When was the last time you went to a video store? Perhaps your habit died with the major rental outlets like Blockbuster Video, all of whose locations closed by early 2014. Or rather, almost all of them: as fans of retro video culture know, the sole Blockbuster store on this Earth rents on in Bend, Oregon. But for all the nostalgic appeal of its blue-and-yellow brand livery, the “last Blockbuster” is at its heart the local operation it had been before the once-mighty international chain assimilated it in 2000. Back then, recall, we cinephiles saw Blockbuster and its like as remorseless corporate predators ready to swallow every independent video store, hardly sparing the ones at which we’d received our own film education.
My own teenage induction into cinephilia happened at Scarecrow Video, which continues to serve Seattle’s film obsessives today. Indeed, of all video stores that have ever existed, only the eccentric independents still stand. This holds true on both sides of the pond: though London now has no video stores at all, Bristol boasts the oldest video store in the world, one with the experientially apt name of 20th Century Flicks. You can have a look at this tenacious operation in Arthur Cauty’s documentary short “The Last Video Store,” which in the words of the shop’s owners and staff explains just how Flicks (as they refer to it) has managed to carve out an economic and cultural space in the 21st century.
“Flicks, because it’s got this very strange, idiosyncratic collection of trash to extreme high-brow movies, we just had this niche that we managed to survive in,” says co-owner David Taylor. Since its founding in 1982 (and through a few moves in that time), the store has amassed “the biggest collection in the U.K. by quite a long way. It’s over 20,000 movies,” which by Taylor’s reckoning is “about five times more than Netflix.” This gets at an unexpected but now common complaint about the streaming-media future in which we now live: despite their technical capacity to offer film libraries of Borgesian vastness, liberated as they are from the increasingly constrained spaces of traditional video stores, even the most successful streaming platforms maintain disappointingly limited selections.
“There’s some good stuff as well, admittedly, but it’s hidden behind all of the trash,” Flicks clerk Daisy Steinhardt says of Netflix, referring to a very different kind of “trash” than that proudly stocked by her store. “If you come here, then you can talk to someone who knows about or at least likes film, and then actually have a conversation rather than just trusting an algorithm.” It is this sense of community — which Blockbuster-style chains failed to offer, and which internet-based services can hardly hope to replicate — on which surviving video stores have capitalized. 20th Century Video have even built a pair of small theaters in the store, which customers can book to view anything in its far-reaching collection. Should a bold investor come along, co-owner David White envisions “a bar, a little restaurant, a retro arcade,” even an entire “emporium for an old-school type of experience.” And who among us wouldn’t enjoy the occasional night out in the 20th century?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.