Thursday, July 7, 2016

My New Regular Friday-Night Thing

When I moved out to a new apartment just within walking distance of the local Northampton, MA Forbes library, I discovered there are a few good advantages to Location. 

With many parents and impoverished college students in town, a constant demand for Friday movie-night titles, and no Blockbuster after the last one closed down some five or six years ago, I'd discovered that around 3-4pm, just before 5pm closing, there tends to be a "Happy Hour" of local browsing customers socializing at the Audio-Visual section on the third floor.

A corner section reserved for their DVD's.

Entire walls of DVD's.

Walls and walls of DVD's.

(This is just the feature-film section, by the way; the foreign, documentary, and TV-boxset sections were elsewhere on the floor, and the children's/family/teen titles were in the Children's section on the basement floor.)

One display showed the theme that month, Escape/Adventure movies, along with a few handpicked staff favorites:

The Great Escape (obviously).  Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Zulu.  The Man With the Golden Gun.  Cocoon.  Key Largo.  And a few staff-picked recommendations of Gold Diggers of 1935 and Evil Dead II.  
I'd been on a 70's Golden-Age kick for my last few visits, and since the first Godfather had been checked out, I settled for finally taking a look at Robert Altman's "Nashville", and two other lesser-known Warner Archive titles from '78 that some generous souls had tried to find a home for.  I decided not to rent the next volume of Columbo reruns from the TV section, as three hours of quirky semi-improvised tower-of-babbling 70's Altman had already put too much on my plate for the week.  
Being a library, their rental terms were reasonable:  7-day rental, with optional 7-day renewal online.  No deposit required.  Holds, special-orders and waiting-list titles available at the front desk.  Cost:  FREE.  (With $1/day late fee.)

Before the now-ancient days of disk-by-mail, there was just as much of a rush at the local strip-mall Blockbuster Video on Friday night, but it never had the welcoming feeling of being personal--Like the Starbucks coffee on Main Street or the Wal-mart, it was the corporate boot-footprint of mediocrity stamped upon the identity of your hometown, to make it no better or worse than a thousand others.  No matter how glitzy, modern or brightly lit the newest ones were, there was a dispiriting feeling of soul-crushing tackiness to it that said "Abandon all taste, ye who enter"...And the window-banner promises of "More copies of the hits you want, first!" rubbed your crowd trend-following in your face, and made your movie-night urges feel as if you were cattle in a production factory who were depended upon to be harvested to fatten starving studios.
Customers were strangers--and so were the movies, in blank uniform cases--and you saw your neighbor having to compromise his taste for the one recent-hit movie he didn't want, just because ten other strangers that day had taken the one he did.  You judgmentally grumbled that someone as philistine as him deserved to settle for watching The Day After Tomorrow, just because your own pride dictated that you had to go home without that copy of The Bourne Supremacy you'd hoped to pin your weekend movie-night on.
And if they couldn't rent you a movie, they'd rent you a game, darnit, sell you some merchandise, or even a box of popcorn, just to keep the overhead.  

The more that "Big Blue" began Wal-mart'ing the local community-hangout storefront rentals out of a town, the more a debate started to rise among renting film-buffs:  Namely, whether the brick-and-mortar DVD-rental industry "should" philosophically be an archive for curious film-buffs to look up old titles on demand, or a studio-serving second-run theater to give you your last chance to pay Fox a little extra money to see Titanic fresh out of the theaters, before it retires to cable.
Blockbuster, in their press, proudly sounded off that they were on the side of the studios, as it was home-theater's symbiotic duty to be--People wanted The Hits, and they'd pay for the company that brought them the current, hippest, hottest ones.  The library, OTOH, like the independent mom-and-pop store, had no choice but to be what it was...The repository, the wine-cellar where you went to look up a title you didn't know, where they kept it in case anyone should ask for it.  

Looking for movies at a small hardwood-floor library in the local town mansion is a different experience:  Most came there to look for a book, and are pleasantly embarrassed to see others there with the same inspiration.  And seeing movie spine titles on shelves is the same as searching for an old book--Colored titles, each promising a story, are in reach for you to grab one and take a chance, but now with the extra tease of a bit of movie trivia, daring "I know more than you do".  One chatty older woman, seeing me tilt my head and squint over the alphabetical shelf like two or three others, joked about having the same Friday-night hobby, and showed off the copy of Disney's live-action Cinderella she hadn't expected to be on the shelves so soon.  Browsing a town's library is something particularly local and by-the-people, which brings out sudden social instincts of being part of the Hometown Favorite--No two library collections are the same, and those who know where and what to look for go there because they have a sense of what is unique about their own town.
And one other advantage the library had over the old Blockbuster:  No running loop of loud trailers or employee-placating movies on the overhead monitors.  Libraries tend to emphasize courteously quiet solitude and reflection with their customer browsing.  Shh.

Our community library was lucky, being in a New England college-town--For 25 years, the local college-town arthouse theater on Pleasant St. had had the college-town Pleasant St. Video next door.  Passing by the corner past the theater meant seeing that big shop window selling the print posters of Breakfast at Tiffany's and La Dolce Vita, and displaying the foreign/cult films that were the hit renters with the largely 00's-hippie town demographic.  But in June '11, before the independently-run Pleasant St. Theater went the way of other college-town screens that couldn't upgrade to digital projection, the Pleasant St. Video store followed first. It was a turning point for the town, but by that point, everyone knew that brick-and-mortar video rentals couldn't last forever, as even Big Blue had been slain by Netflix-by-mail, and those looking for film-class titles wouldn't be caught dead going to the grocery store's Redbox machine.
All wasn't lost:  Northampton is a charity-cause town, and when the town's biggest supply of foreign and cult-classics was in danger, a movement started to help fund the entire collection's donation to the local library.  Just $8, tax-deductible, would save one orphan film from the used-film sale box, and keep it on a permanent shelf for the entire town.
As you can see, it was a success.  There's now a lot more to choose from.  

As viewers complain that Netflix and Amazon Prime's selections have been dramatically dwindling to a collection of low-rent activist documentaries, micro-horror, public-domain and original series, many still refuse to cancel the services because of the "convenience" of having movies and past TV reruns available as an alternative to cable and broadcast TV. But it also feels like being afraid to cross some last line that can't be uncrossed--We cut the cable cord for subscription, they worry, but when we finally cut the subscription cord, what DO we have left?  
What many aren't aware of is that for most of their working career, those same people's taxes have been paying for another viewing option that's nearly as convenient with greater selection.  And if not "greater", depending on your town, at least a lot more eclectic, with more titles they may actually recognize.  Some might be old, occasionally have scratches from customer use, but in how good condition were the disks you once rented from the shiny Blockbuster?  The point is, being physical disks, they're made to stay on a shelf, and they aren't going anywhere soon.

Which brings me to the reason I posted this on a Thursday, when a Friday might have been more fitting:  An upcoming weekend is a good excuse for impulse.  That's what it's made for.
You may not have checked your local library's DVD (with the odd isolated Blu-ray) movie section, or, like some I'd happened to talk with on the bus, even been aware your library HAD a DVD section.  Trust me, most do.  
Other libraries may probably not have been philanthropically stocked with an entire rental store by an idealistic town, but most probably consist of titles people wanted to get rid of, and donated to city for a nominal tax deduction, rather than throw out.  Each title has a guarantee of being a movie somebody at some point wanted to watch first--And it's a practice you find yourself wanting to pay forward with your own old discarded titles that have been replaced by Blu-ray, just in the hopes that someone else will be as equally surprised by your own discard.  (In the old days, when enthusiastic adopters used to binge-buy Blu-rays, they bragged of being able to sell their old DVD's back to Amazon.  And once the bottom fell out of that market, with a used title now fetching upwards of a dollar at best, they don't say that any more.)
It's serendipity:  You may not necessarily find the title you're looking for.  If you do, more power to you.  But more often, what you may find is the title you never knew you were looking for until you found it.  That's the thrill of the hunt.

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