Video Days

"Blockbuster, the video rental chain that's been pummeled by the rise of digital and on-demand entertainment, said it will close its 300 remaining U.S. stores by early January." - Chicago Tribune, 11.6.13

There was a Hollywood Video in the strip mall on Commercial Street, near the intersection with Kuebler Boulevard, where Mom would take me sometimes if I wanted to rent a movie while we were out doing errands or on the way back from a trumpet lesson. Their selection wasn’t especially good, but they could usually be counted on to get video games and new releases sooner than the competition. I rented Fighting Force 64 there and racked up a good $5 in late fees playing it.

There was another Hollywood Video a few more miles down Commercial, across the street from a Fred Meyer and next door to a Taco Bell. We didn’t go to that one as much because it shared a cramped, heavily congested parking lot with several other businesses. Mom called it The Parking Lot of Doom, and refused to take me there unless I absolutely couldn’t find the video I was looking for anywhere else.

(My Main Bro Alexander’s family had a much warmer relationship with that particular Hollywood Video than I did. Once, in middle school, he bragged to me, “They love us at that Hollywood Video. We had like $30 in late fees and they just made them all disappear.” I was jealous then and I’m jealous now.)

But the video store I went to the most occupied a spacious end unit in a strip mall a mile or so from my house. It was called American Family Video, and most summers throughout my childhood about the only exercise my fat ass ever got was walking there five or more times a week.


I don’t know if American Family Video was actually a big location, or if it was a regular sized store and all my memories of it were just created when I was a smaller person. What I do know is that when you walked through the door, past the loss prevention scanner and the counter that ran along the entire front of the shop, it felt like the biggest, most exciting place in the world, full of entertainment possibilities. 
 Long, white balsawood shelves ran back into the store, creating aisles that were a veritable art gallery of home video box covers. Delta Force 2 and Invasion USA always caught my eye, yet for some reason I never rented them. The box for Hellraiser scared the crap out of me, but I still bravely visited the HORROR! section every time I went so I could steal a glance at Jennifer Love Hewitt’s enormous breasts on the cover for I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. The SPECIAL INTEREST! section, home to titles like American Pimp and Legends of the Kama Sutra, was always beyond my comprehension. 

Normally I stuck to the ACTION! and COMEDY! sections, which occupied two or three long aisles on the lefthand side of the store adjacent to the NEW RELEASES! wall. This was where the Austin Powers movies were. Commando. Independence Day. It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The Blues Brothers. Three Amigos! The Fifth Element.

Regular videos came in sturdy, dark blue plastic cases, and for a couple bucks you could take one home for five days. The cases for new releases were an aggressively ugly shade of orange, and they only let you have those for a day or two at a time. Whenever you rented something they’d have you sign an almost comically huge receipt – nearly the size of the VHS tape you were getting – and give you a copy to take home. Ten receipts got you a free rental, and for years my family collected our receipts in stacks on top of the TV.


Over the years, Alexander and I would routinely spend an hour or more circling the store, picking up movies and holding impassioned debates about whether to rent them or not. One summer we spent the better part of a week arguing, both inside and outside of the video store, about whether we were going to watch Brotherhood of the Wolf. (We wound up watching Blood Simple instead. I loved it, but I don’t think Alexander gave it a chance.)

One week in 6th grade I rented The Living Daylights and, for reasons I will never fully understand, watched it after school every day for five days until I had to return it. (To this day I consider it a criminally underrated Bond film, as well as vastly superior to License to Kill.)

One time I had rented some other action movie that happened to have the trailer for Cliffhanger at the beginning. I was so blown away by the trailer that I ejected the tape and ran back to the store to rent Cliffhanger instead. I was extremely disappointed – during the two mile round trip to and from the store I’d built up some unrealistically high expectations that no Stallone film could live up to. I have distrusted trailers ever since.

That being said, this remains one of the greatest trailers ever made. 


The DVD! section appeared in the early 2000s and metastasized over the years until the DVDs were sharing the same shelf space as VHS tapes. Not long after that, the DVDs didn’t have to share anymore. The few VHS tapes that remained were relegated, along with their big clunky boxes, to the CLASSICS! section, which had become the catch-all for movies that hadn’t been reissued on DVD yet.

Around the time I entered high school my Dad, ever the early adopter, signed us up for a clever service that would mail us DVDs in bright red envelopes and let us keep them for as long as we wanted before returning them. Their selection was far beyond anything any of the video stores in Salem could offer us, and in time the receipts on top of our television yellowed with age, and then got thrown away.


American Family Video closed late in the summer of 2007, just before I left for college and Alexander left for basic training. They held a firesale to get rid of all their stock, and we drove out to pick over the remains of ten years of childhood memories. I bought Road to Perdition, The Squid and the Whale, and Punch-Drunk-Love for less than $15, total.

They were selling the big white shelves for $20 a pop. By the time we got there somebody had already bought the cardboard cutout of Minnie Mouse they kept in the corner near the FAMILY! section.


As much as I love being able to access all eight seasons of Wings instantly from my PS3, part of me is always going to miss the days when entertainment made you come to it. Video stores were the last hurrah for our hunter-gatherer roots – entertainment was something you had to go out, find, and bring home.

Maybe it’s raining. Maybe the store doesn’t have your first choice. Maybe their parking lot is a disaster. Is the store even open right now? These first world problems somehow made movies that much better, because you had to overcome something before you could spend the rest of the day on the couch.

Truman Capps was never a Blockbuster guy.