Once upon a time, the movie rental store reigned supreme and was a neighborhood hub in cities and towns across the U.S. Now largely a relic of the past, the few that remain are more than video stores — they are curated libraries for film lovers. At the Video Store, the new documentary from James Westby (The Auteur; Film Geek), is an ode to the once great industry staple and a celebration of those remaining survivors for whom daily operation is more a labor of love than a viable business.
Movie geeks will revel in Westby’s low-budget yet creative love letter to a largely bygone cultural chapter. The independent video store (read: not Blockbuster) was a place where film nerds could be “the cool kids.” It was the place where a slightly creepy video clerk with an encyclopedic knowledge of cult cinema could hold court and cast judgment on lesser beings. Using interviews with shop owners as well as filmmakers and actors — including John Waters, Gus Van Sant, Bill Hader, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes and Kevin Corrigan — At the Video Store explores the importance of this institution’s impact on society.
Their reminiscences evoke the viewer’s own memories: that video store smell, perusing the titles, the cinematic discoveries and, of course, the conversations. Each of the stores featured in the documentary has its own distinct style, yet they all share one very special thing in common: community. The footage taken in some of the country’s last and, in some cases, legendary video stores is a pure delight. Through his interviews and his own cinematic sensibilities, Westby captures the off-beat nature of the typical cinephile.
Unfortunately, the narrative is interrupted by satirical music video cutaways, created just for the film. Initially, it’s a bit of lark, but as the film goes on, it’s a slightly cringe-worthy indulgence that many viewers will find distracting. With a running time of only 72 minutes, Westby could have given a little more attention to the many wonderful characters who are fighting to keep this dinosaur of a business alive.
At the Video Store took several years to complete — and, sadly, some of the stores featured in the documentary are now no longer open. Though released during the golden age of streaming, the film makes the case that there is still a place and need for well-curated movie collections in our communities. Ultimately, Westby gives us hope that the video store, and the human connection it offers, will survive. That’s an industry rewind this movie geek would love to see.
Available to rent starting Aug. 14 via grailmoviehouse.com
4 thoughts on “At the Video Store”
I miss video stores. Thinking most specifically Rosebud on Charlotte St, with it’s specializing in foreign and indie films, its comprehensive classics selection and an entire, multi sided rack of Criterion Collection movies. Sometimes “progress” (in this context thinking most specifically of streaming) is actually a few steps backward.
Me too NFB, especially Rosebud. This doc hit me in my film-loving heart. I was transported to Rosebud instantly – the smell of the store, the staff picks, and so many great conversations. My former colleague Chip Kaufmann donated many of the titles from his own classic collection to Rosebud. We are still fortunate to have Orbit DVD (on Haywood Rd. in West Asheville). Marc (the owner) pivoted a few years back to selling films, books, and collectibles, but you can still rent DVDs there too. I believe some of Ken Hanke’s unique film collection went there when he passed. I’ve been incredibly grateful for streaming during the time of COVID – and it’s a great way to still support our local theatres via the Fine Arts Theatre’s “Virtual Cinema” and the Grail Moviehouse’s “Sofa Cinema” – but I share your nostalgia. I hope you’ll watch At the Video Store through the Grail’s Sofa Cinema – available starting today (8/14).
Perhaps I am still in mourning over the loss of Rosebud, but streaming is something I am only beginning to figure out. What do I need to get the Grail’s Sofa Cinema? (An aside: I love the Grail! The last movie I saw in a theater was “A Hidden Life” which I saw there just before the pandemic/lockdown hit and I LOVED it!)
Streaming just feels like a step backwards. I am old enough to remember a time when if you wanted to see a movie you either saw it in a theater or hoped it made it to TV. In the mid to later 80;s the video rental system came to be and it was a total game changer, even in the VHS days.
Now if you miss it in a theater you don’t have the video store option. Maybe one of the 10,000 streaming services will have it, but Netflix who drove video stores out of business is now more focused on original programing. For a while the library served, sort of, as a video rental store but with the pandemic that’s not really an option.
Is there anyplace online that will explain in an “for dummies” sort of way how to stream the Grail’s Sofa Cinema?
P.S. I remember lots of conversations, movie recommendations (both given and received) that went on during my many visits there. I have read that many video stores, recognizing the cultural value of such places, are converting to non-profit status to continue on. I hope something like that will pop up in Asheville one day.
Hi NFB! We have some Help links on our website, but we’ll be happy to help you walk through the process for our virtual selections if you shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. It is definitely a learning curve but we’re happy to help out if we can. We also second the praise for Orbit DVD in West Asheville, who is open safely for online, curbside service and in person browsing hours as well.