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Confessions of a 1980s Video Store Clerk.
The other day, my five year old convinced me it was time to rent a new video game from the video store. So I loaded up the car with kids and we drove to our closest Blockbuster. As we pulled into the parking lot, we found a huge trash dumpster sitting in front of the store and an empty building where the Blockbuster used to be located. Another video store bites the dust. Over the last three years, I have watched five former video stores turn into an empty building, a Chili's restaurant, a pool supply store, a Walgreens and an empty lot. I guess the video store business had a nice 25 year run, but they just can not compete against Netflix and a Redbox located at every convenience store. So we know how the story ends, but how did it start? Well hop into the time machine and read about the heyday of video stores - 1985 to 1988.
Back in 1985, I had just graduated from high school and was about to start college. I heard a new video store was hiring, so I went to the store and I applied. My interview required me to be able to answer some trivia questions about movies. When I aced the questions, they wanted me to work that very night. I went home changed clothes and rushed back to start my video store career.
Does anybody remember the battle of the 80s?....VHS won the war with Betamax....only to be swept away by DVDs.
My first night working was a Friday night. I got back to the store and the first thing I noticed was the parking lot was packed. The second thing I noticed was the store was packed with customers and long lines everywhere in the store. After finding the manager, he got me a time card and gave me a quick new employee orientation. He told me "We currently have 40 associates, and it is not enough. We get run over every single weekend. We rent beta machines, we rent VHS machines, we rent kids movies, we rent regular movies and we rent adult movies. A lifetime membership is $19.99, and our hours are 9:00 am to 2:00 am every single day. You will be working with Shane tonight and on your own tomorrow night...good luck". I then was sent out into the madness of a Friday night at a video store in 1985.
I quickly learned that the video store had many different jobs. One person had to man the table for new memberships. I would give it the nickname "The Frustration Table". From 4:00 pm until about 9:00 pm that person would do the paperwork for new memberships. The table always had a line, verification of the id was the most important thing about approving an application. The videos at the time cost about $100 each, the VCRs were in the $500 range. I was always amazed how many people would wait in the long line, so they could give us twenty bucks, for the privilege of renting video tapes. Some nights over 100 people would sign up for the membership.
For only $29.99 you could rent this VCR for two nights. You did get two free movies and a bag of popcorn.
Another job was the "Keeper of the VCRs". The person doing this job was responsible for renting out the Betamax machines and VHS video recorders. For the customer trying to rent one of our VHS recorders, it meant another round of id verifications, including verifying that the phone number we had was a current one. Many times people would have to go back home just to bring us their most current phone bill. If the "Keeper of the VCR" thought something was suspicious they would call the number for verification. This sometimes led to some interesting conversations between a husband at the store and the wife at home. The rental of the machines was $29.99 for three days....but you got two free movies with the rental and a bag of microwave popcorn.
My video store had a Kids Play Area that looked something like this photo.
Two other jobs on the rental floor...were "Kid Keeper". Kid Keeper's job was to maintain the kid's play area, that was located in the center of the store. Kid Keeper had to constantly blow up balloons(no helium tank was provided), make sure the kids did not hurt each other, make sure the toys in the toy area stayed in the toy area and make sure the area stayed organized. I would say the job has to rank up there with the person that has to run the prize redemption area at Chucky Cheese.
Amazingly located only about 15 feet from the kids play area was the adult movie rental area. This is where the "Adult Keeper" worked. Since the store was a family store....they designed a very secrete way to rent these movies. All the movies were in brown cases with no pictures. The only item on the outside of the brown box was a four digit number. The brown cases were stored in drawers that could not be seen by the renting public. On the counter near the adult movies were three books that only listed titles and numbers of the adult movies. The customer would write down the numbers of the movies they wanted and the clerk would go through the drawers to see if the movie was available. Since this section was pretty popular it caused some issues. Issue one was there were more people than books with the titles and numbers. So eventually the three books turned into about 15 books. Issue two was the fact that so many of these movies were checked out, customers became frustrated because they never knew which movies were available for rental and which ones were checked out. Sometimes a customer would provide a least of 30 movies and be told that they were all rented. As time progressed and it became clear that the adult business was driving the sales, the store was redesigned so there was better access to these tapes. Currently about 50% of the store is hidden behind specially built walls.
It is amazing what you can do with a screwdriver, some tape and a razor blade.
The two best jobs in the store were in the backroom of the store. One job was the secretary for the owner and the other job was tape fixer. Both jobs did not require weekend hours or nighttime hours. Both jobs were held by the nicest ladies and they got to work Monday through Friday 9am to 5 pm.
The secretary had three main jobs: (1) To maintain payroll for all the associates (2) To maintain the financial records of the rental business and (3) To place the orders for new releases...via the owner's order log. When I worked there the secretary was a very sweet senior citizen. The associate's restroom was in the backroom near her desk. Sometimes you would have to walk into the backroom, when she was placing new movie orders. And yes sometimes she was placing the orders for the new adult tapes. I will leave it to your imagination, if you have ever watched the movie Clerks, picture Randal placing his movie order in that movie, and you will know what I mean.
Whenever something went wrong with a video tape, the customer would return the tape and want their money back. Part of the process of the refund was to try to figure what was wrong with the tape and when the tape messed up(halfway through/at the end). We would take all this information down, and place it in a basket, for the "tape fixer" to verify that the tape was indeed messed up. We would place the name of the customer, the name of the movie, and what and when the problem occurred in a notebook. The tape fixer would come to work on Monday morning and find 40 to 50 movies that needed to checked. The tape fixer would put the movie in the VCR and try and find the problem area.....once again....using your imagination....you can imagine a sweet little old lady watching certain movies trying to find the part of the movie that the customer maintained was broken. If the tape fixer found a problem, she would splice out the bad area and send the movie out for rental again.....and the customer would get a refund. If she found no problem, the movie would go out for rental again and the customer would not get a refund. This last scenario would always lead to a fun conversation with a very unhappy customer.
The movie that started the downfall of the video business.
My first holiday season two things happened that I have always remembered. The store was going to be closed on Thanksgiving(1985). The owners decided to have a sale.....rent three movies get a fourth movie free and get an extra day. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the best day ever for the store. By the end of the day, probably 80% of the store had been rented, we ran out of adult tapes completely, and the store looked like it was going out of business.
The second thing that happened was the release of the monster hit Beverly Hills Cop. New releases to that point cost about $100 a tape. A video store could order 10 movies and get them at an average cost of $85....which is still $850 to pay for ten movies. Paramount Pictures calculated they could make more selling the tape to everybody for $19.99 than to just video stores for $100 per tape. After months of pre-orders the day finally arrived for Beverly Hills Cop to be released. I heard the store sold close to 500 VHS copies of the movie in the first two days. The success started an entire new market "sell-through" for VHS sales, as people wanted to own the movie versus rent the movie. Pretty soon all the movies were reasonable priced, but the rentals started to slow up.
That one store is now 7 stores...and they all are still open.
I worked at my video store until 1988, by then the crowds on the weekend had gone from crazy busy to moderately busy. The amount of associates went from 40 to 20, and video stores started showing up everywhere. Now in 2011, all the national chains have been replaced with NetFlix and Redbox. Some of the mom and pop shops still exist. I am happy to say the store I worked at seems to be still going well. That one store has turned into 7 stores. I just wonder how long before I go to that store and find a big dumpster sitting out front of a empty store.