There was once a time when Blockbuster, one of the largest video store chains in the world, had over 9,000 stores. Now, in large part due to the success of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, there is only one Blockbuster left in the world, located in Bend, Ore., and is kept alive mostly as a curiosity from an era that still feels like yesterday to many of us.
For residents of my hometown, Pittsfield, Mass., and much of Berkshire County in the early 2000s, our equivalent of Blockbuster was Hollywood Video, a direct competitor to Blockbuster that was headquartered in Wilsonville, Ore., and existed between 1988 and 2010. As someone growing up in the county during this time, it was one of my favorite stores in the area, having two locations in the Pittsfield that I visited often; one at the current Dollar Tree at 690 Merrill Road and one at 455 Dalton Ave. However, almost all traces of Hollywood Video are gone from the county, much like some of the media it used to sell (while DVDs are still mainstays in department stores, VHS tapes have been banished to the county’s Goodwills, thrift stores, and the dusty recesses of county attics). There are kids in the county now who will never experience the significance or the joy of a county video store, who might rarely — if ever — come into contact with the media formats they used to sell.
To a kid growing up before high-speed internet, Hollywood Video was a magical place where you were almost always guaranteed to find something interesting to watch, with shelves packed with movies you might not have access to anywhere else, with images of popcorn and movie reels adorning its walls that was on par with what you’d find at a well-maintained movie theater. It also had this distinct smell that I can only describe as plastic and the inside of a (clean) shopping mall. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but much later I dubbed it the “Hollywood Video smell.”
ONCE AN INNOVATION
The major appeal of video stores at the time was that you’d not only get your movies sorted by genre and new releases and have access to films the department stores no longer sold (you might even be able to benefit from some knowledgeable staff picks), but you were able to rent media as opposed to having to buy it.
In a time where physical disks are almost meaningless as we’ve gotten used to being able to stream all the world’s movies at our fingertips, this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but considering that a DVD copy of a movie today can cost anywhere between a few dollars to as much as $15 or $20, depending if you get it from the bargain bin or as part of a special edition release (mind you they where proportionately more expensive when video stores were prominent), your local video store was not just an innovation over your only alternative, the department store, but was an improvement that saved people money.
This was key to the success of the video store business model, as it heavily relied on people getting used to and accepting that they had to buy physical media to watch movies and shows. Once that no longer became the case in the late 2000s and early 2010s, video stores were no longer financially viable, and they closed across the country. They were dealt a blow by streaming that I don’t think they’ll ever recover from.
VHS tapes, DVDs and their more recent kin, Blu-ray disks are by far not the first media formats to become outdated, but as the return of vinyl and record stores have taught us, relevancy does not always matter as we become naturally nostalgic for old media formats, with what was once considered flaws — such as VHS static and the hissing and popping of vinyl records — being remembered as charms.
However, where vinyl succeeds in which DVDs and VHS tapes fail, and why I ultimately think that video stores will never come back, is that record stores have managed to rebrand their media as highly desired collectible items, rather than try to push them as the primary and most convenient way to listen to a piece of music. Blu-ray disks have tried to replicate this with special editions of movies and bulk box sets, but because of the sheer inundation of TV shows and movies as well as our increased access to them, few shows or movies feel special enough to warrant a special purchase, and when they do it is best to either buy them directly from the manufacturer via their own website, an online shopping site like Amazon, or see if your local department store has a deal on it (in this way, online shopping has replaced the department store as the most convenient way to purchase a piece of home media).
There is absolutely no need for a store just to borrow physical disks and tapes of movies and TV shows, even if you might benefit from staff curation. Our culture has evolved as such that if you’re going to inconvenience yourself with these formats, you’re better off buying them.
TIME MARCHES ON
I will always hold a special place in my heart for the county’s Hollywood Videos, and I am grateful for the memories they gave me growing up, and to some extent, I wish that future generations can know what they were like, but the only way they can really do that is if we undo the last ten years of technological progress. These stores simply can’t exist at a time where you can stream thousands of movies through Netflix for a flat monthly rate equivalent to what one might spend on a night out to dinner.
Sometimes it’s good that the world moves on, and undoubtedly, today’s youngsters will feel the same way I feel about video stores about something else, as is the case for those that have come before me.
That’s the tragedy of progress, and even if it’s hard to see it sometimes, it usually does get us to a better place. But progress is only meaningful so long as we remember what came before, and for that, I thank you, Hollywood Video, for the years of joy you gave me and others in Berkshire County, and for making the time we currently live in all the more special.