Internet Killed the Video Store

BCBusiness, August 1, 2011

Online retail and downloading are slowly killing our traditional movie and music stores. And as with friends, virtual video stores just aren’t the same as the real thing.

Particular time periods can often be identified by their trappings and technology. See a photograph with a zeppelin and you know it was taken between the two world wars. A movie with a rotary-dial phone was likely set pre-1990. A Pacer or a Gremlin signifies the malaise era. The Berlin Wall marks the period from 1961-1989. A mullet should suggest you are in costume for an ’80s night, although unfortunately this is not always the case.

We are nearing the point where video stores will become the new zeppelins. The movie rental era that began in the 1980s with a proliferation of new storefront video shops, some of them surely located in former AMC dealerships, may now be coming to a close. The possible Berlin Wall moment for retail movie rental shops arrived in May when the Canadian arm of Blockbuster Video Inc., that monolith, went into receivership.

Not many locals got weepy over that development. Blockbuster stores were the 7-Elevens of the rental world – character-free franchise outlets that added nothing to a neighbourhood save convenience (and sometimes offered edited movies to boot). But tears were surely shed for other announcements, notably the pending demise of Videomatica, Vancouver’s primary repository of hard-to-find film and television. At press time business partners Graham Peat and Brian Bosworth estimated that their West Fourth Ave. movie rental store would soldier on for a few more months until the steady decline in business resulted in its final closing. Not long before that, Happy Bats, a distinctive video-rental shop on Main, unexpectedly shut its doors. Downloading, it seems, has killed the video store.

The Internet meteor strike has been blamed for more than one retail extinction. Online competition certainly explains the relative dearth of porn theatres in B.C. these days – when it comes to that product line, the Internet is what you might call handy. But before you raise a toast to the web for an inadvertent bit of urban renewal, consider the victims that followed. Just as Videomatica was announcing its pending demise, Ardea Books and Art shut its doors just up the street, the latest Vancouver independent bookseller to drop out of that ever-shrinking retail category. Music shops are not yet completely gone, but if you scan the business page archives for years back, you won’t find any start-ups in that particular line either.

Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and SmuttyJoe’ may never have had urban redevelopment in mind. But the web, the invisible landscape that exists everywhere and nowhere, has reshaped our neighbourhoods. From A&B Sound to Duthie Books to Videomatica, online competition has at least hastened the downfall of many a Vancouver business landmark.

But those tears I mentioned are a very localized precipitation. The rise of Netflix et al. has been a boon for smaller communities. Lonely movie buffs in Castlegar and Prince Rupert couldn’t care less about the fate of Videomatica. They just know that given an Internet connection, they have pretty much the same access to movies and books as anybody in Kitsilano. The demise of bricks-and-mortar shops has been a triumph for retail democracy. Living in small towns simply doesn’t come with the same cultural penalties in the 21st century.

Still, I will shed tears for Videomatica, Castlegar be damned. Its demise will leave a gap and it doesn’t seem to me that the gap has been filled by online sources quite yet. Plus, I still resent the constant technological demands of the new online retailing realities. Those who don’t constantly upgrade equipment suffer for it.

And I had friends at Ardea Books and Videomatica. Not Facebook friends, either. Kits won’t be the same without them.