The advantages that huge corporations enjoy don’t require a macroeconomics degree to name: Better selection through massive logistics systems, vicious 365-day-a-year hours (because they can afford to hire wage slaves to work the holidays and weekends that owners of small stores just want to spend with their families), the ability to simply eat losses on certain products or services just to entice customers into the door. Over the years, those advantages have translated into the ability to bully our lawmakers into passing favorable laws, fight tooth and nail against increasing their own worker’s wages and ultimately turn the country into a strip mall that now has more retail space than the cash-strapped Americans working in the service sector can even support.
In that sense, the drawn-out death of Blockbuster, which ended a couple of years back, almost felt like a kind of justice. Founded by an actual oil baron, Blockbuster came onto the scene in the ’80s, rapidly conquered the video rental market and then opened thousands of stores across America before a confluence of cultural and economic forces smothered them.
And throughout that entire rise and fall, Family Video (founded in 1978 in Springfield, Illinois—which is where I happen to live) was there, too. Until now.
The mom-and-pop video store is something I’ve heard of but never actually set foot in, because I do not and have never lived in a major metropolitan area. Family Video was a little bit closer to that paradigm, and certainly closer than Blockbuster ever was—even in the years before Netflix and other streaming services came along and completely steamrolled the revenue model. When you went into a Family Video, there was a chance—slimmer than with Netflix’s DVD mailing service but wider by far than at Blockbuster—you’d stumble across something you’d never seen and couldn’t find elsewhere.
At the stores in downstate Illinois—where the company was born and where I came to know it after moving away from the Blockbuster-choked suburbs of Chicago, just as that latter company was starting to sink—I discovered an expansive collection of what a film fan might call “newer classics.” They’re the movies that your parents might consider to be essential viewing. You probably would not be able to find Godard and Fellini, but you were very likely to find Lynch and Scorsese. In the streaming era especially, it’s that exact tier of movie that has become either impossible or expensive to find easily, especially for those who can’t afford monthly subscriptions to an ever-expanding list of services.
That random availability—the ability to browse things in easily defined categories and have your eye fall upon something serendipitous—has been utterly devastated in the streaming era. Even Netflix, which used to have fairly decent curation and a system that ranked your likes and dislikes with deep specificity, has become the same exact streaming experience: Mindlessly scrolling through, seeing the same dozen or so titles that the service wants to promote, all while things buried deep within its streaming catalogue are simply impossible to find unless you specifically look for them.
Then, too, there’s the lack of a personal touch. People are surely quick to belittle the many people who worked at Family Video, but many of them had informed opinions on movies and were happy to provide some help looking something up, or even toss out a recommendation for two or three movies that could keep the kids occupied for a long weekend. You could get that sort of service at a physical video store. Family Videos I visited made it a regular practice to let the staff throw a movie into the VHS or DVD player and have it play on the TV sets along the walls. It was a little thing (and of course a manager would never let them screen something too rough or risque), but it at least gave some human beings some manner of human expression that you could bond with them over for the ten measly minutes you were in the store.
And if you found a small pile of movies you liked, it was only a few dollars to rent the lot of them. If you were possessed of a sudden urge to rent the first three movies in the Halloween series (and lucked into them being available!), it might cost you $3. Now, due to a swirl of subscription services laying claim to this or that installment, it might cost you $12 as of this writing. This assumes, of course, that you’ve got reliable internet at a decent enough speed to stream, which vast tracts of the United States still do not have. Especially in those places, the presence of a Family Video was a resource for people to discover films.
With Family Video now destined to shut down, there are likely to be a lot of takes, from a lot of places, that will say it was inevitable. That it was part of the march of progress in the same way that VHS eventually had to end in the face of DVDs. But it’s not really true: The ability to browse in a physical location and pick up that particularly notable near-term classic was just deemed an inefficient way for studios to rake in money on their intellectual property. And so, the moment something more efficient came along, they set about creating a media environment in which the physical video store couldn’t possibly compete—and now there’s no place for them at all. It is a loss that can’t be fully quantified.
One thing I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, though, is that Family Video also rented pornographic movies, unlike those teetotalling prudes at Blockbuster. And so, this happened to me once: My girlfriend at the time suggested we head on over to the Family Video near to my apartment and rent a porno. I went in by myself and, like a total dork nerd, sneaked into the back section, grabbed something (anything!) and sprinted to the register in mortal fear of anybody else seeing. As it turns out, the register clerk lived in my building and recognized me, because there had been a grisly shooting mere yards from where we lived and it made me think I should knock on my neighbors’ doors and at least establish some trust. She rang me up with cheery, unfazed professionalism as I sank into the patterned carpet.
But it made for a great story! I hope she got a good chuckle out of it with a close friend. And now it is a situation that will surely never, ever happen to either of us again. RIP Family Video.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.