Remembering the ups, downs and lack of rewinds of renting videos (and games) in the 90’s
First things first, I don’t miss video rentals. The concept is antiquated and was quite frankly, frustrating as hell in the past (late fees, extra charges, disappointment). What I do miss is the experience of video rentals and the atmosphere of mom & pop shops.
Locally growing up we had one (eventually two!) video rental spots in my tiny little VT town of Cambridge (pop: under 3,000). Before diving into the rental stores I need to make it known that we did not have a VCR up until oh say, 1989 possible 1990 in our house. My loving grandmother actually bought the VCR, specifically she bought the VCR for me. Yep, we didn’t have a home VCR for the whole family to use but she bought the VCR specifically for me to use, that’s my loving grandmother (bets on who was/is the favorite).
Once we agreed the VCR was for house-wide use we sloooowly accumulated a very modest collection of VHS cassettes which did include one of my all-time favorite movies, RAD. Our collection basically filled one of those fake woodgrain slide-out organizers.
Back to the topic at hand, the video rental store.
Showtime Video, the Rental Mecca
Our local spot was called Showtime Video (not the chain) and was spectacular as a kid. I don’t recall a lot of memories of renting VHS tapes but I sure do when it comes to renting video games.
This place was your quintessential hole-in-the-wall rental joint with a decent array of stuff but certainly not a deep selection. Generally new releases were only counted at 2-3 each so that made the competition very tough and relied on:
- Being really damn lucky.
- Knowing one of the clerks or owners.
Those were your chances. Luckily in a small town chances were a week or two later you could find something relatively new and hot damn those were good nights!
Rentals from what I recall were broken down into tiers being:
- New releases: overnight rental
- New(ish) releases: 3 day rental
- Old shit: 5 day rental
To anyone under the age of 21 reading this it basically breaks down to rentals through Redbox today, except you had to drop it off at the same place either through a physical mail slot or actual person.
Video Matinee, the Competition
The Second Store in Town
Showtime was our go-to for so damn long it literally became a meeting place in town located near the tiny convenience store that sold the only comics I could get my hands on (different post). Then came something new and shiny, Video Matinee.
Video Matinee became the hip new place to rent from. Better pricing, more stuff, and an overall nicer atmosphere from what we had at Showtime. It was a big deal. The place was usually mobbed and the pickings were slim so it became a toss up of “where do we take our chances at this weekend?”.
One of the high points of Video Matinee for me was the free bin of old movie posters. The movie was written on the top edge so digging through was always a blast. I don’t actually ever recall finding anything I was actually interested in but the hunt was always fun regardless.
So year at this point in the 90’s we suddenly had 2 options and it was mind-blowing.
Video Game Rentals
Back in the early 90’s my preteen self was obsessed, like most kids, with Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo (more so the former). It was a moment that many dreamed of back then, the day rental shops began stocking…games.
It was so exciting to rent games. No more worrying if the game sucked or not because the experience would only last 3 days (or less). Now the true sport was landing the good games, that took pure luck. I recall in vivid detail how the process of pulling into the parking lot, racing from the car, and into the store directly to the game rack felt. That memory either concluded with absolute delight of finding something good or complete sadness at the sight of a picked over selection.
A few memorable rentals during the SNES/Genesis era:
- McDonalds Treasure Land Adventure (Sega)
- Sonic & Tails (Sega)
- Comix Zone (Sega)
- Pit Fighter (SNES)
- Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage (SNES)
I have once recollection of a celebration Showtime Video had for their anniversary (tenth?). There was a huge blowout of cheap rentals, free food, raffles, and best of all a kids prize spinning wheel with some BADASS Power Ranger prizes. I remember landing on whatever color and getting a 10″ Lord Zedd action figure, amazing stuff. At this time in the mid-90’s, when the rental market was on fire, the owners were probably raking in some solid profits so the extent of the anniversary celebration makes sense. Still though, renting a game, getting popcorn, and winning a Lord Zedd toy was about the best Saturday a kid could have.
Gaming System Rentals
As the 90’s roared on and the Sega Genesis and Super NES fell out of favor, a big contender took its place, the Playstation.
Video Matinee began renting out Playstation consoles and it was mind blowing. Being as my parents were not wealthy and we as kids did not have the world of video games at our disposal renting a Playstation was a big event. Virtua Fighter with its 3d graphics…on a disc?! How could this technology be so?
Hours of me and my younger brother’s weekends were spent in front of the TV cramming in as much Playstation enjoyment as we could. The graphics! The gameplay! The action! It was all so compelling at the time and may I say I do not regret the time spent playing those games 20 years later.
To note the N64 was also available but we received that system as a Christmas gift a few years later, so the magic wasn’t as strong as it was with the unattainable Playstation.
Post-VHS Boom and Demise
Eventually the VHS market cooled down and lead into the big DVD market we are just getting out of today. The rental places still did solid business in DVDs and games but the true magic was lost. I have never been a huge fan of DVDs whether it was because I have lost so many because of scratches or I was simply older and less interested because I had access.
Regardless both Showtime Video And Video Matinee persevered for many years after. They both shuttered their businesses about 7-8 year ago after sales began sagging and DVDs became cheap enough for most to afford.
In my current town our last holdout Videomart closed only 2 years ago, weathering the storm well past the demise of Blockbuster. It felt like this old warrior who had fought for years against insurmountable odds but in the end outlasted the behemoth of Blockbuster. I felt like they should have had a memorial service for that and the Drive-In theater which died about the same time.
The video rental stores were something that many us hold dearly in our nostalgia filled memories. The Nerd Lunch Podcast did a great episode on the topic, I highly recommend you give it a listen.
I tend to look back with fond memories but completely understand how the business model doesn’t work today. As much as a retro fan like myself loves the fact that some of these places still do exist I couldn’t imagine frequenting them. Streaming has become kind and there is no looking back, but long live the video rental store!