Remembering the Glory Days of the Video Rental Store - Atlas Obscura
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Remembering the Glory Days of the Video Rental Store

Here are our readers’ greatest memories from the VHS age.

Once upon a time, the video store was a hub of entertainment and memories.
Once upon a time, the video store was a hub of entertainment and memories. Mr. Blue MauMau/CC BY 2.0

Though some specialty video rental shops survive, the golden age of the video store is over. Browsing the wide variety of online streaming options has largely replaced wandering the aisles of the local rental shop. But the memories remain. We reached out to our readers and asked them to recall their favorite moments from the rental days gone by. What we got were surprisingly emotional stories of warm family times, cruddy jobs, and cultural awakenings in the VHS age.

For many, the video store was a communal space where they could have their horizons broadened by little more than some shocking box art, or reliably find that favorite movie they’d seen a thousand times. Rental stores represented possibility, adventure, and very often, togetherness. See our favorite reader responses below.

Blockbuster Video

Fort Worth, Texas

“One time I was with my brother, my uncle, and my two rowdy cousins. We were at one of the Dallas-Fort Worth locations in mid-cities, for god knows what reason. It had to have been spring of 1990 (so myself, my brother, and the cousins were all like ages 10 to 13), because the film Prancer had just come out on video recently. I know this because the film’s theatrical release was November of ‘89 and those movies took AT LEAST three to six months to make it to video, which sounds insane now. Anyway, I know the film was recently released because there was a store display of Prancer, the reindeer itself, in life-size blow-up toy form. Like, a HUGE Prancer. You know, to let the customers know that the magical reindeer movie had arrived or whatever. So, anyway, I’m browsing some stupid aisle—dawdling, one might say—and all of a sudden I hear a CLOMP, CLOMP, CLOMP. And I turn behind me, and there is my cousin Parker (who often suffered from ADHD, we were told), and he has straddled the Prancer blowup and is charging it down the aisle and screaming ‘YOU CAN RUN AND YOU CAN HIDE BUT PRANCER WILL FIND YOU!’ My uncle immediately shouted at all of us and we had to leave the store. We never saw that Prancer blow-up thing again, but that was the greatest video store visit of my lifetime. Thank you.” — Brian Abrams, Brooklyn, New York

Bridgeport Video

Bridgeport, Pennsylvania

“I must’ve been 7 or 8 years old, an only child and a latchkey kid. We were pretty poor and the only apartment we could find in a small Pennsylvania town was above a video store, the small, mom-and-pop kind that were all too common in the mid-’80s. My mom worked nights and my dad, well, he was never really around. I’m not sure if it was part of the rental agreement or the owner being very kind, but we were allowed to rent two free videos every day (as long as they weren’t from the new releases wall, of course). So nearly every day after I got home from school and finished making my afternoon snack, I would go downstairs and wander through the video store aisles. I did not have a particularly great childhood, and I definitely watched an unhealthy amount of horror movies at a very young age, but walking through and looking at all those giant, clamshell VHS boxes, the feeling of independence it gave me to pick out what I wanted to watch is one of my fondest childhood memories. I spent countless nights by myself watching almost every film the shop had to offer. The little notes, summaries and reviews the owner would write and tape to the shelf under each film, stuck with me, and helped create a love for small independent shops, and a love for movies that has lasted a lifetime.” — Daniel Patterson, Reynoldsburg, Ohio

What Netflix's daunting selection used to look like.
What Netflix’s daunting selection used to look like. Jon Konrath/CC BY 2.0

Hollywood Video

Lubbock, Texas

“Perusing the horror racks and staring in awe at the amazing cover work from ’80s & ’90s B–horror movies was by far the best version of sneaking a peek at something that I seemed too young for.” — Pam, Austin, Texas

Showtime Video

Atlantic City, New Jersey

“I was 11 years old. My mother brought me into the store, by my neck, videos in hand, raging. She threw the DVDs on the counter and started screaming at the clerk. I was so embarrassed. (I had rented Mondo Magic and Shocking Asia, some late-’70s/early-’80s documentaries about the occult and taboo in other countries. They were chock full of nudity and sex, which of course I knew about—that’s why I rented the f*cking things! My friend said nobody would know because ‘it’s about culture, dude!’ He was wrong.)” — Herbert Holler, Bronx, New York

Hollywood Video

“My first job was at Hollywood Video and my favorite part was going through returned video cassettes to see if any needed to be rewound in our quick rewind machine. Sometimes we would find ‘personal’ videos returned within the rented box. Sometimes they were, ahem, very personal in nature but sometimes they were a variety of weird things recorded off their home TV. My favorite was a mix of Madonna videos and interviews mashed on to one video. We always watched them and I loved calling people at home to let them know we had their ‘personal video cassette’ and would they mind bringing back our copy of Titanic?” — Ashley Witt, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Hastings

Boise, Idaho

“I liked how I could go in and just browse, and no one pressured me to buy anything. It did feel like a community in a sense. The last time I was in Boise, my hometown, they were filling for bankruptcy protection. I hope they’re okay. It’s less one specific thing or time that I was there, and more the fact that they were there, period. They were the perfect escape for me growing up, and there really isn’t anything like it today.” — Nic Schweitzer, Boston, Massachusetts

Blockbuster Video

Vancouver, Canada

“My 32-year-old daughter sent me a text a couple of weeks ago. ‘Do you ever get the feel of ‘oh I just want to go to Blockbuster and rent a movie’?’ It filled me with laughter and a wonderful feeling of nostalgia thinking back on the Friday nights of piling our three daughters into the car to pick out a movie. We always said ‘just one,’ but it always ended up being a stack of them! It was a fun family outing filled with the anticipation and excitement of an evening ‘at the movies,’ complete with popcorn, of course!” — J. McQueen, Vancouver, British Columbia

There's still nothing quite like VHS.
There’s still nothing quite like VHS. Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos/CC BY 2.0

Blockbuster Video

Ahwatukee, Arizona

“There was a brief time period where video stores and cell phones existed concurrently so instead of everyone going to the store to argue only one member of the household could go to the store to search for a movie and report back to the other on new releases and debate which movie they’d select for the night. The person who actually went to the store was able to tailor the list of available titles to their taste and earned final veto rights by virtue of being the one physically in the store.” — Eric Haflett, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Blockbuster Video

Florin Area of Sacramento, California

“It wasn’t my favorite store, but it had the best memory. I was with a bunch of friends when we got the bright idea to rent The Princess Bride. We knew all the lines and we thought it would be fun to act it out as we watched. Well, almost all of us. As we got to the counter the cashier saw what we were renting and told us how much he loved the movie. In the pause as he scanned the barcode one of my friends blurted out “I’ve never seen The Princess Bride.” It’s was like someone dragged a needle across a record. Our jaws dropped, the cashier’s jaw dropped, and I swear everyone in the store turned and stared. My poor friend just cringed and smiled. He’s seen it many times since then, but I’m not sure he’s as big a fan as we were.” — Amy, California

Hollywood Video

Aurora, Colorado

“I was 19 and going through a very difficult time in my life, I was devastated emotionally and I isolated myself from everyone because I needed to get through it alone. I basically went to work and straight home every day and started a long bout of insomnia. I didn’t have cable and after cleaning every inch of my apartment I had nothing to do. At the time my video store was a five-minute drive up the street. I’d go in and rent two movies at a time, watch them both twice (once with commentary, once without) and start over the next night. The staff started to notice my repetitive behavior and engaged me more and more. I took film suggestions and chatted with them and even once after their shift, the group invited me bowling. It was nice to have a group of people, who had no idea of the sad things that had happened to me, treat me like a friend and not like a fragile thing that could break.” — April, Denver, Colorado

Blockbuster Video

Flemington, New Jersey

“When I was little, Blockbuster offered ‘Kidprints,’ videos that parents could buy of their children answering questions about themselves in case they ever went missing and needed to be identified. My mom still has a couple of the ones made of me, and it’s somewhat hilarious watching me flub the interview. When asked about my favorite show, I answered Muppet Babies. My only pet was a fish named Guppie. In addition to Kidprints, the thing I remember most about Blockbuster was the smell—a mixture of plastic, carpet, and Sno-Caps. I wish they would bottle it and sell it as a perfume.” — Kelsey Sollner, Pittstown, New Jersey

Blockbuster Video

Newton, Kansas

“I was a manager at Blockbuster for two or three years, I loved that job. Helping people decide what to watch, learning about what they liked and disliked, and of course getting to see all of the movies before they were available to rent. I remember when DVDs first came out, I said to my co-workers, ‘There is no way that this is going to be successful. They scratch, they get lost, they’re easily damaged… no way they’ll ever replace VHS.’ Before long, it was all we carried!” — Stephanie Huntzinger, Kansas

Spar Grocery

Melbourn, United Kingdom

“My village had a couple of video stores, but by far the most useful was the selection in the local branch of the Spar grocery chain. For some reason, the video selection was packed with excellent horror films, from Prince of Darkness to Return of the Living Dead. I’m guessing someone at head office had left choosing the films to their teenage kid. Also, the shop assistants were entirely elderly ladies, who were clueless about VCR technology full-stop, let alone film certification. So as a young teenager I could walk in and rent 18-certificate films with no more resistance from staff than ‘Ooh, this one looks a bit scary, I wouldn’t watch it.’ Needless to say, I took full advantage of this.” — Mark Chapman, London, England

Rewinding is very important.
Rewinding is very important. JJBers/CC BY 2.0


Blockbuster Video

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

“My mom took me to Blockbuster when I experienced my first adolescent break-up and we proceeded to grab all of the sappy chick flicks we could find. Including, The Vow, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and, of course, The Notebook. Once we paid for our rentals we ran next door to the grocery store for a few half-gallons of ice cream. We all know sappy chick flicks and endless amounts of ice cream is the only way to mend a broken teenage heart!” — Sara Steinbaecher, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Blockbuster Video

Medford, Oregon

“I remember I got suspended from a private middle school for something that was not worthy of suspension, and thinking my dad would be angry with me, instead he surprised me with taking me to pick out whatever movies I wanted for the time away from school. I just remember shining inside with delight as we walked around picking out my own movies, and candies in the rectangular boxes. I still remember the lighting inside and the sound of the employees constantly ‘speed rewinding’ the VHS tapes. I will always be thankful for that day with my dad.” — Gabriel Whetstine, Oregon

Blockbuster Video

Maryland

“There was a young man who worked at this Blockbuster who was adorably inept. We absolutely loved to be waited on by him because we knew he would take so long to complete even the simplest transaction, confusing himself (and us) multiple times during the transaction, that it made each trip to the video store a brand new adventure. I can’t explain why we loved him so much, except that he was eternally pleasant and patient with every customer, so it was impossible to not be equally courteous and pleasant to him. We still miss him, he was a sweet young man, no matter now inept he was!” — Laura Hemly, Tampa, Florida

Cross Town Video

Newton, New Jersey

“I worked there in high school, Clerks-style. There was a little room in the back where the owner used to let her baby nap, but I was famous (and popular) in high school because I let lots of the skater kids who hung out in the parking lot watch R-rated movies back there. Conveniently enough, there was also an exit to a back alley that was perfect for smoking weed.” — Terri Bennett, Brooklyn, New York

Odyssey Video

Marina Del Rey, California

“I loved the thrill of discovering some obscure film by chance and the smell of freshly made popcorn. I also enjoyed the excellent selection of B-movie horror films of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s that seem to have been lost somewhere in time like Ghoulies, Troll, The Gate, Terror Train, and many more.” — David Henry, Los Angeles, California

Long live the video rental store.
Long live the video rental store. Kevin Dooley/CC BY 2.0

Blockbuster Video

Clearwater, Florida

“After my son received his first video game console for his birthday, I quickly realized that buying video games was an expensive venture. As a single mom, I wanted him to have the best, but we also had to stretch our budget to get by. So it was Blockbuster to the rescue when they began renting video games! My son would study each game and pick the one that he could get the most bang from his buck (literally, because sometimes they were on sale for 99 cents!). We loved our weekly trip to Blockbuster. It was quality time that we spent, discussing the day on our way to the store, wandering the aisles together, he would teach me about Tetris and Mario and I would talk to him about older adventure movies, which he still loves to this day. Thank you Blockbuster for providing just another way to spend precious time with my wonderful son.” — S. Law, Clearwater, Florida

Blockbuster Video

North Ridgeville, Ohio

“My husband had passed and I drowned myself in movies, so I spent a lot of time at the corner Blockbuster. They got to know me by name and when I would call they knew my voice and say ‘Hello, Mrs Staman, I was just going to call you. We got this movie in I think you’d like.’ They treated me with respect and privilege, it got me through a dark and lonely time in my life. I was so so sad when they closed. I miss my friends.” — Diane Staman, North Ridgeville, Ohio

Hollywood Video

Wrentham, Massachusetts

“Our regular video store was going out of business and my mom asked if we wanted to stop in and buy a movie (VHS of course). She was surprised when I wasn’t enthusiastic. My mom, sister and I went in and looked around for The Chipmunk Adventure, a favorite of my sister’s, and couldn’t find it anywhere. After asking the clerk, he broke the bad news that someone had already purchased it. Little did my mom or sister know that it was already at our house! My dad and I had purchased the film a few days earlier as a surprise birthday gift for my sister. We wrapped it in multiple boxes so she could not guess what it was from the outside. She was so surprised, but my mom was even more shocked that my 8-year-old self had kept the secret!” — Christine, Massachusetts

Blockbuster Video

Henrico, Virginia

“I have so many great memories there, from walking around looking at all the cover art (and accidentally walking through the horror section and being terrified), my sister printing off pictures from her Pokemon Snap game cartridge at their N64 kiosk, and even discovering that mysterious newfangled video technology called the DVD in the late 90s. As a really little kid, I always insisted on renting Disney’s Robin Hood, over and over again. And I remember before I got into anime, thinking the video store category name ‘Japanamation’ was really clever. I think my favorite memory has to be when I walked in and laid eyes on the three-movie VHS set of the original Star Wars trilogy—to buy! I’d already seen them on TV, and I begged my dad to buy it for us, and that started a tradition of me getting up really early on the weekends, watching one and memorizing the lines! I love my streaming media nowadays, but I have such a soft spot for video stores and VHS tapes that will never go away!” — Christina Wert, Atlanta, Georgia

…and one more long one for the road…

Civic Video

North Dunedin

“I worked as a video store clerk for several years during the early 2000s, when I was a university student. They were the most wonderful of times! I met the man who would end up being my partner of 12 years (and counting) there. I walked in on my first day, and there he was, wearing a Clockwork Orange t-shirt, curly hair, and his Scottish sense of humour! We worked the Saturday night shift together. We were both film students and on the screen behind the counter we’d play our favourite films. Him: classics from the 1980s, me: everything that Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Hitchcock had ever made. The two of us fell into something of a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine. I would enthusiastically chat to the customers about their movie choices, while he phoned up the people on the Overdue List and told them off.

We had for our uniform garish, red Civic Video–branded polo shirts, with yellow and blue accents. They fit like tents. I tried to individualise the uniform by wearing it with embroidered shirts, ribbons, or bright nail polish, and later I dyed my hair black and had a Louise Brooks bob. But there was just no making that fire-engine-red polo shirt stylish! I secretly loved it in all its ugliness though. We wore it with matching Civic Video name stickers. I had a new name every week: Norma Jean, Artemesia, Ilsa…

At the time, the video store world was transitioning from VHS to DVD. Civic Video held on with the VHS tapes (while getting the DVDs also) long after everyone else did, so we had an excellent cult collection of films that you couldn’t get on DVD yet. The diverse collection of films attracted an eclectic clientele. Everyone from humanities professors, to drunk groups of students borrowing porn from the special room separated by saloon doors, to parents coming in for Disney films with their kids (sometimes they would hide a porn film amongst their stack of DVDs too), to a local guy who was a bit down and out and sung on the street for coins—if he’d had a good week, he’d come in on Dollar Day with a stack of five-cent coins and rent a movie.

I loved talking to people about their favourite movies and recommending mine! Film is such a personal thing, woven into the very fabric of lives, so you’d end up making surprisingly intimate connections with people. Because of this, I acquired a couple of admirers who would phone the store to ask Norma Jean/Artemesia out, or come up to me in the pub really excited to see the Video Store Girl in real life.

Next door was KFC, and then next door to that was Video Ezy. I think the two video stores were meant to be rivals, but the staff there were film students too—so I got to be friends with them. Customers would often return their films to the wrong store, so I’d run over and do a swap.” — Ellen, Dunedin, New Zealand

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.