Guest Post: The Last Video Store on Earth

And now for something completely different… While an undergrad at The University of Texas (Austin) (2005-2009), my saved dollars went to Vulcan Video—a purveyor of cult films (science fictional, foreign, unusual). Between Vulcan Video and the university audio visual library, I spent the majority of my free time transported to unusual worlds. I asked a friend, Christopher Giles, who returned to Austin after college to work at the store to write a guest post on the intersection of science fiction cinema/fiction and Vulcan’s last days, a victim (at least partly) of Covid-19.

Enjoy!

And as always, I look forward to your thoughts.

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The Last Video Store on Earth

Christopher Giles

Vulcan Video was an independently owned video rental store located in Austin, Texas. Enjoying a stock of literally thousands of titles, with a focus on classic, foreign, and rare genre oddities, Vulcan stood as a beloved cinematic hub in a town uniquely suited for such a space, one of the few remaining businesses of its kind left standing. Unfortunately, recent years dealt Vulcan with the twin blows of increased rent prices and decreased customer traffic in the age of digital streaming, and the unavoidable realities of COVID-19 forced the store to permanently shut its doors in early April 2020.

Working at a video store, one grows accustomed to seasonal rushes on particular genres: lots of romcom rentals in February; the Horror section picked dry by the end of October; frantic, last-minute requests for It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) the week before Christmas. It’s to be expected, and can often lead to opportunities for customers to discover overlooked gems. When all copies of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) are predictably checked out weeks prior to the titular holiday, a slasher-starved customer might instead leave the store with Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) in hand, none less the richer for the alternative. As video store clerks, we looked forward to these days on the calendar and prepared for them accordingly.

Even the occasional curveball of unexpected news could be met with quick action, like, say, the untimely death of a beloved actor; when Burt Reynolds passed in 2018, the Vulcan Video staff quickly put together a tribute section for the mustachioed icon. This allowed for grieving customers to easily locate and snatch up copies of tried and true favorites like White Lightning (1973) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977) , but to also hopefully make time for deep cut curiosities: Paternity (1981) or Malone (1987), anybody?

The onslaught of COVID-19 was less an unexpected curveball and more a slow-moving, impossible-to-stop battering ram. Vulcan Video, alongside all other non-essential businesses in Austin, Texas, ultimately shut down until further notice for the sake of employee and customer safety – in fact, we voluntarily locked our doors with a few days to spare before local shelter-in-place restrictions would have forced the issue, and we were happy to do it. Prioritizing health over DVDs isn’t exactly a head-scratcher.

Nevertheless, the month leading up to the emergency closure allowed for a uniquely busy, bizarre, and beautiful period for Vulcan’s books. Preparing for the impending, indefinite shutdown, Vulcan’s regular customers attacked our rental shelves with a renewed vigor and purpose, making damn sure their homes would be well supplied with plentiful movies alongside the requite canned goods, toilet paper, and booze. The essentials!

Encouraging our patrons to stock up and stay home, we increased our maximum number of allowed rentals for each customer and let them have at it. People were leaving the store with literal stacks of DVDs in their arms, and we couldn’t help but take curious note of what sorts of titles were prioritized. There was the expected run on popular, well-loved comfort movies; think The Princess Bride, Back to the Future, the original Star Wars trilogy, and so on. Understandable. Those films have endured for good reasons, not least of which is their effective endorphin delivery capabilities – a reliable balm against coronavirus-related anxieties.

More interesting were the customers who took the opposite approach, and instead of curating their film selection to distract from the pandemic, they decided to lean right into it, with the Vulcan Video clerks following suit: we hastily threw together a special “seasonal” section of films focusing on plagues, viral infections, apocalyptic fears, and crippling social isolation. Y’know, “feel good” flicks! To be perfectly honest, such a silly (and arguably distasteful) project was, paradoxically, a welcome distraction from the encroaching reality of COVID-19. By diving into fictional and futuristic depictions of pandemic panic could we perhaps exorcise some pent-up stress about the very real one stretching over the world.

I don’t have the records in front of me, but if we were to run the numbers from the final month of Vulcan’s business before the shutdown, the most frequently-rented title would likely be Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: if this coolly intelligent medical thriller was seen as a plausible-but-purely-speculative piece of entertainment upon its release in 2011, it now plays as an unbearably prescient illustration of societal collapse in the wake of a deadly pandemic, not even its roster of A-List movie stars safe from a fast moving, respiratorily-spread virus. The renewed popularity of Contagion in a COVID-19 world became a kind of gallows-humor joke between Vulcan clerks, our multiple DVD and Blu-ray copies frequently re-rented by one customer almost immediately after being returned by another. Rewatching the film myself, I couldn’t help but wearily sigh at the one glaring bit of optimistic Hollywood fantasy: ruthless as Contagion is, it nonetheless demonstrates an unsentimental humanism towards its cast of characters, portraying medical scientists and even government representatives as hard-working, intelligent, noble professionals who carry out their jobs with efficiency – in other words, Contagion actually believes in a functioning government bureaucracy. Dare to dream.

(Stanley Meltzoff’s cover for the 1954 edition)

As much as I admire Contagion, my own COVID-19 cinema syllabus took a less literal focus. As it turns out, the sturdy cinematic legacy sprouted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend provided this video store clerk with unexpected solace during these fraught times. Originally published in 1954, Matheson’s striking tale of Robert Neville, an apparent lone survivor of a brutal pandemic with vampiric after-shocks, led to no less than three unique cinematic adaptations over the following half-century: 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price as Neville; 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charleton Heston; 2007’s I Am Legend, with Will Smith. We’re a long way from the zombified vampire apocalyptic wasteland illustrated by Matheson, but Robert Neville’s plight – typified by ceaseless stress and profound loneliness – takes on particular resonance during our present reality of anxiety, social distancing, and self-isolation. Matheson’s novel and all subsequent film versions also include flashback passages to before the vampire plague destroyed civilization, with increasingly panicked characters at a loss as to how the virus spreads and how to properly contain it. It’s impossible to not pick up on some unsettling parallels.

With a quiet obsessiveness, I read the novel and watched all three films over the past month, which are worthy adaptations and unique showcases for their respective stars. The Omega Man might just be the most singularly bizarre adaptation of the bunch, including a memorable opening with Charleton Heston cruising around a desolate Los Angeles and rewatching Woodstock (1970) for the umpteenth time – that a conservative icon such as Heston would take solace in footage of the iconic counterculture music festival is a solid gag. I Am Legend, containing perhaps Will Smith’s finest screen performance, relocates the action to New York and, for the first half at least, offers a surprisingly bleak and effective version of Matheson’s story, at least for a Hollywood blockbuster. The film unfortunately runs off the rails in the back half, its admirably pessimistic tone at odds with the studio-mandated happy ending, but Smith’s fine work is worth the price of admission. My personal favorite of the lot remains The Last Man on Earth, and I regularly screened it at Vulcan. Vincent Price fans should take particular embrace of this stark, low-budget film, as it’s essentially a one-man show for the beloved horror icon, his near-constant voiceover narration providing an oddly soothing soundtrack despite the film’s grim fidelity to the source material.

There are worse ways to bask in the apocalypse than spending it with Vincent Price’s velvety voice, and he made for much welcome company in the waning days of a struggling video store on its last legs.

~

Author: Christopher Giles is a former video store manager/current insomniac residing in South Austin, Texas. He spends free time playing with his dog and watching Bela Lugosi movies.

(Tony Gleeson’s cover for the 1980 edition)

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11 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Last Video Store on Earth”

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Any particular fond memories of the store? (I can’t tell from your comment if you mean Vulcan Video or another video store you remember)

      Thanks for the kind words!

  1. CHRISTOPHER

    Thanks for the guest article. Back in the ’90s, there were six small, independent video stores within a mile of my apartment in Bellevue, Washington. While each store carried the requisite hits to pay the rent, each store also had unique titles that reflected the tastes of the owners. A couple even had small rooms in the back where little kids weren’t allowed.

    The pandemic that wiped them all out was the dreaded Blockbuster virus. In hindsight, it feels like the little shops all closed overnight, but, of course, they lingered for a while, watching their base of customers dwindle as they chose to rent movies in blue-on-white plastic boxes (even though the staffs at Blockbuster generally consisted of bland young people with little knowledge of the movies they rented but who worked for a minimal wage).

    On the day that my favorite store closed—and damned if my aging brain can recall its name!—the owner called me and asked me to stop by. I got hugs from her and her staff and they happily presented me with a parting gift: six VHS tapes from the “Gerald McBoing Boing Presents” collections of UPA cartoons from the ‘50s.

    Young folk today will never know what they are missing by not having personal interaction with other customers, aficionados, and collectors (often “idiosyncratic” characters that their social training and common sense would warn them to avoid otherwise) that previous generations enjoyed and, alas, took for granted.

    I will always miss those little video stores, just as I will always miss used record stores Fortunately, I still have my Gerald McBoing Boing videos.

    Keep on keepin’ on!

    NEAL

  2. Great guest post.

    I was shocked the other day in driving down a road near my work that I do not frequent to see a video rental store still open and functioning, signs outside saying they were now open again as the city has entered phase 2 of non-essential businesses reopening.

    It would certainly take something special to keep those stores going in a day and age where there is so much streaming, legal and otherwise.

    Matheson’s story is great, and I’ve enjoyed both Price’s and Smith’s films adapting the story. Can’t recall ever having seen Omega Man.

    I’m sorry for Vulcan, and for all the customers who patronized their store, that this pandemic may have put the nail in the proverbial coffin. I ache for these business owners and the people they employed.

  3. This is a terrific piece, and very bittersweet! I miss Vulcan terribly every day. You realize the magnitude of what you’ve lost once it’s gone. Cultural hubs like these are vital, I think, to the soul of a city. Without them you have… well… Dallas.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Thomas!

      Dallas is improving…. slowly…..

      And, I know it’s not Indie, but they have the Half Price Books original story. And it still is one of the best locations for vintage SF I’ve encountered.

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