Walking into the Video Underground, or the VU, in Jamaica Plain, I think I can almost remember 1996. The Clueless poster on the wall and the Raisinets behind the counter take me back to my childhood in my mom’s video store in Baltimore, rewinding tapes in the back room and playing tag with the kids who came in with our regulars. At my mom’s store, instead of Raisinets, we sold Sunkist Fruit Gems and Andes mints. There was a gumball machine we lost the key to, which still sits in our garage. Dispensers ejected handfuls of candy strawberries and bananas. The movie posters I remember best: Silence of the Lambs and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. It’s easy to slot these details into what I see upon entering the VU.
But a few minutes in Kevin Koppes’s store are enough to see how they’ve innovated to accommodate the times. Their café features house-roasted coffee, pizza, and crêpes, and they offer a screening room for private events and public showings. Kevin Koppes, the co-owner, tells me that their movie rental business is actually pretty steady—monthly subscribers rise slightly each month—but the café and other innovations are still necessary for survival. And that’s not unique to the movie rental business: “I don’t know how anyone does brick-and-mortar anything on a small scale without doing online sales, without doing some sort of food, drink, stuff like that. Especially in a metro area where your cost per square foot for retail space is very high. I mean, you’ve got to do whatever you can.”
Dead floor space has always been both a challenge and an opportunity for small video store owners. In my mom’s shop, in addition to candy, we sold Pogs (another fad that peaked in the ‘90s), painted bobble-head pins, and other knick-knacks that somehow came into my parents’ possession. And in the early 2000s, in order to compete as Redbox and Netflix started to gain market share, 35% of independent video stores began offering access to tanning beds in their stores, with prime tanning hours, days, and seasons nicely complementing the slow times for movie rentals. A store with a half-dozen tanning beds typically garnered 40% of its revenue from tanning and 60% from DVDs.
My family got out of the video rental business before DVDs completely outpaced VHS tapes, sometime when I was in middle school. In the decade after Video Wonderland left that original shopping center, even the biggest corporations there—RadioShack and Toys “R” Us—succumbed to the rise of ecommerce or poor management or some other combination of factors. These market casualties of the early 2000s reflected a common story, one epitomized by the rise and fall of another chain, synonymous with the video-rental era—as Kevin puts it in episode one of the VU podcast: “the once-maligned but now oddly beloved Blockbuster Video.”
Blockbuster’s story—and its aftermath—is one of corporate drama and capture that seems to lead us back to where the movie industry started: a few studios controlling content and limiting access, with consequences for how we consume movies and come to understand—or lose—their cultural context.
When my sister and I streamed The Last Blockbuster last month (on Netflix)—with its lineup of standup comedians, cult-movie actors, and directors waxing nostalgic about the blue/yellow interiors and microwave-popcorn smell of Blockbuster—there was little emphasis on the mom-and-pop-crushing aspect of the corporation. It was sweet and funny, a mostly pleasant trip down memory lane, with some cursory history mixed in. But Blockbuster’s story—and its aftermath—is one of corporate drama and capture that seems to lead us back to where the movie industry started: a few studios controlling content and limiting access, with consequences for how we consume movies and come to understand—or lose—their cultural context.