Welcome to Prompts. Our first edition is for those who are too young to remember privately owned video rental stores….and those of us who remember them fondly and miss them.
Privately owned video rental stores seemed to spring up all over the place in the mid 1980’s. They dwindled away as Blockbuster video became increasingly popular in the 1990s, but I remember renting from local video stores as late as 1995. Is your novel, short story, poem, song, or painting based in the mid 1980s-mid 1990’s You may want to include a scene or reference to a privately owned video store. Make sure to check the video release year for any specific movies you want to feature. They didn’t always go so quickly from theatrical release to home use release in those days. Here are a few more things to keep in mind:
There were no vending machines for movies, and of course no streaming or instant viewing
If your story takes place between the 1980s and the 1990s, and your character is going to watch a movie, he cannot stop by the grocery store and see if the vending machine has the DVD. There are no DVDs yet. Your character will need to rent a VHS tape. (DVDs became available for rental in the late 1990s, mid 1997. Renting a DVD was about the same experience as renting a VHS tape.)
The first step in this process is to make sure your character has a VCR. The earlier your story is set, the more complicated this is going to be. In 1982, I remember my parents inviting the neighbors over to watch a movie on a VCR. People in larger cities were probably starting to have them in their homes around this time, but we lived out in the country, and only knew one family who owned their own VCR before 1984. We had to rent one. You walked into the store, signed up for a membership, and paid a rental fee. You were then given the machine in a large plastic briefcase, with instructions for hooking it up to your TV and playing the videos.In a work set later in the 1980s, through the 1990s, it would be entirely reasonable for a character to own his own VCR.
Once the character has a VCR, it is time for him to select a movie or two he wants to watch. Movies were kept inside the store, with the covers displayed facing outward on racks or shelves.
Renting required talking to somebody
Once your character gets in the store, he will need to start looking around. New releases are going to be near the front of the store. Sometimes they are kept over to the side against the largest wall. Some stores were decorated in a movie theme, with posters on the walls. Others were fairly plain, with few to no decorations on the walls. You rarely saw personal photos or items displayed, but most employees were more than happy to offer their personal suggestions for favorite movies. They were also typically willing to check and see if a movie that appeared to be out of stock may have been recently returned.
There were a few ways video stores might indicate a movie was in stock. The presence of the tape cover may mean the movie is available to rent, but not necessarily. In some cases, the video will be placed in a hard case behind the cover, or a little round tag will hang on a hook underneath the case. Your character will have to grab the tag, cover, or tape off the shelf and take it to the front counter to rent it.
There were a few unspoken rules of etiquette at video stores
Those of us who knew someone working at the video store might be able to convince him or her to hold a tape for us. Everyone else rented on a first come, first served basis. Your character will need to show up at the store to find out if the movie he wants to rent is in stock. If he sees it on the shelf, he is welcome to walk up and take an available copy, or the tag that indicates he wants to check out an available copy, but there were a few behaviors considered quite rude. Reaching or stepping in front of someone else looking at a movie on a shelf was not acceptable. If they were standing directly in front of it, it was good manners to wait until they stepped away before reaching for it. Hiding movies so that nobody else could rent them until you made up your mind, or walking around holding a tape, case, or tag for a movie then putting it back right before you left the store was also frowned upon. Adult materials were often available. They were kept behind the counter or behind a curtain. Patrons were expected to use discretion when renting such tapes, and take care to keep raunchy covers and titles from the eyes of any children present in the store.
The cost grew smaller as time went on, but could add up
Renting videos could be a fairly cheap form of entertainment. I remember an Eighty-eight cent video store, with older movies renting for eighty-eight cents, and new releases for a dollar and eighty-eight, as the place to go for a good bargain in the early 1990’s. Two and three dollar rentals were pretty common by around that time. This seemed cheap, but could easily add up as customers browsed and discovered additional movies to watch.
Late fees could also add up.
As with today’s Redbox, there was a fee if you brought your tapes or discs back late. While it is common to watch streaming movies and TV shows whenever we feel like it today, people in the days of video rental stores made sure to watch their movies the afternoon or evening they brought them home to avoid paying late fees that could be as much as the cost of a day’s rental.