The Only Membership That Ever Mattered

Photo courtesy James Ward / Flickr:  stoneofzanzibar

Photo courtesy James Ward / Flickr: stoneofzanzibar

That Lemay Video is still standing to this day, that it has not only outlasted the rise of the big chain stores but also the decimation of those chains at the hands of the same fickle marketplace, is both puzzling and, possibly, proof that God hates Blockbuster just like everyone else.

There may never again be a dynamic quite like video rental, an experience that was both itself euphoric while also a harbinger of joys to come. Lemay Video certainly did not create this dynamic, nor could one say that it was even one of the first to embody it, coming relatively late to the video rental boom as it did in the mid-late 1980s, but it was perhaps there that I first came to recognize the duality of video rental, noting how much of a thrill I drew from just the potential of finding my next favorite movie.

In truth, that potential was only occasionally fulfilled. Such was the numbers game. Each Friday or Saturday you would walk into Lemay Video (or whatever your local dirty video joint called itself, and they were all a little dirty in the days before Blockbuster got big) and place your modest wager on a pair of films that, apart from the occasional big-name sleeper like Beetlejuice, probably weren’t very good.

In fact, the numbers somehow seemed a little bit worse at Lemay Video (so bad was my track record with random rentals there that on at least three occasions I rented the same cassette — Deadtime Stories, in case you’re wondering — completely forgetting that I had previously rented and hated it). 

Maybe that was because the flannel-shirted proprietor of Lemay Video was a less-discerning cassette buyer than most video store managers, or maybe it was because the outlaw air of the place was infectious, tipping me toward more reckless selections than I was likely to make at Star Video down the street. There was something of a saloon feel to the place, come to think of it, with its clapboard exterior and dusty floors. For the first few years all of the tapes were housed in ugly brown plastic cases with the name of the movie handwritten — handwritten! — on a label, like something you might pull off your uncle’s bookshelf (especially if your uncle was Leslie Nielsen’s character from Creepshow, which I’m pretty sure I first rented from Lemay Video). Even in later years, when most indie rental stores adopted the practice of duplicating the movie’s box artwork on the take-home case, the containers at Lemay Video remained nondescript (though thankfully the brown plastic was replaced by a much more tasteful clear option).

Lemay Video was also the only video store among the many I’ve frequented in my life at which I rarely relied on a membership card, opting instead, as I’d learned from my father, to just drop our family membership number (301) when ringing up an evening’s rentals. I sensed that my dad was proud, rightfully so, to hold such an early number in the Lemay Video ranks, and I came to wield a similar bravado once I became the primary (and eventually sole) renter on the account.

Of course, the wonder years were limited at Lemay Video, as they are everywhere, and though its outward appearance has barely changed over subsequent decades (I’m pretty sure the faded poster in its front window still advertises 1991's K2), little remains of the original business beyond its name. Sometime in the ‘90s the flannel-shirted guy began catering more to his side business, repairing and reselling used video equipment and small appliances. The turning point was practically literal: one day every box in the place faced outward, proudly displaying the garish artwork for which the early VHS era is known, spread out on the shelves with plenty of shoulder space; then seemingly overnight the boxes were “spined,” turned inward so just the movie title on the side of the box was visible, and smushed together on increasingly fewer shelves. I spent the bulk of my college years with my head cocked on its side trying to pretend like Lemay Video’s best days weren’t already behind me, but at some point even I had to accept that there was nowhere left to go but Netflix.

I haven’t been back to Lemay Video in probably ten years, but I still drive by it every few months and smile at its indifference to the changing world around it, a world that for the most part doesn’t remember what it was like to have to adjust tracking, or why it was worth the trouble.

This piece was originally crafted for and published at Medium