When I moved to Houston a little more than a year ago, I did two things: I got a library card, and I opened an account at Movies! The Store. (These are the things you do when you're unemployed.) In the months since, I've gotten some serious use out of the public library, but I've barely made it back to Rob Arcos' Richmond-based video store. When Arcos sent out a mass e-mail to his subscribers on Tuesday announcing that he would be shuttering the store in November, I felt bad for him, and guilty for not going back. But I didn't kid myself: I haven't regularly patronized a video store since high school. It's not that I avoid them; it's that I don't even think about them. And it took me a moment to realize why.
Coming as it does on the heels of the closing of the Angelika downtown, it's tempting to force some larger trend on the news and speculate about our collective break with movies and movie culture. Tempting, but wrong. Both closings hinge on the fact that these places wanted to offer a service that people were able to get elsewhere. The indie-film crowd has always been smaller than the mainstream one, which is why megaplexes consistently beat back the Angelika's attempts to win crowds with broader-skewing titles like Sex and the City 2. But Arcos' problem was doubly difficult: People weren't just going to other stores for movies, they weren't going to stores, period. The surge in popularity of services like Netflix Watch Instantly means consumers don't even have to wait two days to get a new title in the mail. When you factor in Hulu and even iTunes season passes -- as well as the changes that might come with the remodeled Apple TV -- it gets that much harder to get people out of the house and into a place as carefully targeted as Movies! The Store.
But getting out of the house brings something that I and others were foolish enough to pass up: the chance to talk to someone, face to face, who knows and loves movies. The indie video store is a place to get suggestions, to explore forgotten or old titles, and to develop a relationship with a retailer and clientele that live for the joy of discovering the next great movie. The specificity and personality of the store is something that no recommendation algorithm can ever hope to replace. The best indie stores marry commerce with personal identity, turning them into places you visit as much for the vibe as for the content. That's what Movies! The Store, named by the Houston Press as the city's best video store two years running, did every day.
If there is a broader trend in losing special and helpful places like Movies! The Store, it's one I first noticed when thinking about Conan O'Brien's cancellation from NBC. Places like this get shut down when we take them for granted. And I mean we: I am as guilty as anyone for the way I thought of Movies! The Store as a cool place that I should really get to more often. Yes, it means getting in the car (twice!) to get a movie. It means using physical currency and talking to someone. It means they might even be out of the title you want. But it also means supporting a great little business that's being run by someone who just plain loves what they do.
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I kept going back to the library because I valued the product they were providing; too late I realize that Arcos' store could have done the same. It was waiting there, and I ignored it. Now, instead of a guy who knows what I like to see, I've got random guesses automatically generated by lines of code. The options are limitless, and they all look the same.