Be kind, rewind.
At least one label with those words was affixed to every VHS tape at the video store where I worked as a teenager and fueled an insatiable appetite for movies. Like about half of our customers, life is unkind when it comes to rewinds.
We can only go backward in our memories, which exist in dreamlike fragments, cinematic versions of reality. Permit me to rewind….
Back in the day, clerkship at a video store or record shop was what every geeky high schooler and college student aspired to; it was a badge of cultural cool and salvation from fast food. And I had an in at Vantastic Video in Collinsville, Illinois.
Around the time I turned 16, my friend Barb’s mom acquired the store and sought part-time help. I lobbied hard for the role; I may have even bumped off a classmate I deemed a competitor.
There were many things to love about the job: Free movies, free movie posters, conversations about movies, the alphabetization and categorization of movies. One of the things I loved most was working for and with Barb’s mom.
Debbie ran the store with her partner, Dave, and they guided it through the rise of Blockbuster, even expanding to a larger location in the early 1990s. Like many small business owners, Debbie logged countless hands-on hours, and I often worked alongside her (until Barb eventually convinced her that we were capable of turning off lights and locking a door, and that she didn’t really need to spend 12 hours a day in the store). Debbie was a good-natured, no-BS business leader with a quick wit, a devious sense of humor, and a robust cackle informed by decades of smoking. She treated me as well as her own child, and Barb used to grouse that Debbie loved me more, which was funny because few things aside from Donald Trump proclamations are farther from the truth (although Debbie and I always played along, calling each other “Mom” and “Son”).
Unlike Blockbuster, Vantastic Video carried a wealth of independent, foreign and cult movies. The store was able to do this because, also unlike Blockbuster, Vantastic carried porn. We had an entire room devoted to it, and I delighted at the Hollywood movie ripoffs: Tits a Wonderful Life, The Flintbones, On Golden Blonde, etc. (For graduation, I was jokingly gifted a copy of Edward Penishands.)
Porn renters were notorious nonrewinders, but triple-“X” marked the spot for profit, and the smut allowed us to stock movies that weren’t otherwise tearing up the rental charts. Debbie and Dave encouraged their employees to watch movies, and they engaged us in the process of budgeting for the types of movies we wanted to carry, ordering titles and tracking their performance. The experience was more valuable than any business or economics or sociology course I took.
I worked at Vantastic Video through two years of high school, and Debbie was kind enough to invite me back to fill in on holidays and over summer break while in college. Fast forward….
We know what happened to video stores. They—and the rewinding reminders—were paid imaginative homage in Michel Gondry’s underappreciated Be Kind Rewind.
Debbie and Dave closed Vantastic Video on their terms and moved on, settling in Arizona. Barb and I stayed in touch over the years thanks to the internet (barely a glimmer in our high school days), and we even got to visit in person a few years back; we still complain about movies (and politics), and share life updates.
This week, I received a message from Barb that was unwelcome. She did not write to say she was supporting Trump or joining ISIS or that Shia LaBeouf is right about Michael Bay. Her mom, she said, was recently diagnosed with small-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma. It was like someone pressed rewind in my brain.
I remembered the joyous day Debbie bought a second rewinding machine (yes, there were dedicated devices, and by the time I left Vantastic Video, the store employed three, often running in unison); I remembered how Debbie wouldn’t let us slide on watching Poltergeist in the shop just because it was rated PG; I remembered how Debbie supported every band fundraiser and school event; I remembered chuckling with Debbie over the niche genres and titles detailed in the porn-movie catalogs.
Debbie welcomed me into her business and her home and her life, and she is among the kindest people I’ve had the pleasure to know. I wish I could rewind on her behalf one more time.