You’d go back to school on Monday morning to tell your friends about the films you’d watched over the weekend, swapping stories, film suggestions, talking about the trailers you watched, etc and restart the whole cycle once more as that five-day countdown to Friday and 3:30 pm began again.
That, all of that is what I miss about VHS rentals. Yes, I do love and very much appreciate the digital age… but we have lost something very special to make way for it. We have pretty much any movie at the touch of a button now, we don’t have to worry about something not being in stock as its always going to be there and with that, we have lost the anticipation and excitement of getting your hands on the film you really want to watch. We no longer get to explore cover art, flip the box over, read the synopsis and soak up those movie stills. We now just click on download/stream and instantly have whatever we want. Convenient? Yes. As enjoyable? Not at all.
R.I.P VHS rental stores. I for one miss you.