Miércoles 12 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 161

Elegy for the video store
Por John Swansburg

IN AN ESSAY recently published in The New York Times Book Review, John Updike noted that, ``mirabile dictu," the small New England city where he lives still holds an independent bookstore-"one of the few surviving in the long coastal stretch between Marblehead and Newburyport."

I happen to know that bookstore; I grew up just a few miles down the road from it, in Beverly, and bought books there as a kid. Yet when I read Updike's encomium for such ``lonely forts," I couldn't help but think of a different outpost, one that never enjoyed such praise from on high, and one that, unlike the bookshop, closed its doors not long ago: Photographics, the video store where I rented movies growing up.

The demise of the independent bookstore has been augured for nearly a generation now, the inevitable casualty of behemoths like Borders and Barnes & Noble, online booksellers like Amazon, and ultimately, so we're told, of the universal, digital library imagined by Google and various techno-visionaries. The more imminent demise of the video store, meanwhile, has merited only occasional notice, mostly in the business pages. Yet something important is being lost here, something that isn't going to be replaced by rent-by-mail outfits like Netflix, video-on-demand services, or newfangled delivery systems like the Disney-backed MovieBeam. Though it may never have acquired the cache of the independent bookstore, for people who care about movies, the video store is just as vital an institution.

Video stores aren't just a place to grab a movie. The halfway decent ones-in other words, not Blockbuster, which is almost entirely given over to new releases, the so-called back wall-are places where the enthusiasms of the cinephile find a home. The theater is a place to see movies; the video store is a place to be among them-and to be among other people who love movies.

The video store is in some ways an accident of history. Hollywood feared what videos would do to its box office receipts and treated the VCR as an adversary, even suing Sony for making them. The cable industry, meanwhile, believed that pay-per-view would obviate the need for video rentals.

Yet only in recent years has the pay-per-view model, in the form of on-demand, finally begun living up to its early promise, and while Hollywood didn't manage to kill off the VCR, the DVD just about has, a dire development for the video store owner. (When you can own a movie for $10, you're less inclined to rent it for $4.) At the same time, the media giants, eager to grab their slice of the rental market, keep dreaming up new ways of saving you the trip to the video store. MovieBeam sends movies to a $200 set-top box by encoding them in the signal of your local PBS station.

These new, more direct delivery mechanisms have their benefits, of course. Thanks to Netflix, provided you've got a DVD player and a mail stop, it's now possible to live in upstate Idaho and still be able to sample the complete works of Bernardo Bertolucci. (Or most of them-judging by the crowd at a recent Brattle screening, I'm not the only one who's impatient for ``The Conformist" to hit DVD.)

But the problem with on-demand is selection-at least for now, it isn't much better than your average Blockbuster, limited to a tiny fraction of all the movies ever made. Netflix, on the other hand, has unbeatable selection (some 60,000 titles), but it's not exactly on-demand: It takes a couple of days for the movies to get to you by mail, and Tuesday's high-minded desire to finally see ``The Bicycle Thief" may not last until Thursday, when you've got a low-brow hankering for ``Gone in Sixty Seconds."

One day, no doubt, there will be a service that will combine wide selection with on-demand delivery-movies will be as easily digitized and transmitted as songs are now. But it's not just about selection and delivery.

In his essay, Updike noted that he's had the good fortune in his life to live near good bookstores, and I've admittedly had good luck with my video stores-Kim's in New York City and the aptly named Best Video in Hamden, Conn. The only title I ever asked for that Best Video didn't have was the reportedly dreadful 1968 adaptation of John Fowles's novel ``The Magus," starring Anthony Quinn. But, mirabile dictu, one of the clerks had seen the movie, and was more than happy to tell me all about what I wasn't missing.

Yet even a place like Photographics-where the clerks were no budding Tarantinos, internalizing genre pictures between customers-still nurtured my appreciation for film. Long before I'd ever heard of auteur theory, the store's Hitchcock section had me thinking about the role of the director. And, as in a good bookstore, I made accidental discoveries that are only possible while browsing (and can't be replicated with a web browser). Cutting through Westerns en route to Action to rent ``Lethal Weapon 2" for the umpteenth time, Clint Eastwood, gazing out from the faded cardboard cover of ``A Fistful of Dollars," catches my teenage eye.

I recognize what's lost when an independent bookstore folds because it's unable to keep up with the B&N that just opened at the mall. Yet at least there's still a bookstore in town with a wide selection of books-still a place where you can flip through ``Gravity's Rainbow" before you commit to owning it.

When the video store disappears, as it has from the neighborhood of Boston where I live, where do you go? Library collections tend to be Merchant Ivory or bust; Best Buy has a better selection, but it's an electronics store, more concerned with showing off the sonic prowess of its home theaters than creating a space to discuss the lesser works of Billy Wilder.

So I make do with my Netflix account. But I miss my old video stores, and I worry about what the fall of these lonely forts will mean. Going to the movies was always a shared experience, and at least in the age of the video store, we still had occasion to brush elbows with other people who had decided to spend the night watching a movie. It's not too hard to imagine the same forces that gave us Netflix and MovieBeam tempting us to forgo the big screen altogether and just watch the new Spike Lee joint at home on satellite. (Indeed, Steven Soderbergh has already experimented with releasing a movie to theaters and TV simultaneously.) Watching a movie, then, would be as solitary an act as reading a book.


  09/07/2006. Boston.com.