Video Cultures: Formulating Research into Video Shop Culture


Video Cultures: Formulating Research into Video Shop CultureOne cannot underestimate the significance that the video rental shop had for those who grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s. After numerous discussions between the authors about the role of the video shop in our own lives and the decline of the independent video rental industry, we decided to undertake a research project called Video Cultures. Started in July 2010, the main purpose of the project is to collect the memories of those who value the video shop as a key part of their lives and collate materials from the era such as video cover art and promotional ephemera. Whilst it is too early to draw any significant conclusions from the material gathered to date, this article outlines the early stages of the Video Cultures project and includes some of the multimedia content that we have received thus far. It concludes with a short case study that focuses on an interview we conducted with a VHS collector.

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We need your video shop memories!

We thought we’d put out a call for your video shop memories. If you have answers to any of the following questions, email your responses to

Questions for fans of video culture

What was your local video shop called?

Do you remember the owner?

Did you collect or buy ex-rental tapes from video shops that closed down?

Did your video shop keep a few rare items under the counter?

Did you manage to get 18 certificate films when you were still a youngster?

Did you design your own art work or VHS covers?

Have you imported video tapes from Europe and further afield?

Do you have and still use a VHS player?

Are you thinking of dusting off the VCR, Betamax or Video 2000 player? What old formats do you still enjoy?

Have you been a video shop owner, or are you still?

Let us know!

Digitising VHS: Piracy or Protection?

Video Film Rentals sign
Here at Video Cultures HQ, we’ve been talking about the use of digital technology and the Internet as an archiving tool for video content that has never been released in any high resolution format such as DVD or Blu-Ray. In recent years, a number of ‘link sharing’ websites have sprung up online giving rise to communities of film fans who digitise their old VHS tapes so that their favourite films are not lost to the ravages of time. They then share this material over the Internet with like-minded fans.

What are your thoughts on this practice? Is this simply a flagrant violation of copyright or are there some deeper cultural rituals at work here? After all, who hasn’t discovered a great film or a great album by having a cassette copy thrust into their hands by an eager friend? Are these sorts of communities providing a virtual upgrade on the word of mouth recommendations we all used to receive at our local video shops?

In an age when there is little need to have a conversation in order to rent a movie, download a film on demand or stream a movie from Netflix, should we view communities such as these as people with no respect for the ownership of intellectual property, or as film lovers trying to protect forgotten works from extinction? Can we honestly say that the routine of digitising obsolete VHS tapes results in lost income for the content owner?

The argument is that these kinds of online sharing routines destroy the industry’s ability to make money and therefore damage its ability to make new products. The archivist might suggest that using technology in this way gives the next generation of film fans an opportunity to discover material they would never normally have been exposed to and thus increases the chances of commercial success when older films are eventually remastered and released in a modern format.

Historically, there has been fear in both the video and music industries about home taping on cassette. This was, of course, further transformed by the arrival of digital technology that could produce perfect copies at a low cost. In music, an enormous percentage of all of the albums ever recorded are rotting in vaults because there is no financial incentive to make them available. Could the free market research carried out by this new breed of digital archivist be one of the greatest assets the video industry ever had? Or should film fans seek out those video shops that remain open and instead support them with their custom? Are there even any shops in the UK still carrying obsolete video formats for rental?

In its broadest sense, this is a debate that continues to rage today as media producers try to understand the Internet and its impact upon their existing business models. No doubt the answer lies in the grey area between these two polarities. What are your views on this?

Did you reserve tapes at your video shop?

ITDuring the era of renting VHS tapes from video shops, I would often reserve a film to ensure that I could see it on a particular day. Usually this involved visiting the shop at an earlier time and making arrangements with the owner. Fortunately, there was never a charge for this service. My local video shop was pretty small and managed its catalogue of tapes on paper rather than with a computer. This changed in later years with the advent of affordable database software, but throughout the late 1980s, reserving a tape was typically done in a large paper ledger. As a young film fan, the experience allowed me to vividly imagine what it would be like to borrow money from Ebeneezer Scrooge.

One film that I can remember renting in this way was IT (1990), the Tommy Lee Wallace directed adaptation of the Stephen King novel. I was really excited to see the film as my friend had said that he had heard that it was terrifying. We were about twelve years old at the time, so we spent a fun night staying up late watching the movie. When my pal awoke in the morning, I had left a brightly coloured balloon floating near his pillow. For anyone who has seen IT, suffice to say that the prank got the desired reaction.

Part of the excitement of booking a tape was having to wait until after 5pm for it to be returned to the shop by the previous customer. There were always a few anxious telephone calls to the grizzled entrepreneur who owned the shop. He would eventually utter the magic words: “it’s in”.

Do you have memories of reserving VHS tapes at your local video store? If so, publish them on this site by emailing your story to

Charity shops: the VHS graveyard

Charity shopsThis post was contributed by Jerome Turner.

I mostly encounter videos now in charity shops, and always find it interesting how the same films seem to turn up a lot. Mostly Jurassic Park and the like, always a few ‘keep fit’ videos too, probably dumped after the New Year resolution to lose weight goes out the window.

There also seem to be a lot of children’s VHS tapes in charity shops. I guess this may be partly due to the popularity of DVD formats, but also the ‘always on’ nature of CBeebies and other kids channels. I know the idea of buying kids DVDs seems a bit defunct.

I wonder how many people actually buy charity shop VHS tapes? People must do, otherwise the staff would just bin them I guess.

In search of Big Choice

ClerksThis post was contributed by Jon Hickman.

Another Clerks riff for this post. Randall talks about working in a “shitty video store”, and lusts after a trip to Big Choice – his VHS mecca. The proudest VHS moment in my life was having seen everything worth watching in Blockbuster, and then getting stuck into all the other stores which held better back catalogues. This is kind of a flip reverse on Randall’s approach to renting films: I love an independent, and I’d be happier in RTS Video than I would in Big Choice.

Blockbuster’s stores (and by the look of it, in Clerks, Big Choice’s too) have always been based around charts. The store is laid out in terms of charts, and the stock rotates with the chart too. Although Erdington Blockbuster had a golden age circa 2000 where it held older movies, most Blockbuster stores I’ve been to seemed to drop a line into ex-rental as soon as it left the Top-20. Indies tended to hold stock for much longer, allowing members to pick up movies they missed first time around, or maybe allowing them to revisit some lost classics. They also held films that wouldn’t pull big bucks in the first week of being on rental – a proper world section, some indie sleeper hits – the VHS Long Tail.

A few independent stores I’ve used over the years held phenomenal stock levels. The video store on Beeches Walk in Sutton Coldfield (now a Hunter’s Estate agents, natch) had the VHS sleeves mounted into slimline display cases so they could display all the choices in a room about 10 feet by 10 feet square. You could flip through the sleeves like a vinyl rack, and then retrieve your VHS from the desk. The back room must have been like a TARDIS to hold that much stock. The point of all this is, you felt in charge of your movie experience. You had a real big choice; the charts didn’t dictate your choice for you.

And on that point we should note that Blockbuster has a role to play not just in terms of the movies that are available to you, but to the formats that you can rent. VHS died not when Curry’s stopped selling the machines, but when Blockbuster and HMV stopped providing the software. On the rare trips I make to the rental store now, I start to feel that it might be time to go BluRay: Blockbuster is winding down the DVD choice, calling time on another solid format.

Where does the next Tarantino work?

This post was contributed by Jon Hickman.

Have you ever noticed how video shops in popular culture confer expertise on people? In Clerks Randall bemoans the lack of vision his customers have when it comes to movie choices.

 Randall is a guardian of movie knowledge, and a major VHS snob.

 A big part of Quentin Tarantino’s back story is that he was a video shop clerk. The Tarantino myth relies upon this small fact about a mundane job; it shows that QT is steeped in popular culture, and, like Randall, he is a guardian to movie knowledge. His proximity to all that stored up movie-ness makes him the movie-lovers auteur.
So as video stores disappear, what does the next Tarantino do for a living?

It’s All Greek To Me

Apollo videoThought for the day: Any ideas as to why so many video shops had Greek inspired names?  In Birmingham we had Apollo Video (was this part of the same chain who now own Apollo Cinemas?), Olympia Video and, perhaps my favourite, Aphrodite Video.  Surely this cannot be a coincidence?  Were there any other shops in the UK that had similar names?