Before Netflix, the Video Store Was My Sanctuary
4 min read | Aug 2021
Millennial / Progressive / Writer, Photographer

Before Netflix, the Video Store Was My Sanctuary

There was something magical about browsing through tactile video cases and overhearing employees discuss the French New Wave. 

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There was a time, not long ago, when streaming didn’t exist. You couldn’t log onto your computer and binge-watch your favorite shows for hours and hours from the comfort of your bed or couch. Television was something you saw when it aired, and if you happened to not be home at the time, you could only hope that someone—some benevolent and tender soul—would recount the details to you with vivid enthusiasm the next day at school. 

We had movie theaters back then, too. Enormous ones. Multiplexes. A charcuterie of options at every theater. But without access to a motor vehicle, license or disposable income, the local mall’s multiplex distance was simply prohibitive to a teenager like me. If you wanted access to movies and weren’t of age to drive, you had to go somewhere else. Somewhere local.

You went to the video store.


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All My Senses Came Alive Inside the Video Store

My neighborhood rental spot was Broadway Video. Broadway was three blocks from my suburban home, so it was walkable, accessible. It sat in a nondescript square building off of the intersection (my town had a single intersection, so it really was the intersection), designed by an architect whose aesthetic could neatly be described as “brutalist prison.” The interior was illuminated by dingy fluorescent panels, the carpet had numerous mystery stains and the faint perfume of burnt grocery store popcorn greeted you as you walked in the door. Honestly, it was heaven.

And lord, the selection. My mouth still salivates recalling the view of wall-to-wall VHS tapes beckoning me, like sirens yearning for the attention of Odysseus. One could easily be overwhelmed by the variety: new releases, action, horror, cult, Western, romance, children, classic, and—my personal favorite—employee picks.

I relished the choices, the sheer grandeur of variety. Every movie was there for you to touch, see and feel. Surveying them was a tactile experience—holding the cases and sliding your fingers across the laminated covers to read the descriptions on the back. How did this copy of John Waters’s Cry-Baby feel in my hands when held next to Dazed and Confused (a movie I’d seen at least 20 times)? The combinations were imperative, like pairing the right wine with your meal. 

A young woman relishes the choices at her local video rental store.

The Employees Had Encyclopedic Cinematic Knowledge

These questions were never a source of anxiety. The hunt was a joy, a delight, really. You had to trust your gut or the recommendation of one of the many wunderkind employees who possessed near-encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history. These were the outcasts of the high school scene. The quiet ones. The lanky and pale, the unshaved savants. They wore Marilyn Manson T-shirts, had elaborate piercings, spoke in puns and expressed enthusiasm in a kind of Klingon-like monotone. 

Before computerized algorithms defined our interests and tastes, reducing them to predictable spheres of decision-making, these young kids were the gatekeepers to our stories. Their pay was minimum wage, but their knowledge was infinite. They were the power source of the store.  

I often walked to Broadway alone, but I never felt alone once I passed through their doors. I didn’t need to speak to anyone in there to feel connected. All of us browsing knew that we shared a collective purpose: to be enchanted, entertained, transported, challenged and inspired by the stories of our fellow humans. We didn’t need to speak it. It was in the air. This was the place where I was free of derision for wanting to watch French New Wave or The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This was where I was encouraged to discover new realms, not put down for my differences (a common affliction of teenagers in any era). This was a sanctuary, protected by an unseen energy, cradling us all, reminding us that we were welcome, no matter what we were seeking.

Video rental employees had an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema.
Hunting for the best movies to rent can give someone a keen observational eye at a young age.

The Video Store Taught Me to Observe the World Around Me

As I grapple with the ever-present anxiety that is this current digital age, where so much of our daily lives are defined by immediacy, I sometimes travel back to rainy evenings at Broadway, when the staff would—without fail—play Christian Slater’s Hard Rain on loop. It delighted them to no end seeing if any shoppers would notice the recurring motif (to my knowledge, no one ever did except me, and this delighted them even more). The employees loved being able to take control of the store, dictating the mood of this fluorescent refuge. I never knew any of them personally. 

Outside, in town, at school, at home, who knows if they had the power to be alchemists of cinema, of personal taste in the same way. I never questioned it, nor did I really need to know. I relished watching them banter as I pretended to browse, hoping I could overhear just a dusting of their knowledge about Kurosawa, Truffaut and Herzog. Names that, at the time, were complete unknowns to me. 

Broadway is the reason I went to study cinema. Broadway is the reason I felt bold enough to be a storyteller. Broadway is where I found the courage to reflect my inner yearnings out into the public. Creativity isn’t meant to be rushed. It has to form at its own speed. I didn’t know it at the time, but these evenings spent browsing, awestruck by the limitless catalog of expression across these paint-chipped walls, were like beacons into my future. They were teaching me to take my time, to stop and look around at my world.

“You’re safe here,” they still tell me, over and over. “And you belong.”

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