Second set: Heat leads to a VHS purge
We can blame a lot on the heat of this summer, including the tendency to lurk around the house, creeping from room to room in search of the coolest pockets. In those travels, other, unintended side-effects can come into focus. For example, this creeper’s house has too much stuff. Not enough to qualify for a spot on one of cable’s multiple hoarding shows. But enough to act on some base, organizational instincts.
And physical media’s at the heart of the stuff crisis. Records, yeah, they’ve always been around. Tapes, boxed up in the basement, for a long-delayed “turn ‘em into digital files” session. Books linger, more than a few of which will never be read again and don’t serve any interesting visual purposes.
Magazines? So, so many recycling-ready in those stacks, no doubt. There’s a literal wall of CDs, only a few dozen getting anything like regular play. But the collection that’s come apart at the seams most quickly has lived in the VHS closet.
Those tapes were found in so many ways. Purchases on the then-new eBay. Personal visits to the closure of local video stores, like Bijou and The Movie Set. A little bit of tape trading. Media requests via the St. Louis International Film Festival. All these methods combined to build a pretty decent set of rarities and fun odds’n’ends, with a select few tapes destined to survive the purge, hopefully finding new life as DVD dubs. (Ah, yes. The VHS-to-DVD converter unit. Used just as much as my records-to-mp3s turntable. Which is to say: not yet. But soon! Very soon!)
If there’s any one place, though, that provided the most tapes, along with the many hours of viewing they provided, it’s the old Whiz Bam!, the Grand Boulevard video-and-zine shop that was a multiple-times-weekly stopping point of mine (and many others) during the heart of the '90s.
Killed by the arrival of DVDs (then typically retailing around the $100 mark), Whiz Bam! thought of a mail offering system for its VHS tapes, an interesting, early take on what would become the DVD-by-mail business model of Netflix. The plan never quite came together and then Whiz Bam! sold off its rental stock. The “regulars” status enjoyed by myself and my roommates, Jen and Kurt, allowed us access to an early-entry sale at Whiz Bam!
At the sale, I bought and bought and bought. Today, though, a lot of those very movies are easily secured via Netflix. The music video compilations have been rendered obsolete by that little service called YouTube. There’s also the theory that these specific pieces of physical media, VHS tapes, are more likely to fall apart, especially if you’re actually playing them with any regularity.
On Monday, a visit was paid to one of the few local record shops, Apop, that still buys-and-sells VHS tapes, reflecting a somewhat unexpected (if small) resurgence in VHS collecting.
Apop to the rescue
Before heading to Apop, I scoured the VHS closet, yanking out the more mainstream, available titles and pretty much everything but a small crop of can’t-sell-’em survivors. Remaining: dozens of duped tapes, bootlegs and other odds/sods. But a box of about 60 tapes was brought into Apop, where I tipped proprietor Tiffany Minx to my approaching arrival. While her associate Gabe Karabell worked on cataloging merchandise, Minx granted an impromptu interview, sometimes while stopping to address the actual stock.
How many tapes do you typically buy?
Minx: It depends. The past two weeks, we’ve probably brought about 400, but right before that, not too many. We still have boxes of those packed away. We offer one shelf that’s nothing but VHS. We attract a lot of weirdos, who are interested in media like this. It’s a good in-and-out item. (Oh, wow, we’re going to get rid of your Hal Hartley collection. And this Survival Research Labs tape: I haven’t it seen before, which is kinda neat.) The last couple years, there’s been a revival of VHS collecting, kind of similar to the return of vinyl and also of cassettes. People seem to be coming back to these analog forms.
What’s the appeal, what’s leading to this new interest in VHS?
Minx: I think people that have been collecting them are getting caught up in the frenzy. There’ve been a lot more events around playing classic videos. There are books being written about them, there’re blogs about videos. Video nasties are getting attention. Movie nights are being focused around classic videos. People are getting rid of them for obvious reasons, too, like a lack of space. And the ephemeral versions are easier to get. That does make sense, in a way. With records and cassettes of both varieties, there’s a young generation of people coming in, because it’s just different for them. It’s neat to see people in their early 20s buying them, who maybe remember that VHS copy of “Jurassic Park,” which, for their parents, became obsolete. They’re clunky and colorful, too; there are books just about VHS covers. This is all speculation, of course. But I don’t think it’s reached the apex, it’s full frenzy yet, but we’ll see.
Are there any threads between the people who collect? A sort of collecting gene?
Minx: There are neurotic people, obsessives, the lonely ... oh, man! It totally depends. There’s definitely an angle to it of people who are so into something, that they’re not necessarily good at applying themselves socially. And there are others that are social, who go to shows and stuff, but they like to hit you with their data knowledge, telling you everything they know. They come in all shapes and sizes. I talk to other people who work at records stores and there are plenty of regular people who collect stuff, too. But you find weirdos in every single zone of collecting.
How about people like me, who are selling off their collections? Any commonalities?
Minx: Sometimes. But usually it has to do with fiscal issues. Those people always wind up collecting again. There are people who figure out what they’re looking for, they’re shedding off what no longer means as much, or is no longer important to their collection. There’s also this classic: I’m older now, I don’t care as much about going to shows, or about music, in general. They start dumping off all their stuff, and as their lifestyle changed, it’s no longer a priority to them. I don’t get that one, myself.
I dunno. I feel like I’ve never had the focus to really build a proper collection of any sort. I get into one thing, then burnout or shift directions.
Minx: Are your interests varied?
I think so.
Minx: I can get into that, my interests are all over the place. I know a lot about a lot of different things, but I don’t know if there’s something that I’m an expert on. But you can never finish a collection, no matter what it is. Let’s say you’re a classic mid-century music lover, and the Beatles are your real love. You’ll never get it all. There’s always more stuff. Bootlegs, new covers, things they’ve just found. They’ll keep you going forever. How long can they pull that string? I don’t think that’s a flaw. You just have different points of reflection. Let’s say that you get into metal. You might stay with it for a year, you get into it as far as you can go. And then you can find other forms of music you like. It’s like cross-training, you know?
Be kind, rewind
As my VHS collection worked its way through three stages of being - unloved on the shelves at home; crowded in a plastic tub and heading down Cherokee Street; then slotted into some milk crates at Apop, awaiting their new home - I kind of felt that I was cheating my younger self, the version of me that wanted to pick up quality stuff for the long haul.
Any sort of deep, philosophical thoughts, though, were brushed away by the realization that a keeper had gotten into the to-sell stack. There it was: Hal Hartley’s “The Book of Life,” a pre-millenial reflection on what Dec. 31, 1999, would bring, with PJ Harvey in the starring role. It’s the kind of thing that might be out there, available in another form via the web, but ... it might also not be. And, for some odd reason, there’s a twinge of nostalgia with that particular tape, as I saw the movie at the Webster U. Film Series back in ‘99, part of a whole series of pictures devoted to the millenial worry of that moment.
There wasn’t a choice, really. I bought it back.
As quickly as that, the first dollar of my modest $35 payout was immediately reinvested into the business that just relieved me of several dozen VHS tapes. I’m afraid to walk in there again soon, as Minx has “another customer named Tom, who sells his stuff, then comes back in to buy it back, then he sells it back again with a few new pieces. I’ve gotten to where I don’t even put the stuff out, I just leave it for him and wait for him to come back.”
Don’t know about that other Tom, but I think it’s time for me to really get into metal.