Monday, September 21, 2020

The Last Video Store

by Rachel Dworkin 

The Family Video on College Avenue is closing. The other weekend, I stopped by to pick up some of their old stock on the cheap. Is it streaming, I asked the manager, or the pandemic? It’s both, he said. It’s a lot of things.


Family Video, September 2020

 Video stores and I grew up together, so it’s a little sad to be writing their obituary. The first home video store opened in 1975 in Germany with a guy renting out his personal collection of Super 8 films before video cassettes were even invented. Two years later, the first American video store opened in Los Angeles, California after 20th Century Fox began licensing their films for video cassette. From there, the phenomenon exploded. The first video store in Elmira was Rent-a-Flick at Diven Plaza, opened in 1982. Within just three years, there were dozens of places to rent videos around the county. By 1985, there were 15,000 dedicated video rental stories in America with several thousand record, drug, and grocery stores also renting tapes.

My parents were members of a rental club run by a home electronics store near our house. The membership model was a popular one, especially if you didn’t own a VCR. Rent-a-Flick, Little Joe’s, T & C World of Video gave club members discounts on video and machine rentals. In 1985, local membership rates ranged between $19.95 and $39.95 a year. Elmira Home Theatre in West Elmira, however, specifically marketed itself as a non-membership store that charged a flat rate to everyone.


Courtesy of Elmira Star-Gazette, June 25, 1985

Area residents could get videos at a number of other places outside of video stores. The Super Duper in Elmira, Minier’s in Big Flats, and, oddly enough, the U-Haul in the Heights all had videos. In September 1985, Gerow’s Dairy on Ithaca Road in Horseheads installed the county’s first video tape dispensing machine as a way to draw in customers. Most of these side-business rental outfits were a lot cheaper than the dedicated video stores. The Rite Aid on Main Street, for example, initially rented tapes for just 49 cents, while Elmira Home Theatre charged $1.87. The basic idea was to lure renters in and get them to buy other stuff.

The 1980s were the golden age of the video store. Chemung County went from 1 in 1982 to 14 by the end of the decade. Nationally, there were over 25,000 dedicated video stores and 45,000 places with rental side businesses. In 1989, the revenue from rentals surpassed that of theaters for the first time. It’s no surprise really. The average price for a movie ticket at the time was $4. Paying just $1.87 instead of $16 to entertain a family of four was a no-brainer, especially when you had the power to pause for pee breaks. While renting was cheap, actually owning your own video tape was prohibitively expensive. They cost anywhere between $50 and $75, which meant that no one was starting their own video libraries. During the first decade of their existence, VCRs cost anywhere between $1,400 and $500, hence why people rented them as well.

Video King Super Store, Horesheads, courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette, April 25, 1992

 Prices fell rapidly for both during the 1990s. It was around that time that my family started to build our own little library of favorites. Video stores didn’t decline during this period, exactly, but they did sort of consolidate and plateau. A lot of the small grocery and drug stores got out of the rental business, while a lot of the small, independent stores got bought out by large chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. In Chemung County, there went from being 13 video stores in 1990 to 8 in 2000. Video Loft, the last of the Elmira independents, consolidated its locations in 2003 before going out of business in 2007.

Video Loft on South Main, courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette, June 10, 2003 

 The Family Video dying today first opened in that same year, but the poor thing scarcely stood a chance. Industry experts were already talking about the dangers posed by Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail service. And then came online streaming and cable videos-on-demand.  The Hollywood Video on South Main closed in 2010, as did the Horseheads Blockbuster, leaving Family Video as the last store standing. Then the pandemic came along to shoot it in the head. Sure, they reopened for business soon into the shut down, but no new theatrical releases meant no new video releases. Why get off the couch when there’s nothing new? The Family video may soon be gone, but, if you can still rent new releases at RedBox, not mention old favorites at the library.

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