Admitting my small role in the demise of the movie rental store

By Jayson Jacoby June 11, 2010 11:22 am

The demise of the movie rental shop is nearly complete, and for the consumer another minor thrill has been replaced by a few dull taps on a keyboard.

I lack any legitimate grounds for lamenting this trend, however.

In fact I am as complicit as anyone in the eradication of a business that once seemed ubiquitous.

I have a Netflix account.

I have not browsed the aisles of a rental store for at least a couple of years.

(Although in my defense, neither have I ever acquired a DVD from a large, inanimate box.)

The recent announcement that Movie Gallery is closing its Baker City rental store saddened me largely because it reminds me that I have lived long enough to experience a commercial and cultural trend from its infancy clear through to its current death throes.

It’s not that I feel old, exactly.

But I’m more aware that 40 years (almost) is a pretty fair spread of time.

I imagine people were afflicted by a similar twinge a century ago when Ford really started cranking out Model T’s and the dominance of the horse was clearly on the wane.

(The armies did, though, manage to slaughter a whole lot more horses than they did Tin Lizzies during the Great War, so I suppose the utility of the equine was not altogether lost.)

I don’t mean to imply that the triumph of the Internet over the video rental store rises even close to the same level, on the revolutionary scale, as the ascendancy of the automobile.

We still like to watch movies at home, after all.

We just don’t want to leave home to get them.

And now we don’t need to.

Which is not the only change, of course, in the home entertainment industry.

The DVD, for instance, relegated the VHS tape to irrelevancy just as surely as the compact disc did for the cassette tape.

But those are details, akin to Big Cola’s decision to sweeten its products with high-fructose corn syrup rather than sugar. The soda tastes the same to all but the most discerning palate.

(Whether the rest of the body is as sanguine about this switch of sweeteners is a different matter altogether.)

In much the same way, although a DVD crams in quite a lot more pixels than a tape does,  Arnold Schwarzenegger is still a terrible actor regardless of the format in which he is grunting nearly unintelligible dialogue and slaying any sentient being which has the misfortune to get within reach of Arnold’s hands.

Or biceps.

This sort of comparison doesn’t hold, though, for the revolution powered by the internal combustion engine. The car, at any rate, has little in common with any beast of burden that’s actually a beast, lubricated by blood rather than oil.

As any motor-less farmer can attest who goes to plow a field and finds his horse dead in the barn.

This being a dilemma rather more difficult to solve than a tractor that’s out of gas or needs to have its spark plug gap adjusted.

Still and all, it seems to me a milestone that Baker City, which once boasted at least three establishments that focused on renting movies, apparently soon will have none.

I remember quite vividly when my parents bought their first VCR. I don’t recall the precise time but it was in the early ’80s.

Along about that time the first rental store opened in Stayton, where I grew up.

By the end of the decade, that business was as common, in hamlets and suburbs and inner cities, as the drive-through espresso stand became 15 years later.

Except you didn’t even have to go to town to pick up the latest installment of the “Lethal Weapon” series.

Pretty much every roadside store nailed together a couple shelves and tacked up a “Videos” sign outside (or “Video’s,” depending on the punctuational acumen of the proprietor).

And so it was that even remote outposts — the sort of place where the “fresh” grapes are always nearer raisins, and the dairy products require a careful look at the sell-by date, unless you like your chocolate milk chunky — always had the latest Bruce Willis blockbuster available.

(Bruce, of course, being known for starring in movies with “die” in the title, which was the ultimate fate of pretty much every member of the cast except for Bruce himself.)

The question, “When does it come out on video?” joined the American lexicon during this era.

And a video store card slid into an unoccupied slit in millions of wallets and purses.

(That space taken up today, like as not, by a debit card.)

Although it seems disingenuous for me to wax nostalgic — I capitulated in the transition to Netflix with nary a whimper, after all — I retain fond memories of the video store.

The experience reminded me always of going to the library.

Strolling the long aisles, plucking from the shelf titles that piqued my curiosity, the rich anticipation of the unfamiliar tales tucked under my arm as I walked out.

It wasn’t always utopian, of course.

Anybody who regularly patronized a rental outlet remembers arriving, excited to finally see an Academy Award winner, then walking out a couple minutes later, dejected because all the copies were out.

The current rental system purports to prevent such disappointments through sheer volume.

And I suppose it does, mostly.

But there will, I’m confident, yet come a time when a ground squirrel gnaws through a fiber optic cable 100 miles away, or somebody gets a little careless with a backhoe, and suddenly the Internet’s down, and that box painted the shade of arterial blood is on the fritz too.

On that day of reckoning, if no other, we’ll bemoan the extinction of a business which not so long ago we took for granted.

And yearn to see that sign.

Even if that improper apostrophe got wedged in there between the “o” and the “s,” a speck of ungrammatical grit lodged in the eye.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.