You And Me And Five Bucks.
The last video rental chain in America is closing.
The last movie I ever rented was "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?" The transaction took place at the Blockbuster Video in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
It was 2010.
Even at this point, it was clear Blockbuster wasn’t long for the world. The lights weren’t on. They were selling the racks off of the walls. I bought Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm for $9.99. A pajama bottom-clad employee informed me that Virginia was due back in two days unless I waited five days, in which case they’d be closed forever and I could just keep it.
"Would I just put in the slot, then? Or…" I inquired.
"Do whatever you want,” she said. “This is my last day."
She then followed me outside and had a smoke in the parking lot. It was 3 degrees.
You know the story. The Sun Prairie Blockbuster turned into a Goodwill, and soon every Blockbuster in the world (but 1) turned into something else. The same thing happened with Hollywood Video a couple years prior. But just down the street, on the opposite side of the very same city, Family Video was standing firm and proud. In fact, the Family Video in Sun Prairie remained in business until this very month, only now liquidating their remaining brick-and-mortar locations in February of 2021.
I decided to pay Family Video one last visit to see if I could get to the bottom of how they made it so far for so long, how they managed to outlive every other major video chain in the United States, and if they still carried Hot Grape Warheads.
"Grape what now? We have whatever’s left on the other side of this counter," the nice woman says to me as I peruse the $2 bin. The store is nearly picked clean, but she’s still plenty busy answering phones and fielding inquiries from curious vultures. "Yes, we’re open for three more weeks." "No, we can’t hold anything for you." "I’m not positive we have Rango, but I can check on the computer."
I’m the only person in the store. When she hangs up the phone for the third time, she exasperatedly says aloud to the room, "If you’re not planning on coming in until everything is a dollar, why did you call and waste my time?" I chuckle from the other side of the poster rack, and we strike up a conversation.
In 1995, Keith Hoogland took over the video arm of his dad’s multifacted real estate and distribution company, Highland Ventures. Because Blockbuster already had their blue and yellow hooks sunk into larger American cities, Hoogland and Family Video attempted to establish themselves mostly in rural areas and midsize cities (ie: where I live). And while locations were primarily relegated to the Midwest and Canada, Family Video had up to 800 stores at its peak, and (perhaps more surprisingly) almost 600 at the end of 2019. By the end of 2016, Family Video was already the sole-surviving video rental chain in the United States.
What set Family Video apart, however slightly from the rest of the brick-and-mortar video chains, was their attempts to innovate within the confines of a very niche business model. For one, Family Video owned the real estate housing their stores (thanks, Highland Ventures!), helping to avoid the messy lease negotiations that led to the demise of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Furthermore, it meant that when the video rental market started to show signs of drying up, they diversified. In 2013 for example, they formed a partnership with Marco’s Pizza, splitting their store into one-half video, one-half takeout restaurant. Not a bad idea. Besides, what sort of psychopath rents a movie without getting pizza and a 2-liter anyway? This is the sort of thing written into Wisconsin’s state statutes.
While this diversification was vital to keeping the business afloat, it’s a bummer in its own right from a nostalgia standpoint. Remember when you popped into a Suncoast Motion Picture Company or FYE in their dying years? Sure, there was Anime and CDs, but they were in a corner obfuscated by novelty items and t-shirts. Carnival garbage Suncoast never would have sold in 1996. A shell of itself, wholesaling everything and nothing at the same time while straying from its initial specialty. This rang true with Family Video as well: The majesty of renting Heat on a Friday night can only be tarnished when it’s sitting on the same shelf as CBD oil and waffle-flavored vape juice.
"2021, be kind but please don’t rewind!" says a handwritten sign that I don’t quite understand behind the disheveled counter. "#SaveTheVideoStore" is written in soap on the window. When I approach with my stack of DVDs to purchase, an alarm goes off with each barcode scan. The nice woman sighs each time, punches in a secret code, and moves onto the next box. Same alarm, same code, each time.
She explains that the corporate software is set to alert the employee when they are about to sell a DVD that isn’t supposed to be for sale. Each time, she has to punch in a bypass code, because well, everything’s for sale now. I could probably buy the scanner if I asked nicely. "The least they could do for us is disable that alarm," she says. I briefly fantasize about Family Video World Headquarters, where a gnat buzzes in circles around a naked lightbulb dangling over a single computer. The screen blinks ‘BYPASS UNAUTHORIZED PURCHASE? Y/N.’
The building has long since been abandoned. Ain’t nobody authorizing shit.
Another innovation that had Family Video zigging instead of zagging was in the physical ownership of the movies themselves. Rather than depending on the revenue-sharing model used by Blockbuster, Family Video bought and owned its movies, allowing it to keep 100% of the rental gains. So that $2.99 I plunked down for Freddy Got Fingered in 2001- plus the additional $18 I accrued in late fees- was pure profit, bay-bee.
Like most businesses that were hanging by a thread, however, it was COVID-19 that dealt the final death blow. Due to the pandemic, Family Video was forced to close 200 stores in the Fall of 2020, with the remaining 300 ordered closed on January 5. Any leftover product, I assume, will be squished into cubes at the landfill, a la E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. The very same company-owned product that allowed them to survive this long in the first place. Freddy Got Fingered deserved better.
The bell above the door jingles and a man comes in and shakes the snow off of his beanie. "What’s going on in here?" he asks as he looks at the bare shelves. His voice echoes off the back wall.
"We’re…going out of business," the nice woman says. "I’m sorry; I thought everyone knew that by now."
"So…no rentals, then?" The man asks.
"No rentals, just purchases."
The man leaves, and I am utterly baffled. The woman, even though it’s her job to rent movies to civilians, seems equally flabbergasted. Our shared look says it all; this guy represents the fraction-of-a-fraction-of-a-percent of people that kept this store open for the last 15 years, and yet seemed blindsided by what appeared obvious to literally everyone for the same amount of time. Why are you here, and where have you been?
I bought a handful of movies that I didn’t need and will never watch. I would later find out that I already owned a couple of them. That was beside the point. The act of purchase was ceremonial; I was in it purely for a dopamine hit. I bought Reality Bites because it was one of the movies I remember renting most in the 90s. It was the movie one of my friends would instinctively grab any time we went out. I bought The Lawnmower Man because I saw it in the theater when I was 10 and couldn’t believe it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (the reasons were many). I grabbed Godzilla, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity because they represented some of my favorite movie theater memories of the last 15 years. They all made sense, even if they only made sense to me.
A brief aside regarding Paranormal Activity. I surprised the Missus and a couple friends with a midnight screening the night it premiered (I am sometimes a good friend). The theater was packed, and for the first time in my life, I attended a showing where multiple seemingly-apocryphal audience things actually happened in front of my very eyes. People cowered and shook with their eyes closed. I saw someone throw up after not being able to run out in time (she was possibly drunk). After the first big scare of the film, an imposing man stood up, calmly said "Y’all have a good night," and walked out of the theater. Everybody laughed. It ruled.
My favorite rental memory was in the Summer of 1998 when, in anticipation of the absurdly-titled Halloween H20 hitting theaters, my friends and I rented all six preceding Halloweens and pulled an all-nighter. The next evening, groggy and punch-drunk, we watched H20 at the Valley Fair Mall in a completely-empty theater. When Jamie Lee Curtis decapitated Michael Myers in the closing minute (spoiler), we cheered and high-fived, basking in the spoils of a 30-hour slasher marathon. It ruled, too.
A final thing I’ll mention about the business acumen of Family Video in opposition to their main competition: Porn!
Despite their name, a big factor that made Family Video stand out is that a certain number of locations have the classic backroom section featuring Adult rentals. No beaded curtains or saloon doors here; just a nondescript door by the bathroom that says "Adults Only." An article I read stated that 'Family Video didn’t respond to a request about how many locations host adult titles, nor any data regarding adult rentals and sales.' But one has to assume that this attributed somewhat to their staying power. The reasons why someone would continue to frequent a video store for pornography in 2021 will never be known, asked or researched further by yours truly. I’mma let these folks have their space. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Sun Prairie was indeed one of those lucky Adult-friendly locations, and while my curiosity was piqued, some things never change. At 39, I was still too nervous and tittering to walk through the door. It was likely my last chance to ever do it, and I still couldn’t. What if someone was in there and we made eye contact? What if it was empty and I had to do a Grandpa Simpson 360? What if the door was locked and made a loud noise when I put my shoulder into it, triggering a citywide Perv Alarm? Couldn’t take the chance; I’m gonna run for City Council one day!
(And hey, if you’re still as interested as I was, I did find this clip someone else made of a typical Family Video Adult Section, and it’s more robust than anything I would have ever possibly imagined. It’s probably 33% of the total square footage of the entire store.)
The nice woman catches me lingering a little too long. "It’s empty," she says, scrunching her face and letting me off the hook. "Sorry."
To noboby’s surprise, my $33 purchase (including this sign) wasn’t enough to #SaveTheVideoStore and keep Family Video afloat. But we can’t miss something, or pretend to miss something, until it’s truly gone.
Family Video went out of business because of course it went out of business; there’s no need to drill deeper. At this point, lamenting the death of the Video Store itself is a nostalgia act. I surely did nothing to help. Renting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? every week for the last 11 years would have done nothing but earn me a welfare check from the Sun Prairie Police Department. It’s a hard truth: We’re not bummed because physical property no longer needs to exchange hands every time we want to watch Space Jam, we’re just bummed that it’s not 1996 anymore.
I spend a lot of time writing about, thinking about, and analyzing the concept of Nostalgia. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that Nostalgia is a drug. Nostalgia can heighten experiences and it can ruin futures. Nostalgia can flood you with euphoria and it can stunt growth. Nostalgia is not a world you can decide to live in permanently without irreparable damage. It’s fun to dabble, but it’s not reality. "Everything used to be better" is just one click away from "Nothing will ever be good again," and that’s no attitude to have, even if Subway sandwiches were objectively more delicious with the v-shaped wedge cut instead of the lame-ass horizontal cut. I’ll take that shit to my grave.
I said thank you to the nice woman and walked out of Family Video for the last time ever. When I got home, I cracked open Reality Bites and noticed that the DVD wasn’t in the case. I didn’t bother to go back.
I got what I wanted.