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That time when video rental stores ruled

Posted by Ed Conroy / December 7, 2012

Video Stores TorontoIt may seem quaint now, but at the dawn of the home video age renting tapes was a magical experience. It had taken only a few years for the VCR to evolve from being a costly accessory which allowed viewers to time shift conflicting TV schedules ("You don't have to miss The Fall Guy because you're watching Gavilan") into a bone fide extension of the Hollywood experience in the comfort of their own living rooms.



In 1977, entrepreneur George Atkinson bought one Betamax and one VHS copy of every title in the Magnetic Video catalogue and began to rent them out to the public in the very first video store in North America, "The Video Station". Renting out movies as a business immediately caught fire, and soon almost every Mom & Pop shop, hardware store and gas station carried a variety of VHS and/or Betamax tapes which could be taken home for the night if you laid down cash for a hefty membership, or an even heftier deposit.

Video Station TorontoAlongside the tapes and oversized bags of popcorn, these outlets also rented VCRs: in the early 1980s, even a low end machine retailed for around $1000 so ownership tended to be a folly of the wealthy.

The video rental marketplace proved to be so preposterously lucrative that it was not long before chains rose up and absorbed the early pioneers. In Toronto, early minor major chains included Jumbo Video, Bandito Video, Videoflicks, Video 99, The Video Station, Major Video, National Video, Video Palace, Super Video, and a little outfit called Rogers Video. Retail stores got in on the act as well, so if you were so inclined you could also rent videos from places like 7-11, Eaton's, Becker's, Canadian Tire and even Loblaws. Imagine that, venturing out for apples and instead coming home with a copy of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo tucked under your arm.

The video stores themselves were houses of wonder, especially if you were young and impressionable. In that innocent pre-internet age, there was simply no way to determine what many of these strange movies were, or where they had come from, nowhere more so than the Horror movie section. Gruesome, lurid artwork on oversized boxes stared down from the top shelf, charging our frenzied imaginations with the nightmarish possibilities of what those forbidden films might hold in store.

Eaton's Beta videoCanadian Tire VideosBandito VideoOf course they never quite lived up to the potential of their scary covers, but that was all part of the game (As was the Kabuki theatre of being underage and renting life shaping, trauma inducing hard R-rated material).

Video Store TorontoYou could easily spend hours browsing the various dusty stacks, only to come up with a few titles, and woe if you limited siblings or friends to only 1 rental. It was also an educational experience, as other than phonebook sized guides compiled by Leonard Maltin there was no IMDB, so much film knowledge could be gleaned from studiously reading the copy on video cases. There was a camaraderie fomented between movie lovers who all gravitated to these places of cinema worship, nurtured at some chains by free popcorn to enjoy while you dipped into their deep cuts.

It wasn't all good - there were the notorious late fees, which if ignored could spiral into asphyxiating debt (indeed, this was where most chains made serious money); the seemingly never in, always out new release titles; the tattered copy of Fast Times At Ridgemont High (or insert any 80s teen comedy here) which had serious tracking issues during that scene because it had been rewound and paused so many times; the beaded-off, grown-ups section which just by entering somehow made you feel dirty and illicit, and on and on.

The arrival of Blockbuster's sanitized chain stores en masse in the early 1990s tempered many of these ills but in turn created a host of new ones. Blockbuster would acquire the stock of their prey (smaller chains and Mom & Pop stores) and then exorcise them of anything non-mainstream or slightly off-beat, which pretty much killed off the weird stuff that used to be so fun to discover. They then proceeded to abandon back catalogues altogether in favour of hundreds of copies of new release titles, which weeks later would then be sold-off as "previously viewed". It was a sad state of affairs when you could no longer rent Gandhi but there were 59 copies of Air Force One in stock at any given time on the shelf.

Blockbuster LogoAround the same time as the initial Blockbuster explosion, The Amazing Video Machine appeared, a simple kiosk found in malls and grocery stores stocked with only new release titles. It did not catch on, and the concept died a death before being successfully revived as Red Box.

As consumer technology evolved, the need for traditional brick and mortar video stores evaporated overnight. With sell-through DVDs and Blu-rays, iTunes, VOD, file sharing, streaming, digital film channels clamoring for our short attention, the masses have officially passed on the hassle of seeking out and then returning physical media.

Thankfully, Toronto still hosts a hive of reliable rental stores who managed to bottle some of that early rental store lightning: The Film Buff, Queen Street Video, Suspect, Bay Street Video and Videoflicks (the last one standing) all offer tremendous selections of rare titles, and it's easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of choice, or to once again be seduced by those enticing yet misleading covers (but let's face it - uniform DVD cases will never capture the enigmatic beauty of VHS cases, with their unsightly different sizes and gloriously excessive clamshell packaging).

Vintage VCRGetting access to movies might be quicker and easier than ever before, but the thrill and adventure of the hunt has been suitably dulled by convenience. Clicking a mouse or remote control through pages upon pages of titles with low-res jpg images and/or YouTube links will never come close to that feeling of digging through walls of heavy tapes, or potentially reward you the way unearthing something rare and wonderful based solely on gut intuition (or a cover full of lies) used to when video stores ruled.

Video Store Closing SaleRetrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

Discussion

26 Comments

Steven / December 7, 2012 at 01:46 pm
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Betamax was of better quality but the 'big' players opted for VHS. A real shame. My oncle purchased a VHS in the early 80's and paid over $700. for it. It still works!!!
Brandon / December 7, 2012 at 02:03 pm
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Ah the good old days of Videoflicks at Bayview & Laureleaf. Awesome horror section, even though my brother and I were too young for our parents to actually rent them for us.
Huuk replying to a comment from Steven / December 7, 2012 at 02:06 pm
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The 'big' players only opted for VHS after the Porn industry did. Once porn was only offered on VHS, Betamax had zero chance of survival.
Jacob / December 7, 2012 at 02:09 pm
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The Video Station. I haven't seen that logo in decades! That was the first rental store my family went to. We stuck it out with Betamax until around 1990.
JP / December 7, 2012 at 02:23 pm
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I don't want to be 'the perv' to point this out, but anyone else notice the see-through shirt in the first picture?
GT replying to a comment from JP / December 7, 2012 at 02:33 pm
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Yeah. Saw that, too. Totally on-purpose.
Singer from The Queen Haters / December 7, 2012 at 02:41 pm
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Rick Moranis in the '92 Jumbo Video ad! But no Gerry Todd :(
Beta was a better machine. / December 7, 2012 at 02:59 pm
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Nice rack...It looks like it can hold a lot tapes.
Jason / December 7, 2012 at 03:00 pm
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@JP You weren't the only one to notice the see-through shirt. I think Craig T. Nelson (on the TV) saw it too.
jameson / December 7, 2012 at 03:17 pm
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I'm guessing the copy of Animal House I rented had tracking problems for the same reason...makes sense now.
Alex / December 7, 2012 at 03:33 pm
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Nothing more fun than walking to the local video 99 and renting a movie based solely on the cover art. That's where I saw such gems as The Super Mario Bros live action movie, and countless Van Damme titles. Nobody appreciates bad movies anymore.

Don't forget the weekly video game rentals either!
iseeyou / December 7, 2012 at 03:41 pm
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80's nipples were so much different than the nipples of today.
akwun / December 7, 2012 at 04:24 pm
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love it... in the 80's nipples were puffy and gorgeous!
#nobraday supporter over here.

back on topic.... I remember renting Total Recall from Canadian tire. And yes betamax ruled when it came to quality. Very HD vs BluRay.
Alex replying to a comment from JP / December 7, 2012 at 05:10 pm
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Darn, I wanted to be the first to point it out. You're no perv; who could miss that? I mean, it's bordering on pornographic. Quite the outline on that t-shirt.
Cosmo replying to a comment from Alex / December 7, 2012 at 05:48 pm
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Looks like she has Kramers low-flow shower head though.

That hair, unlike her chest meat, is flat.
MER1978 / December 7, 2012 at 07:01 pm
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No mention of the great 7-24 on Church Street?

http://www.blogto.com/services/7-24-movies-more-toronto
TTOMO / December 7, 2012 at 11:04 pm
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What I don't understand is why the guy is screaming in fear at the nipples.
Greg / December 8, 2012 at 01:52 am
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7-24 Video on Church St. ROCKS. It's open until midnight and right around the corner from where I live. Everything from Hollywood to hard to find titles are there, rent 2 titles Monday to Thursday ($8) get a 3rd for free! Rogers/Shaw/Bell can't compete with that. They also have a great selection of Blu ray titles for HD freaks like me.
p / December 8, 2012 at 05:06 pm
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Please stop using Daliymotion.. so. much. buffering.
Gabe replying to a comment from iseeyou / December 8, 2012 at 08:27 pm
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Well they don't show any candid random titty shots in today's movies like they did back in the day! They showed them in Revenge of the nerds! Meat Balls!
D! / December 10, 2012 at 04:50 pm
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*sigh* Bonanza Video
mark / January 8, 2013 at 10:57 pm
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Ah, days of yore. The best was the dungeon section of Jumbo Video where they housed the horror rentals. It was like a forbidden zone when I was a kid.

Now we're entitled brats...looking for movies in the comfort of our own home and if we don't like it 10 minutes in, we just switch to somethin else! Man, when I was paying $3 to rent "Mac & Me", only 10 minutes in to realize it was a blatant "E.T."; ripoff, there was no turning back! You had to watch that shit. Good days!

This is one of the better articles I've read on BlogTO - lacking all pretension and oozing with nostalgia.

P.S. - Eyesore Cinema is a hidden gem in the city.
Acacia / January 9, 2013 at 01:48 pm
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How come no one has mentioned Eyesore Cinema? They are by far the best video store in town and they have such a bizarre range of titles that you can't get anywhere else .
Derek (aka Mr. Night Guy) / January 10, 2013 at 02:57 pm
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This is a fantastic article and I am proud to say that I worked at many of these stores. I was the midnight man at Jumbo Video on Steeles Ave West before I moved to Videoflicks at Bayview and Laureleaf where I was the midnight guy back in 1989. I also worked at Trendz N Video at Keele and Finch as well as Movies 4 You in Richmond Hill. Great times.

Now I'm a sales rep at a major Canadian distributor of DVDs and I run a poster website on the side www.dlmentertainment.com. Movies are my life and my life blood. I now live in Calgary where video stores are sorely lacking, so I rely on Netflix, Shaw VOD and Cinema Now to get my new release rental fix. It's nowhere near as appealing as walking the aisles and racks at my local store either as an employee or as a customer and telling people to put down bad choices and pick up good ones. Chances are if you came to Videoflicks when I was working, I walked the aisles with you and recommended movies a plenty. If you saw me at Jumbo Video, my popcorn was the best in the city, bar none. Double the oil and double the salt. Tasty as eff folks.

I miss these days tremendously, and I now deal with customers who are keeping this glorious experience alive.

Support your local video store!

Dave / January 10, 2013 at 05:43 pm
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Wow, good times back then and still now. We have been a small town convienience store renting video's for over 20 years now and we still love putting in those long days. Adults, but mostly kids these days are thilled to find a video they want to watch. We love to keep the kids happy espesicially since they can bend the parents ear and wallet. Nothing beats curling up on the couch with some junk food and a good video to watch!
Simon Tarses / January 11, 2013 at 01:26 am
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There are still great video rental places in Toronto:

-Eyesore Cinema

-Queen Video (with 3 locations)

-Suspect Video (first original place had a great selection, too bad that it was destroyed by fire)

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