Find below a charming short film about Bristol’s 20th Century Flicks, the world’s oldest video rental store (established 1982). While at first this may seem like a fool’s errand and an indulgence in nostalgia, the shop’s employee owners make a compelling argument about how the way we experience art has changed. To them, there is value in the ritual of making the effort to come to the store and select something to watch; in the social aspect of speaking to another human being about what you’re interested in or what you’ve just seen; and perhaps more importantly in the slower pace provided that allows you time to process what you have experienced.

In the world before VHS (or Betamax, for that matter), when you went to see a movie in a theater, you sat in rapt attention, because you knew that this was likely the only chance you’d ever have to see this particular movie. You might get lucky, and one day it might come on one of the few television networks available, but who knew when or if that would happen. This was your one shot, so you made the most of it. The availability of movies on videotape (and later DVDs) reduced that scarcity, offering convenience at the expense of lessening the experience.

As streaming media has entered our homes, movies and series have become even more disposable. If you aren’t thrilled in the first few minutes of a new show, it’s trivial to move on to something else, knowing that you can always come back (although you probably won’t). As one of the video store owners explains, that Netflix countdown to the next episode prompts you to do away with any reflection or processing of what you’ve just witnessed, leading to a much shallower level of engagement.

As with much of modern life, we are trading off quality (of experience) for quantity, and there remains a perhaps unrecognized value in shared experiences and inconvenience.

Regardless, it’s still kind of cool to see that there’s at least one video rental store still out there.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


9 Thoughts on "Ritual, Process, and Social Interaction: The World’s Oldest Surviving Video Rental Store"

Thank you for a short and thought provoking piece David.

I think the premise also holds true for the consumption of scholarly publications. How many of us have downloaded/bookmarked articles that we never “come back to”? Our perception of relevance broaden as availability increases.

Thanks for this, David! I remember well going to the video store and choosing something based on the cover art or back cover copy or “if you liked this, we recommend…” Sadly, I think it’s difficult to even find a machine to play videos/DVDs in many homes today.

A conference, as an example of an inconvenient shared experience, is a relevant reference today. As so many among this community are now changing plans to NOT attend London Book Fair, Redux, the Paris Book Fair. It gives us pause to wonder whether UKSG will be held.
So many associations must be working through the decisions they need to make for their own annual meetings at the moment. Conferences are where ideas and research are shared, introductions and collaborations are nurtured, individuals are recognized for their contributions….. and significant commerce and revenue comes in to the association and their wider ecosystems. All of this supports important programs – research and publishing programs, for example.
There are many technology solutions that will help us ‘meet’ virtually while staying in our own microbial environments. But I believe shared experiences strengthen the bonds of communities and bridge real distances for better understanding. I hope that we will soon have more complete evidence of the risks of corona to inform the significant decisions to be made. I empathize with all the leaders who always make important decisions with incomplete information. And now to wash my hands, again.

You might be surprised to learn that this is not the first time 20th Century Flicks and Academic publishing have compared notes. As a Bristol-based publisher, I have spent many hours chatting with Dave and Dave, comparing how their efforts to stay relevant relate to Channel View Publications/Multilingual Matters’ business, and taking inspiration from their continued re-invention of their business, and the physical space that they operate from.

A perfect example: One Christmas the Dave’s and their colleagues wrapped up 12 DVDs for me to watch, so that I wouldn’t know what film I was going to watch until I had opened the packet. Each member of staff picked 3 that they thought I’d enjoy, and I wouldn’t know who had selected it for me. After Christmas, I promised to go back and guess.

You just don’t get that much interactive fun from NetFlix or Amazon Prime, and you would never have got it from a Blockbuster or other chain store. It usually takes a small independent to be able to say “hell why not let’s do it for no other reason than it’ll probably be fun for both of us”.

I’ve always felt that our role as a small and independent publisher is to continue to provide those out of the ordinary services, which our authors and probably to a lesser extent our customers definitely enjoy. Anyone can take words and put them on the internet, but not everyone can get those words to the right readers, or get the “best words” in the first place. Bigger publishers will be always be able to rival us for distribution reach, and so for the smaller, dedicated independent that means we have to continue to not just select appropriate content for our small readership, but also provide a compelling reason why our community should want us to continue to do so. That might be outstanding author care, a willingness to not price our best-selling textbooks as high as we can, or basically the conviction to recklessly publish a predictably unprofitable book in paperback just because it’s the right thing to do. Or to sponsor a conference just because we’ve never had a party in a zoo, and it might be fun to do so.

Thankfully, to date, we continue to manage to stay relevant to our community. The trouble for both us and 20th Century Flicks is persuading someone to pay a sustainable amount of money (in whatever business model, whether it’s publication fees or purchase model, or rental fees and cinema prices) that covers us for the bits that we really do well (i.e. video recommendations or extremely dedicated author care etc etc)…..

One wonders when TSK will be showing a video about the last bookstore left!

No time soon, since the number of bookstores is growing, not shrinking.

How delightful. I’m in the Madison, WI area and we still have a couple of stores here, part of the Family Video chain. I must say, even watching this, I was reminded of many a fond time going to movie rental stores for both movies and video games. It’s definitely an experience I miss. Having to go buy it with a deadline to return it always made it feel like a treat, which is not a feeling I get with always available streaming. Thanks for sharing!

I felt really sad when the last video store in my neighborhood closed. It was a wonderful gathering place for the community with lovely owners who were real film buffs and could rattle off a dozen recommendations for you at the snip of a finger. Now I borrow my movies on DVD from the public library – for free – hoping to be able to do that for a while longer… Still have the player that can handle VHS tapes and DVDs and play them on an old Zenith TV set. Feel free to come by….;-)

Welcome reminder of the satisfaction that we gained when rental required so much thought and a bit of companionship and conversation

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