If you live in Jackson, Mississippi, you’ve probably rented at least one movie from Video Library — one of the largest video stores in the southeast, and Jackson’s last independently-owned video store. For more than twenty-five years, my partner, Clyde, has beaten the odds, keeping the store open (despite Blockbuster’s dedicated efforts to crush all competition).
This weekend, Video Library closed its doors forever.
This post is a look at what Video Library has meant for us over the years … why it closed … and what closing the store means for Clyde and for me.
The Early Years
Long before I came to Jackson for the first time, Video Library was a Jackson institution: the place to go to get video.
While still in college, Clyde began working for Video Library; right after graduation, he would buy the business from its original owner and make the shop his own. In a very short time, the store would outgrow its original location — quickly torn down to make way for a bank — and would move to a huge, 6,000-square-foot space on one corner of Deville Plaza.
In those early days, when most video rental stores were gloomy Mom and Pop shops operating out of converted gas stations, Video Library fairly thrummed with energy. Beneath bright banks of lights, the store’s aisles featured thousands of movies in multiple formats: tiny Beta tapes, bulky VHS tapes, and even those odd, record album-sized laser discs.
In the back of the shop, a kid’s play area kept tiny tots busy while Mom and Dad browsed the inventory. Near the front of the store, shoppers pawed through bins of movie-themed stuffed animals, books, and knickknacks. At the front counter, in addition to their rentals, customers bought movie candy and freshly-popped popcorn.
Instead of clueless minimum-wage slackers, Video Library employees were smart, movie-savvy people who could find “that movie where that guy from the Ten Commandments is the only person on earth who isn’t a zombie” in a flash. As a result, especially on the weekends, Video Library was the place to be — and receipts showed it. For years, the company was the model of a retail success. As Clyde puts it, “There was a stretch where we made money hand over fist.”
Attack of the 50-Foot Video Chain
Eventually, Blockbuster — the Evil Empire, hell-bent on stamping out all independent video stores — came to Jackson, MS. When they did, they lusted after Clyde’s bright, sleek store and excellent location … and soon, they called him in for a meeting.
The Blockbuster reps didn’t mince words. “We’ll buy out your store for one-fourth of its value … or you can wait a few weeks, and we’ll shut you down.”
Clyde blinked. “Actually, I think I’ve got other options.” And Clyde did — because Clyde made them. Blockbuster didn’t carry independent art films, so Video Library did. Blockbuster didn’t carry foreign and subtitled films, so Video Library did. Blockbuster wouldn’t carry gay- or lesbian-themed movies, so Video Library did. Blockbuster employees were faceless minimum-wage drones who had been flipping burgers the week before; Video Library employees loved their jobs and stuck with the company for years.
As a result, Blockbuster — despite its size, power, and underhanded business practices — didn’t shut Video Library down. Meanwhile, business just kept on growing.
Mark Meets a Husband
When I first moved to Jackson, it took me about a week to find Video Library. As an avid movie renter — back then, I watched about eight movies a week — I was in heaven. As someone just beginning to come to terms with his own sexuality, I was so grateful for the independent film section, where I could rent gay-themed movies (not p0rn, mind you, but amazing movies like Maurice and Long Time Companion) that would never play in Jackson, MS.
It also didn’t take me long to notice the skinny, pale, dark-haired young man behind the counter — an employee who always seemed to be there. He was all-business and always in a hurry, but in those rare moments when he would smile, he was painfully handsome. Was he gay? Was he available? I didn’t know.
One afternoon, emboldened by a steady diet of great gay cinema, I approached the front counter, fully intending to ask him if he would like to go on a date. At the last moment, though, I chickened out … and, instead, I just asked for a job application.
A week later, I’d leave Jackson for a job with a church-affiliated college. As a result, that first, short conversation with Clyde — the guy I almost asked out — would be our last for two more years.
The Golden Age
Two years later — older and wiser and through with life in the closet — I met Clyde for the second time (at a church, of all places). This time, I did ask him out … and we’ve been a couple ever since.
At this point — almost fifteen years ago — Video Library was in the final years of her Golden Age. Business was still booming, but Blockbuster had slaughtered all but the strongest independent video stores. There wasn’t an Internet yet, but cable companies were talking loudly about video-on-demand (a full decade before they would actually offer it!). Customers started asking Clyde if stories in the paper — stories that said all video stores would be a thing of the past “within a year” — were true.
Meanwhile, I was swept up in the remarkable adventure of having a boyfriend who owned a video store (and a theatre, too, but that’s another story). We watched a lot of movies back then … and we also went, once a year, to a huge video industry show called VSDA (the Video Software Dealer’s Association).
This was back when video stores were the darling of the movie industry. The movie studios threw huge bashes for us in Vegas and Hollywood. Companies like Rentrak threw “chocolate parties.” Characters like Barney — yes, the purple dinosaur — hosted cocktail parties (!?!) for video store owners. Disney rented out a local zoo and transformed it into the city of Agraba, where thirty of Hollywood’s best restaurants served free food and Robin Williams performed for the crowd.
Signs of the Times
Those were amazing years … but already, the tide was turning. Each year — mostly thanks to the fact that Blockbuster had all but assumed control of VDSA — the budget for parties and shows grew smaller. Too late, the independent stores realized that their association had been hijacked by a corporate monster with an agenda of its own … and soon, VSDA was little more than a standard trade show in one corner of the Vegas Convention Center. We stopped going.
In 1999, an opportunity to sell the store to one of the smaller chains arose. With the deal all but inked, Clyde and I moved to Atlanta; sadly, the deal fell through. Clyde did his best to manage the store from afar, but, without him there to keep an eye on day-to-day operations, performance sagged. In 2002, we moved back, and once again, working at Video Library became part of Clyde’s daily routine.
The ‘Internet People’
Mostly thanks to Clyde’s business genius, Video Library re-invented itself again and again, always staying one step ahead of Blockbuster. When technologies like Netflix and video-on-demand (finally) began eating into local video rentals, Clyde signed a third-party contract allowing Video Library to offer Netflix-style rentals to online customers around the country. Soon, our internet customers were renting more movies per week than our top fifty local customers combined.
Some long-term employees, conditioned by years of waiting on walk-in customers, couldn’t deal with the change. One complained, “With all those Internet people renting movies, there won’t be anything on the shelves for our local customers!” She could never quite wrap her head around the fact that, with local people renting less and less, those ‘Internet people’ she despised were the only ones making her paychecks possible.
The Short-Lived New Store
As more and more business shifted to the Internet — and with ninety-five percent of all local rentals coming exclusively from our wall of newly-released DVDs — paying rent and utilities on a 6,000 square foot retail space no longer made good business sense. Clyde looked at the numbers and came up with two options: close the store … or reinvent it by tossing out all VHS, storing old DVDs in filing cabinets behind the counter, and moving to a 900 square foot space in the same shopping center.
Because we’ve been longing to return to Atlanta for years, Clyde leaned toward closing the store … but his business partner strongly favored keeping Video Library open. Unfortunately, right after leases were signed — and right before the new store opened — Clyde’s business partner revealed he’d been planning all along to move away and return to college. He assured us he would remain involved in the store — handling scheduling, returning to town every weekend to work on Saturday and Sunday. After he moved, he never set foot in Video Library again. There were no calls or emails; after more than twenty years in business with Video Library, he simply abandoned the store. Clyde was stunned.
Meanwhile, local customers just didn’t “get” the new Video Library. No one was renting VHS tapes anymore, but when we eliminated them, customers perceived this as “Video Library no longer has all those movies.” Despite signs directing people to the new store, long-time customers concluded, “Video Library just closed.” Though all floor space was dedicated to new releases (ninety-five percent of all rentals, remember, are new releases), thousands of older DVDs could still be requested at the counter or rented from shiny new “Quick Pick” terminals … but, frankly, customers were scared of the computers and wouldn’t use them.
The Last Act
Clyde did what he could — compressing schedules and tinkering with store hours — but, in the end, the handwriting was on the wall. While his two online businesses were booming, the bricks-and-mortar store was faltering. Paying steep overhead to keep that local store open just didn’t make sense … and so, though it hurt him deeply to do it, Clyde made the decision to do “what should have been done before” — and close Video Library.
The last day the lights were on — as our last and most faithful employees were stripping the shelves and boxing up inventory — an older woman wandered into the store. “Oh, at last!” she said, clapping her hands with glee. “A video store in our very own neighborhood! This is wonderful! When will you people be open?”
* * * * *
Today, for the first day in a quarter-century, Clyde doesn’t have to work with Video Library. He will, however, spend a big chunk of the day working with his two online business: one still fulfilling video rentals for Internet customers across the country, while the other sells out-of-print and hard-to-find DVDs and videos through Amazon.com.
He’s always had a genius for building businesses — how many other people can claim to have outfoxed Blockbuster in a small local market for twenty-five years? — and now, he’s free to apply that genius to businesses that belong exclusively to him. He’s reconfiguring them so they demand less time and take less intensive effort to maintain. Overhead is ridiculously low. There are no more customer service or employee issues to eat up the day. Frankly? He’s better poised for success than ever.
Here at Home
And me? Well, over the last five years, Clyde took on the role of primary bread-winner, giving me the opportunity to pursue my dream of writing full-time. Honestly, though? I’m ready to go back to work. And, as Clyde continues configuring and tinkering with his online businesses, I really want to give him the sort of support he’s given me these past few years: the freedom to experiment without having to bear the primary responsibility for bringing in our family’s regular income.
Meantime, stepping back into a full-time job will delight me. I can make the most of my hard-earned credentials, deploy old talents and skills against new challenges, and collect lots of story fodder for those nights and weekends I’m dedicating to writing that next best-seller. I’ve got interviews scheduled in the weeks to come, one of which, with God’s help, will prove to be the key to an exciting new phase of our life together.
Returning to the Real City of Dreams
And finally, since Clyde’s new businesses can be operated from anywhere on Earth with Internet access, we once again have the freedom to live where we choose. One way or another, by the end of this year — and possibly much sooner, depending on how my job interviews go — we’ll be moving to Atlanta (the city we love), attending Saint Mark (the church we love), and living in Midtown (the neighborhood we love, near friends we love) in our “dee-luxe apartment in the sky-yi-yi.”
We’ll still have easy access to Clyde’s family. We’ll be even closer to my genetic family — in fact, for the first time in my adult life, I’ll have blood relatives living minutes away. And when dear friends from Jackson and Minneapolis come to visit, the ice cream (from Muriel and Sebastian’s small-batch parlor), the chocolate (from Lexington Chocolates), the great Thai food (from Little Bangkok and Jitlada) and the rich desserts (from Cafe Intermezzo) will flow non-stop for the duration of the visit.
Turning the Page
And so … one and well-loved chapter of our life closes … and an exciting new one begins.
Here’s to the future … and here’s hoping that our willingness to reinvent ourselves and pursue our dreams will encourage you to do the same.