I've been seeing a lot of nostalgia for the VHS era. Despite it being the worst format in the history of movie distribution, there is a huge amount of affection for the videocassette. Tapes are harder to find all the time, and some of them command pretty big dollars in collector circles.

Blockbuster is seen by many to be the hub of the whole VHS phenomenon. I beg to differ.

It's difficult to imagine now, with everything at our fingertips (for a devastating price), but the advent of VCRs and movie rentals was a dream come true. It seemed too good to be true for movie fans like me. Being able to watch what we wanted, when we wanted to see it. To be able to start and stop at will. Miraculous times.

I remember the first time I entered a video store. It was a bit of a drive. Just a couple of years later there would be video stores on damned near every corner, and tapes for rent in every convenience store. It was a national craze, and one I was in love with.

The store was a locally-owned establishment called Rent-a-tainment. I walked in with friends, one of whom had access to a big old clunky front loader videocassette recorder and player. I was like a starved child entering candyland. So many titles to choose from. I was literally overwhelmed by it all.

In time some of my friends obtained VCRs. I finally got my own in 1987. I put that mother to good use, watching at least one movie per day. I often watched two or three. Sometimes even more than that.

This was before Blockbuster reared its ugly head in our town. I lived across the street from an Erol's, which at the time was the biggest chain of video stores in the world. Erol's revolutionized the movie rental industry.

I got to know the manager of Erol's, and he would let me take promotional screeners home. He would ask my opinion on horror movies, and he would send customers my way who were asking about them. I knew all the employees.

I spent a lot of time in there. It was a great place to strike up conversations about movies. This was before people generically said they were going to rent a new release. People were interested in everything. Old, new, weird, classics.

There were Mom and Pop shops everywhere. I belonged to numerous stores. Back then a movie freak like myself hit as many locations as possible. You never knew when you would make a choice find of an obscure Italian horror opus, or maybe a classic low budget action movie.

I was friends with the managers at all of them. I was obviously not your average rube wandering around the store, clueless about movie history.

It was a great time of my life. I would get up on Saturday morning and head out and hit various video stores. With luck I would find something special to watch that night. Along the way I would hang out with movie people in the shops. I loitered around the horror sections all the time.

The time was idyllic. Video stores everywhere, record shops and bookstores in the mall, independent theaters, drive-ins, and horror was red hot. I reveled in it all.

The first Blockbuster Video opened its doors in my area in, I believe, 1989. I wasn't exactly overjoyed to see corporate overlords coming in, but I went anyway. How could I not?

It was an unfriendly place from the start. I don't remember all the details, but I know they gave me a hard time about joining. They needed an inordinate amount of credentials. I was living as under the radar as possible back then. The other video stores were pleased to have me as a member, and made it easy to become one. Blockbuster seemed to want my blood.

I avoided Blockbuster whenever I could. I never felt at home there, and I never got to know a single employee. I was a member of at least four locations, too. The Blockbuster workers acted like automatons. Not a one appeared interested in discussing movies. They acted cold and as efficient as possible. Even snobby, as if their menial jobs made them superior. Being under corporate tyranny does that to people. And the customers were dehumanized numbers as much as the employees were.

But go I did. Blockbuster had a large section of foreign films, and I had no other opportunities to see The Virgin Spring, Fox and His Friends, That Obscure Object of Desire, or 8 1/2. Not to mention cinematic milestones like The Undertaker and His Pals, Wild Guitar, and Invasion of the Bee Girls.

I even owe Blockbuster a debt, because I was unable to see early John Waters movies without sending away for them at prohibitive prices. One Blockbuster had Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. No Pink Flamingos. I guess the reputation of that one prevented it being there.

I even had a letter printed in the flagship magazine of the underground, Film Threat Video Guide, defending my membership to Blockbuster.

What got me irate was how Blockbuster started buying out all the small, independent competition. The Mom and Pops began to disappear. Blockbuster bought out the best of them all, Erol's, in 1990 to the tune of forty million dollars.

That isn't the worst of it. Blockbuster wanted to demolish the competition. I guess that's understandable. But when they bought out video stores, they destroyed the tapes the places owned. Blockbuster Video didn't want anyone watching anything other than their own rental properties.

Nazis destroy art.

When it came to unrated movies, Blockbuster would choose to carry the R-Rated editions. They claimed to be the champions of family entertainment. Well, I had a family. What if I chose to watch something intended for adults after my children went to bed?

Blockbuster also carried pan-and-scan versions of movies instead of widescreen prints if they had the choice. Not all the time, but often enough to piss me off.

Blockbuster Video saw its peak around 2004. The winds were changing though, and the rental giant began to lose steam. Bad decisions plagued the company. They partnered with Enron, which did not turn out well. Blockbuster declined to purchase Netflix for fifty million dollars in 2000.

By 2010 the writing was on the wall. Blockbuster held on for a few years, but the end was inevitable. They initiated a foolish policy to eliminate late fees in a desperate bid to survive. Why would people bother to return a movie on time, or at all, without fees?

When Blockbuster collapsed, no one was happier about it than me. I did not, and I do not love streaming movies, but the bad taste I had for Blockbuster is still in my mouth.

I get the nostalgia. Many people were children when Blockbuster was at the top. They remember going with their parents to the video store. Picking out tapes, buying nuclear, toxic microwave popcorn, getting movie memorabilia, and going back home to a blissful family movie night.

But me, I remember a time when the movie rental business was purer. The days when the industry was friendlier and a lot more fun. I know business owners' primary focus is to make profits, but it seemed like it was more about the love of movies in the wonderful early days of VHS.

Written by Mark Sieber

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