This morning I awoke at the completely unreasonable hour of 5:30 am (thank you, jetlag) craving the 1995 movie Circle of Friends.  No, I can’t really explain it. It was not my favorite movie. Most likely it was due to my recent extended stay in Ireland. I am already craving the lilting, pleasant accent – for some reason my mind bypassed the obvious classics Leap Year and The Matchmaker – and went straight to this movie. It came out during my freshman year in college.

My immediate assumption was that I could Netflix or Amazon Prime this gem in order to both soothe my ears and possibly lull me back to sleep. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that no, apparently this movie is only available on DISC. Wha-at?  What year is this, guys? How can I not have instant access to a 20-year-old movie starring Minnie Driver (love her) and Chris O’Donnell (remember him?)?  Wait, I was a college freshman 20 years ago?  What is happening here? 5:30 am is clearly too early to be awake and suffering from this existential angst.

So in lieu of lying on the couch indulging myself, I hereby offer you a memorialization of the video store.

As long as I can remember, I have loved movies and had access to some way of playing them on demand.  In my youngest days we had a Betamax in our living room; my brother and I would use it to tape movies from the Disney Channel and watch them over and over again – Swiss Family Robinson, Babes in Toyland, The Parent Trap (the original, go away Lindsay Lohan), and Escape From/To Witch Mountain feature prominently in these recollections.  

During my fourth grade year, my family moved to England (military brat), and the first actual video store I remember in my life is the tiny one attached to the Base Exchange. Getting to go and pick out movies was a special treat for my brother and I. My dad, an early pioneer in the art of video piracy, had by then acquired a VHS player and figured out how to hook them together so that we could rent VHS videos and copy them onto Betamax and watch them over and over again. Enter The Goonies, a movie so beloved by my brother and I that we wore out the tape. My fourth grade teacher had to gently steer me away from my not-so-subtle plagiarizing it in every short story I wrote that year.

During high school, we moved back to Austin and there was a Sound Exchange walking distance from my house. Video rentals were a cool 99 cents and there were endless aisles of VHS tapes to browse.  Sound Exchange of course has long gone out of business and been replaced by charity thrift stores (where my dad now spends even more of his time than the video store).

In college, I was the proud owner of a television set that actually had a VHS slot built into it – the grand prize at the raffle at grad night.  (That television, by the way, was not replaced in my life until well after VHS had gone out of existence. I believe it actually accompanied me across the country and through countless apartments to finally be retired in 2004 or so.)  Naturally I lugged all my VHS tapes to the dorm and my girlfriends and I spent many hours recuperating from hangovers watching When Harry Met Sally. There was a Hastings just up the road and we made frequent trips to rent unremarkable movies for group viewings on my 10” TV screen. 

Eventually back in Austin, I lived walking distance from The Movie Store, an icon which has – you guessed it – gone out of business. I would stroll down there many evenings and peruse the selection. DVDs were a new phenomenon and the store had both VHS and DVD, since not many movies had transitioned to DVD. Around this time, my girlfriends and I decided we were going to watch the entire Twin Peaks series. It had not yet been released on DVD so we had to search out VHS tapes. This took us around a year. I think we probably visited every video store in the central Austin area in this quest, since half the time the episode we wanted would be checked out. I guess we weren’t the only ones eating cherry pie, drinking coffee, and scratching our heads.

Then along came Netflix. I didn’t think about the impact my decision to subscribe would have on the small video stores I had once loved browsing in. Once those discs started popping up in my mailbox every few days, I was hooked. At first I was on the one-at-a-time plan, but then I discovered Freaks and Geeks and upped my membership so I didn’t have to wait 3 days for the next one. I stayed on the DVD-by-mail plan for much longer than was necessary. A couple of years ago in a budgeting frenzy, I realized we were spending an extra $7 a month on DVDs that would sit languishing on top of the entertainment center for months (months!) while we lazily surfed the instant video section.

These days our DVD player is possessed by a demon that doesn’t pause the tray when it pops out to receive the disc; it just sucks straight back into the machine sometimes crunching on my pitiful offering. It knows its days are numbered.

I can’t remember the last time I went to a video store. But hopefully there’s still one that has Circle of Friends—maybe this one I just googled, which opens at 6 am and has a gym attached. That’s genius.

Maybe there is hope left for the video industry after all.