Tomb of the Unknown Video Store
Memories of working at Video Library, the best video store in Athens, Georgia.
“How can we do this? We’re crazy!” — local ad, Video Library, circa 1995
Like many cinephiles with a yen for genre films and the VHS era, I’ve submerged myself in the nostalgia bath that is Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary’s Video Archives podcast. Tarantino has been famously stubborn about embracing our digital landscape—he’s referred to digital projection as “television in public”—and at his theater, the New Beverly in Los Angeles, screens everything in 35mm, sometimes off of prints he owns. (Catching his scratched-up Black Christmas with a full house at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life. But that’s a story for another time.) Video Archives, of course, is Tarantino lore, the Manhattan Beach video store where he once held court, sharpened up his sensibility, and prepared to make the leap into feature filmmaking. Tarantino has memorialized his time at the store: Not only did he buy up most of its VHS stock, he picked up the shelving, too, to recreate the space in his own house.
That level of personal preservation may seem like overkill, but the video stores that once drove film culture are now lost to us. There’s only trace evidence, for example, that Video Library, the greatest video (and laserdisc) store in Athens, Georgia, ever existed, at least according to the internet. The best a Google search can manage is a Yelp page that correctly identifies the shop’s location at a ratty strip mall called Willowood Square, currently home to a Goodwill, a Family Dollar, and other depressing markers of a ravaged economy. And so this essay functions partly as a public declaration that Video Library really existed, as if I’m claiming some remains from the Tomb of the Unknown Video Store. This gives me tremendous freedom to mythologize the place to my heart’s content, because it’s not as if there’s easily accessible public information out there to contradict my recollection. I’ll try to resist that, but the place meant something to me, and I’m certain I’m not alone in that. (In fact, there are surely former employees and store regulars who were around longer and remember the place more vividly than I did.)
The year was 1995. I had earned my degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia the year before, but like many recent graduates, I was deposited into employment purgatory. As the end of my senior year approached, I had blindly cast out a cover letter and clips to every newspaper I could find, hoping that an editor would be so wowed by my reviews of Cop and a Half and The Lion King for the student paper, The Red and Black, that they’d snap me up. (This was just before I had access to the internet and could grasp the bleakness of the journalistic landscape, but honestly, I was almost certainly rejected on the merits. I stunk.) When that didn’t pan out, I moved into my sister’s house in northwest Ohio for a few months and worked odd jobs for my brother-in-law, who was in the construction business—water-blasting rusted fuel tanks in order to repaint them, shoveling limestone sand from under the conveyor belts at a quarry. I thought of this as a transitional stage before I’d take a job with a film distributor in Chicago, but I didn’t get past the interview stage on that one, either.
And so back to Athens I went, because there was simply no easier or more familiar place for me. UGA graduates could easily drift into being “townies” forever, in fact, given the city’s seductive combination of a low cost-of-living and a vibrant cultural scene. (I was there for the birth of the Elephant 6 collective, and once had a demo cassette of Olivia Tremor Control’s “Dusk at Cubist Castle” to prove it.) Though I’d intended to tuck myself away in graduate school—which I would do in the fall of 1997, at the University of Miami in Florida—my only real priority in Athens during purgatory was to make rent, preferably by not shoveling sand from under conveyor belts. There were surely plenty of other shit jobs out there for experts in poorly translated Hungarian poetry.
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Like the protagonist in a Paul Schrader movie, I opted to punish myself by seeking out the worst gig in town, a call center called DialAmerica. I did not have the stomach to handle the invective absorbed by the intrepid souls in the “outgoing calls” department, but there was a job for me in “incoming calls,” where I alternated between activating credit cards and placing orders for premium phone services like call waiting, call return, and voicemail. We followed our scripts and usually didn’t get yelled at, because people were calling us, not the other way around, but I nonetheless blanched at the unrelenting deluge of interactions. I eventually took the graveyard shift, from midnight to 6 a.m., where we had time to read and goof off between calls. Besides, I had my eye on the ultimate prize: A job at Video Library, hands down the best and most cultishly beloved video store in Athens.
Video Library was located far from campus, in the outer rim of east Athens, which is probably the only place it could have operated without drawing the wrong kind of attention, since it was not actually legal to rent and sell pornography in the area. It was small, ill-kempt, bachelor pad of a place, teeming with catalog titles yet perversely thin on New Releases, which I’d later learn the store was reluctant to stock in heavy supply because they cost about $80 or more per tape. If you wanted the latest Hollywood movie, you would have to make it a Blockbuster Night. (Or a Moovies night, in the case of one brief, unsuccessful cow-themed competitor, which had a robust Moo Releases section.) That left room on the shelves for oddities of all sorts, as well as the only Laserdisc rentals in town and a foreign-language section behind the counter. Also behind the counter: The thousands of hardcore pornography tapes that kept Video Library in business.
When I finally talked my way into a part-time job there as a clerk, I initially took on shifts that only cash-poor idiots in their 20s would accept, often working the graveyard shift at DialAmerica from midnight to six, catching a few hours of sleep, and then clocking in at Video Library from 1 p.m. until the 11 p.m. close. It didn’t matter. The job was glorious. The manager of the place was a colorful, at times erratic character named Link, who nursed a passion for punk guitar. One of his bands was called **** Volcanic, after the highest rating a porn film could get on the Adult Video News scale. When the Laserdisc player behind the counter wasn’t playing a movie, it was likely blasting music from The Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, or King Crimson. Dave, Link’s right-hand man, wanted to get into computer effects, so they’d collaborate on wacky local commercials that combined Link’s manic gregariousness with the best graphics a mid-’90s home computer could generate.
At a time when computers and credit card machines were standard, Video Library was strictly a cash business, with hand-scrawled rental receipts that made carpal tunnel syndrome an occupational hazard. Though I didn’t question the tax implications at the time, we’d sign our own checks on payday and get paid in cash in the VHS stacks in the back—very convenient for splurging on Mega Nachos at the Taco Stand down the street, but not a great incentive to tuck money into the bank account. A typical day would have a clerk or two on a metal stool behind the counter while Link dealt with the inventory, which was mostly porn. Because we weren’t technically allowed to stock it, Link would cut out explicit pictures from the boxes and attach them to the front and back of index cards, which he would then pepper with the names of the stars and various graphic descriptors. The cards were then filed underneath the counter until a customer asked to look at them. (Though our regulars never had to ask. We not only knew they wanted porn, but we knew exactly what specific gentlemen were into and what might be new to the supply.)
Porn rentals were $5 a pop, over twice what we were charging for catalog rentals and about a quarter of what the tapes actually cost, which led to massive profit margins that were then fed into more arcane corners of the business. The regulars would often turn up when the store opened, rent large stacks of titles at a time, and return them the same day, having dubbed them at home. It was remarkable, schlepping porn all day, how quickly I gained expertise: This was the heyday of Ashlyn Gere, Nikki Dial, Deirdre Holland, Tiffany Mynx, Peter North, and Rocco Siffredi. The true connoisseurs, however, would brush those slick “couples” titles aside and seek out niche-ier fare, some of it extremely unsavory and creepy, like the films of Ed Powers, a middle-aged doofus who interrogated newcomers to the business before bedding them without removing his argyle socks. I knew the whole sordid landscape, but was too mortified to offer more than the bare minimum in customer service.
It’s possible that many Video Library customers did not know about the store’s primary source of revenue, given the discretion involved in keeping this legally iffy enterprise under wraps. What they did know, however, were the obscurities that porn bankrolled: A wall of Something Weird titles, vast shipments of dubiously sourced Hong Kong action movies, a Cult Movies section heavy with science fiction and horror oddities, and Foreign Films, which became my own little garden to tend. Link used to leave me with the latest distributor catalogs so I could circle the titles I thought we needed, and there was no expectation that we’d get back even the modest money we’d invested in them. But I’d call it a victory if a customer walked away with Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates and New Wave Hookers 4. That seemed like as balanced a cinematic diet as any.
The key point about Video Library is it was loved, loved in a way that corporate-owned businesses could never be. There was no part of the store that would make sense to a Blockbuster franchisee—not the porn, not the bare New Releases stock, not the lightly traveled foreign section that you had to squeeze past the middle-aged horndogs to find. The place was what all good ma-and-pa operations should be: A reflection of the specific sensibilities of the people who ran it. Like any shoestring operation, there were hardships and hassles: No benefits, meager hourly pay with no overtime, a manager who could be boorish, a clientele that skewed heavily toward single white men. (If married types were out there watching “couples” porn, it was certainly the husbands who were doing the renting.) But management showed little interest in doing anything but sustaining the modest business we had, which at times could make Video Library itself seem like a townie, scraping together another month’s rent before the lease was renegotiated and we had to move out of town.
There was an ethos I carried forward from Video Library to other independent operations, like The A.V. Club and The Dissolve, and, now, The Reveal: Do as much as you want to do as possible. The freelance world offers an abundance of mercenary jobs, and even a staff job at The A.V. Club or The Dissolve involved grunt work like aggregation and chipping in on trailer posts, or falling on various swords, like when it’s your turn to write about the Herbie reboot sequel or a glitchy video game adaptation of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s a separate essay I could write here, too, about the value of “loss leaders” in media, like the Foreign section at Video Library, which may not generate the pageviews of Marvel porn but give an outlet identity. What I learned back then remains true today: If you have the chance to feel good about the work that you’re doing—if you can “get away with” doing work that matters to you —then seize on it.
I have no idea when Video Library closed. It looks, again from a Google search, like my former boss launched a store called Video Link that closed its doors in 2011 due to the incursions from Netflix and Redbox that killed other such brick-and-mortar shops. So let this post be a reminder that it wasn’t forgotten by those who passed through it, perhaps including Michael Stipe, who once rented Shakes the Clown, a film we clerks, echoing a blurb on the back of the box, referred to as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” (Would the song “Binky the Doormat” exist without Video Library?) It’s been over 25 years since I worked there, and the small handful of other Athens businesses I can remember (The 40 Watt, Wuxtry Records, Jittery Joe’s) are still townies, still making the rent. Video stores are dead, and so is Video Library. But maybe it’ll come up on a search engine now.