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  • Kirsten Bell

Stories from the video store trenches: Part II

Last week I provided some reminiscences from my decade of working part-time as a video store clerk – mostly about porn and the people who rented it. But in addition to the extensive porn collection housed in the first video store I worked at, it also contained a large collection of children’s videos, which were located at the back of the shop in a room decorated like a castle. (For obvious reasons, we called it the ‘kids’ castle’.1)

Frankly, having a large adult section and children’s section in the same shop occasionally caused problems. For example, one time a co-worker caught a teenager masturbating, adult movie in hand, in the kids’ castle.2 It also caused a certain amount of confusion for staff themselves – something I learned the hard way when a woman called looking for a copy of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She’d contacted video shops around town trying to find it, but no one had it in stock and a rival store had recommended that she call us. She was desperate, she told me, because her own copy had broken and her daughter was demanding it.

I did a search on our computer and confirmed that Snow White was indeed in stock. Thrilled, the woman drove straight over with her daughter in tow. Half an hour later, both of us having scoured the kids’ castle and the nearby comedy and drama sections in vain, I rechecked the computer and realised that while we did have Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in stock, it was, in fact, the porn version, which, unusually for the genre, shared the same name.3

I then had to explain my error to the poor woman, who’d already gone to the effort of getting a membership card exclusively to rent the film. Gutted, she left empty-handed with her surprisingly compliant five year old trailing behind – although that’s presumably because the girl had pulled half the videos off the shelves in the kids’ castle in revenge, which I discovered shortly after they left.4

Now, while I admit that the fault was technically mine for failing to check the rating of the version of Snow White in stock, the real culprit, to my mind, was the Disney Corporation itself. You see, Disney, whose marketing strategy in the 1990s seemed to have been inspired primarily by De Beers, artificially kept demand for their products high and supply low via their practice of releasing films from the ‘Disney Vault’ (yes, that’s what they called it) for a limited time, before taking them out of circulation again for years on end.

For example, The Little Mermaid was released on VHS in 1990, just after I started working as a video store clerk, and was then promptly placed back in the Disney Vault for eight years, whereupon it was re-released at cinemas and on VHS to considerable fanfare and at a premium price.5 As a result of this forced scarcity, by 1993, there was barely a copy of the film to be found in video shops across Australia. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that popular kids’ movies tended to wear out much faster than other videos because of children’s propensity to watch the same thing 50 times without coming up for air.

It’s a little known fact that VHS videos are actually quite hardy. Even though they were basically giant cassette tapes, the ribbon was protected from damage by the flippable head of the casing. In fact, if a tape got a little mangled it was pretty straightforward to chop out the damaged part without destroying the entire film.6 But I was frequently shocked by the state in which children’s videos were returned. Not only were they generally months overdue, they were often worn out. Do you know how many times you have to watch a video tape before it wears out? This typically happened if they were popular and had been in circulation for years.

Seeing the stretched ribbons on those children’s video tapes made me appreciate just how much parents (mostly mothers, for the record) were prepared to put up with for the sake of their offspring. Based on the evidence I saw, every day, mothers were being subjected to what can only be described as musical torture of a magnitude far worse than what Daryl suffered at the hands of Negan in the TV series The Walking Dead.

While he got a few days of sleep deprivation and The Collapsable Hearts Club's ‘Easy Street’ played on repeat, they got years of accumulated sleep debt and the unremitting hell of having to listen to the theme song from Bananas in Pyjamas for months on end.7 Yet, despite most of them bearing the exact same look as Daryl in the clip, rarely did I see mothers crack.8

That said, I do remember one particularly hagged-looking woman handing me back a Wiggles video that was three months overdue, forking over $24 over the fine, and then asking me to consign it to the pits of hell. Meanwhile, her four-year-old daughter sobbed heart-brokenly, before ratcheting up the pitch to an ear piercing wail when it became clear that her mother was indeed handing the beloved video back.

Thankfully (for me, obviously, not the mother), we had a whole series of Wiggles videos, so I was quickly able to placate her with another. They left with the little girl smiling happily – her new Wiggles video clutched protectively to her chest – and her mother glaring at me with the promise of a slow and painful death in her eyes, in the event that we ever met up in a dark alley.

In hindsight, working at a video store exposed me to the full gamut of human emotions, not just in the thousands of free movies I saw (seriously, it was thousands), but in the love of a mother for her child, the embarrassment of men renting porn, the lust of a dirty old man, the glee of the toddlers who regularly ransacked the store, the heartbreak of the children forced by a cruel world to forgo their daily dose of Bananas in Pyjamas, the frustration of customers who came for a specific video and went away empty handed, and the vexation of an exhausted parent who just wanted some peace and quiet for one damn hour.

But these days, the primary emotion I experience when I think back to my time as a video store clerk is nostalgia. As I sit in front of my TV screen, scrolling through film after film after film on Netflix and Amazon Prime in a mostly fruitless search for something to watch, I think to myself, for what feels like the hundredth time, ‘God, I miss the video store’.



1 Demonstrating once again the sheer lack of creativity in Australian naming practices that Bill Bryson discusses in Down Under: Travels in a Sunburnt Country. As I have previously discussed, we are a country of Shark Bays, Mile Long Beaches and Sandy Creeks.

2 Thankfully, I was not on shift at the time, but I gathered that he was too young to legally hire the video (underage boys were constantly trying to rent porn), got excited by one of the covers, and took himself off to the relative privacy of the kids’ castle for some alone-time with his hand. In hindsight, I find it interesting that in the US, the adult section at video stores was often located in a separate room (as Jersey Girl attests), so that kids couldn’t accidentally stumble upon it, but in the video store I worked at, it was the children’s videos that were housed in their own section. Plenty of toddlers caught a glimpse of Edward Penishands on their way to the kids’ castle is what I’m saying. ‘Mummy, what’s on that man’s arms?’ they’d ask as their mum dragged them into the kids’ castle. ‘And what’s that naked lady doing in front of him?’

3 I guess the producers figured that a porn film titled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs basically wrote itself.

4 Actually, this was a favourite pastime of children entering the shop. Like cats confronted with breakable objects on high shelves, they couldn’t seem to help themselves from either pushing all the videos together at the end of the row, or knocking them off the shelves and piling them up on the floor. The damage that two determined toddlers in the shop could do in ten minutes, if their parents were of the oblivious variety (which many were), would easily take an hour to repair.

5 In the world of video store clerking, where staff turnover was high, this was basically the equivalent of seeing Halley’s Comet come twice in a lifetime (which could still technically happen for me as well, given that I was 11 when it last appeared – only 39 years to go!).

6 One of my first boss’s stated reasons for not investing in DVDs when they hit the market in the late 1990s was that they couldn’t be repaired once scratched, whereas VHS tapes could be massaged along via some judicious doctoring. Of course, his two stores went under in 1998, so the relative benefits of VHS vs DVDs quickly became a moot point.

7 Dear parents, I know that you’re being tortured daily by god-awful children’s shows and I’m sorry. But, for the love of god, please do not subject the rest of us to the same torture by allowing your child to watch said shows on the bus, tube, train, etc., without wearing headphones. I haven’t yet thrown an infant’s iPad out the window of the bus, but if I have to listen to those spawn of Satan from Super JoJo sing one more time, I promise you, that day is coming.

8 Grandparents were another matter. I recall one regular customer complaining bitterly about renting Ace Ventura for her grandkids, who were so enamoured of the bum-talking scene that they would not stop talking out of their arses. She was not even remotely exaggerating because her eight-year-old grandson was with her and he walked around backwards with his head between his legs, using his arse to speak to her (in the requisite deep voice), the entire time he was in the shop.

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