A single rack in the inconspicuous part of a local video store holds the last vestiges of a dying era of home entertainment: the VHS tape.
After reigning for over two decades as the chosen form of home movie watching and recording, the VHS format is taking its last gasps in some hold-out stores in Halifax. It’s also being celebrated in the new Michel Gondry film, Be Kind Rewind.
In that movie, two employees of a VHS-exclusive store in New York City (played by Jack Black and Mos Def) attempt to recreate homemade versions of classic movies after their entire stock is wiped out by Black’s accidentally magnetized head.
During the late 1970s, VHS went head-to-head against Betamax (in a battle similar to the HD DVD versus Blu-ray disc fight today). By the early ’80s, VHS was victorious, triumphing over Betamax, it was widely held, because of its longer running and recording time. VHS went back into the ring in the late ’90s, when a sleek new opponent, the DVD, was introduced to North American consumers. The bell tolled for VHS in the ensuing years, as most major film studios began releasing their titles on DVD alone.
In an informal phone-survey of 26 of the video stores that dot the HRM, nine still had movies available on VHS, though a couple of those shops said their selection was made up of mainly kids’ movies.
Still, a few neighbourhood stores here and there keep a more significant selection.
At Showtime Video & Variety on Windsor Street, it costs $2 per tape to rent or purchase, or you can rent six movies for $7.99 for a whole week. Showtime owner Ratwam Moitani admits that VHS inspires nowhere near the interest the DVD does, but adds the store’s VHS selection rents and sells regularly. “It is an older client,” she says, “people who don’t yet have DVD players.” The store plans to keep the videos until customers stop renting and buying them.
In south end Halifax, Gigantic Video offers five movies for five days for five bucks or sells tapes for five dollars. The store maintains a large section of VHS titles, an area like a time capsule. The old, sun-bleached tape cases fill a display space comparable in size to that of the store’s DVD section. This is where crummy early-’80s comedies live on: beside each other in the comedy shelves, Blind Date boasts Bruce Willis’ first credited role and A Fine Mess has a cover with Ted Danson pointing a gun at Howie Mandel, who is dressed as a French maid.
Films not yet released on DVD are here, too: The Mosquito Coast, Peter Weir’s 1986 film that re-teamed him with Witness buddy Harrison Ford, is available on VHS only.
Mumford Video has two shelves full of VHS to either rent ($3.50) or to buy ($3), though they’re---alas---slowly phasing them out. According to Beth Genter, who’s worked behind the counter at Mumford since last August, there are still those who appreciate these old relics. “When people come in they’re just ‘Oh, VHS---you guys still have them!’ and then they’ll take a look and find some VHS that aren’t on DVD yet. I find that’s what a lot of people are doing: they’re finding movies on VHS that aren’t on DVD yet and grabbing them up.” Adds Genter: “Some people still think VHS is still better than DVD.”
The small things matter to these people. For example, they say, you can’t take a DVD out of the player, set it aside for a few days, pop it back in and pick up right where you left off. “I haven’t had a customer return a VHS. I have a VCR at home too and I’ve brought some of home and they still work great,” says Genter.
The cost of the Blu-ray player and of Digital Video Recorders may also help preserve a place for VHS. According to a quick sweep of major electronics-dealers’ websites, the cheapest DVR was $349.99 and, of course, digital cable is required. At Canadian Tire you can pick up a VCR for $49.99 and some fresh six-hour tapes for another $6.99. Just don’t set them near any big magnets.