Five years ago, both an independent video store and a Blockbuster Video could be found within three blocks of my apartment. Of the two, I preferred the indie place because it had been there longer and had a more diverse selection in addition to the requisite pasty film geeks manning the desk. The Blockbuster was bright, festooned with corporate branding, filled with countless copies of a few mainstream titles and employed indifferent high school kids. On principle, I wanted to support the little guy struggling to survive in the face of a corporate giant. It worked, mostly. As it turns out, Blockbuster was the one struggling in the face of changing technologies. After a few years, the commercial chain store quietly closed its doors and faded away along with many of its brethren across the country. It was another year or so later when, after 25 years serving the neighborhood’s movie rental needs, the independent store also shut down.
A few different aspects of this situation frustrate me to no end. First, and most selfishly, there is nowhere within easy walking distance for me to rent a movie anymore. For most people in the country, this is not a big deal because they can just drive the extra mile over to the next Blockbuster or Hollywood Video or whatever. I live in Manhattan and do not own a car. For something as trivial as a video rental, if I can’t walk there within ten minutes, it’s not worth going. When I complained of the situation to friends, their answer was simple, just join Netflix. The movies come to you. For a flat fee, Netflix sends one or two movies at time based on a list you compile on their website. It’s a very simple, user-friendly process. But that’s not how I rent movies.
When I was a small child relishing the miracle of my family’s brand new VCR, we would all pile into the car and go to the video rental place. I learned the pleasures of browsing the shelves, looking at titles and poster art, debating whether we should get a comedy or action movie based on what we felt like watching at the time. It was a social activity. As an adult, I still enjoyed roaming from one genre section to another thinking about what kind of mood I was in and whether it was more conducive to an indie thriller that I’d heard was really good or the romantic comedy that I already knew I liked. Or maybe something else entirely would catch my eye and be the perfect choice even though I hadn’t known it existed before. Or feeling indecisive, I could just ask the film geek at the desk for a recommendation. The options were endless.
For all its convenience, Netflix can’t provide the satisfaction of an impulse. The movies come to you in a steady stream of titles you picked out at some point when you had a few minutes to mull it over and then forget about it. How can you know what kind of mood you’ll be in when the movie finally shows up two days later? Of course it’s lovely that there are no late fees, but that means DVDs arrive and sit around collecting dust when you don’t have the time or inclination to watch them and send them back. Meanwhile, you continue to pay the monthly fee. And if you change your mind at the last minute and decide you’d rather watch something else on your queue, or some other film entirely, you have to wait for the one you don’t want anymore to show up before you can send it back in exchange for the one you do want which won’t show up for another two days, by which time you may not want it anymore either. It was so much easier to just walk into a store and pick up whatever caught your eye at that moment, and take it home to watch right then. The digital world’s answer to this is the instant view function, which allows you to watch select titles on your computer or via a box that connects your television to one provider or another. Aside from the questionable video quality, limited list of options, and necessity for even more tech gadgets; scrolling through titles on a screen just isn’t as satisfying or as informative as picking up a little plastic box with poster art on it and turning it over to look at pictures, review quotes, plot summary, and all the other miscellaneous details.
Secondly, I’m irritated and disappointed with Blockbuster and its kin in the world of traditional media corporations. This is partially because I work for one of those corporations and, I’m pretty sure that in about ten years, my job will be obsolete. But it really comes down to the widely recognized and basic fact that they didn’t see it coming. All of the huge multibillion dollar, international, media conglomerates never anticipated that at some point, they would have to evolve. Now, they’re all either playing catch up or shutting down, which just leads to more inconvenience for me. As a result of the online digital revolution and deficient and/or greedy business strategies, there are fewer and fewer places to go shopping for media of any kind, but especially music and movies. I freely admit that iTunes is a wonderful thing. It is amazing that you can open up a computer program and buy music, movies, TV shows, and what have you from all over world and from a wide variety of sources and then put in all onto a little device that fits in your pocket. It truly is a miracle of modern technology that we pretty much take for granted now. Just like I took video and music stores for granted my whole life.
When I first came to New York as a college student, I was impressed by the size of music stores here. An HMV at 72nd Street and Broadway had two floors. That was nothing compared to the Tower Records near Lincoln Center whose classical music section alone was the size of any entire music store in the malls back home. When the Virgin Megastore opened up in Times Square, some of my fellow students and I made a pilgrimage to check out the reason for all hype. One of my companions looked at the multiple escalators, flat screen monitors and aisles upon aisles of CDs, and breathed, “Yeah, it’s pretty mega.” He was right. Walking into that store wasn’t just shopping, it was an experience. Listening stations lined the walls, a DJ played a more diverse song list than most radio stations, you could find just about anything that had ever been put on a CD or DVD, and it had a multiplex movie theater right inside! But each chain, had its own brand and its own personality. HMV was dark with moody pink and purple highlights, a Brit pop rebel that never quite got over the 80s. Tower, on the other hand, felt like the super cool, sunny California native that it was, with huge windows and airy spaces. None of these retail chains exists in the United States anymore, but they can all be found on the internet, where the shopping experience is exactly the same as at any other online store, the only difference is the logo on the home page.
Which brings me back to my point that for a culture so obsessed with shopping, we are gradually losing our venues for it. Yes, I know, anything you can find in a store, you can also find on a website. Point, click, type in a few crucial numbers, click again and eventually the item will show up at your door, or possibly your office mailroom. But that means you have to wait for it to get to you, wait until it is already yours, before you can touch it, look at it, or decide whether or not it fits or the color is right. And if you don’t like it, you’re either stuck with it or you have to go through the process of sending it back. What’s wrong with the old fashioned method of going to a store, walking around, looking at the options, standing at a listening station, asking a salesperson’s or fellow shopper’s opinion? I love the immediacy of seeing something in a store and knowing that I like it and want it and can walk out with it in my hand. I enjoy looking around and seeing what other people are looking at or listening to or talking about. And what’s more convenient than being able to run to a store and pick something up?
Several weeks ago, I was assigned a project at work that required me to watch a handful of specific movies within a pretty short time frame. I sent my production assistant out to get the DVDs. They were all mainstream titles that should have been easy to find, except that our old standby, the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, was closing and therefore no longer restocking. The Union Square location had similarly slowed down on restocking. Both stores had sold out their copies of one of the films on the list and wouldn’t be getting new ones. We suddenly realized that, with the closing of the Union Square Virgin Megastore, New York City would no longer have a large dedicated music and video store. I don’t want to diminish the value of the handful of local independent places that are still holding on. If anything, they are more valuable than ever. But their resources are limited, almost by definition. And their numbers have been dwindling for years. In a city that has long been associated with the creation of music and film, it’s getting harder and harder to find places that actually sell the stuff. Currently, Best Buy is making a notable effort to fill that void, but DVD shopping there is not unlike shopping at Sears. Your favorite movies are just twenty feet from the vacuum cleaners and dishwashers.
And that leads to the third aspect of my original story that drives me nuts. When my neighborhood independent video place shut down, it was not for lack of business but because their landlord wouldn’t compromise on a rent hike. And, as it turns out, the US Virgin Megastores are not, in fact, victims of the recession or even the struggling music industry. As a chain, they had been able to prop themselves up by expanding their retail offerings and they were consistently profitable. In 2007, Virgin Entertainment Group North America was acquired by a partnership of two real estate companies. Those companies decided, quite early on, that the spaces the stores occupied were worth more than the stores themselves. So, just as with my little local video rental place, it all came down to real estate. That place was driven out over two years ago, right around the peak of the real estate boom. The storefront has been empty ever since. The situation at the Times Square Virgin is a bit different, since the owners secured a new tenant before even announcing that the store would shut down. A year from now, that site will be home to the largest, and no doubt most obnoxious, Forever 21 clothing shop that anyone would ever want to see. Apparently, cheap trendy clothes bring in a lot more money than music or movies these days. I can’t argue with that. But it does make me sad.
Change is hard sometimes. As much as I appreciate downloading songs off iTunes (and of course there was no other way to get Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog), I also enjoy shopping as a social activity. It was a great thing to walk out of a movie with a friend and wander into the Virgin to see if anything interesting had come out or discuss the merits of a DVD’s special features. And, of course, artist in-store appearances are a thing of the past. Even if I rarely went to them, it was nice that they happened. What it comes down to is that I don’t like losing my options. What bothers me even more is the idea that this is just the beginning. How long before Kindle and Amazon partner with real estate developers to kill off Barnes & Noble? At least two Barnes & Noble locations in Manhattan have already been shut down thanks to the real estate industry’s irrational exuberance. One of those was among the chain’s most profitable stores, and its space has been vacant ever since.
There is an inherent value in doing things in person, value in the tactile turning of a page, reading of liner notes that are not electronic files, and being handed a pen to sign your name on a receipt. Right now, we still have the option in most cases, of taking part in these tiny human moments. But as a culture, we are in transition in ways many of us don’t even realize. In our thirst for cheaper, faster, more convenient consumption, we are gradually giving up things that are more basic and just as valuable. The physical act of making eye contact, or sometimes just as significantly avoiding it, is one of the most basic and most crucial elements of human society. As we turn to wider uses of all our wonderful technology, we must also maintain opportunities to engage with each other and the world around us because all our gains do have their costs, and we are wise to be mindful of them.