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Reflecting on the end of an era as Crystal Video closes its doors

I like the other video store I go to, but in the dozens of times I've rented movies there I've never had a conversation with an employee about a movie. It's weird: They have these racks right up front with rows of "employee picks" by name, but no one wears name tags so you wouldn't know with whom to share the secret handshake of the fellow closeted Joan Crawford enthusiast even if they weren't always in such an unsmiling hurry to see your driver's license.

I don't think I've ever rented a movie from Crystal Video without having a movie conversation. You could count on spending time there: It was not a video store for the hurried or lazy browser, or the attention-deficient. Except for new releases, most of the DVDs were displayed spine-out so you really had to either know what you were looking for or commit to a sore neck surveying these thin strips of information at a slant while moving up and down the rows. Plenty of time to bump elbows.

Video libraries are unique in that they leave a certain record of your consumption, if we must call it that, in a way that retail places don't. At other retail places you generally don't return what you've bought after using it, in some cases to buy it again five or 10 years later. At Crystal Video, I could revisit past eras of movie watching, past areas of intense interest, and actually touch the very same videotapes I first picked up 15 or 20 years ago. I felt such proprietary satisfaction for having conquered whole sections of it.

click to enlarge Crystal Video owner Jace Laakso stacks DVDs as people stand in line to buy out the store’s inventory. The 23-year-old independent video store located on South Higgins shut its doors for good last week due to economic hardship. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Crystal Video owner Jace Laakso stacks DVDs as people stand in line to buy out the store‚Äôs inventory. The 23-year-old independent video store located on South Higgins shut its doors for good last week due to economic hardship.

It's normally bad form in customer service for a clerk to comment or editorialize on a customer's purchases, but at the Crystal you wanted the editorializing, and the recommendations, the interaction. And what a gallery of colorful characters sat behind that checkout counter over the years! Katie Kleinhesselink, the video store dreamboat of every movie nerd's dreams. Carson something or other, the insufferable hipster brat who had actually been to film school and never let you forget it.

And not to forget Aaron Taylor, perhaps the ultimate video clerk, whose bewildering profusion of voluble opinions usually followed you out the door as you were leaving. Dealing with Aaron could be downright exasperating on those occasions when you just wanted to get home and watch your movies, without the banter, certainly without the added fistful of Captain Beefheart and Japanese noisecore recommendations into the bargain. Now I would give just about anything to almost get in a fistfight over Peter Greenaway with a video store clerk. "Say something!" I want to yell at these clerk-droids at the other place, practically yanking my wallet out of my pocket to get at my driver's license.

You'd think I would have planned better for my final trip to Crystal—drawn up a mental list, even—especially considering I went through the trouble of sneaking in early on the first day of the big sale. But I didn't. I seriously couldn't think of anything I wanted, although in retrospect I should have started taking mental notes when I noticed the beatific look that had started to come over Tim's face recently when we both knew I had late fees and that he was just letting them slide. That didn't bode well, but I didn't speak up, either. Again, what I wouldn't do now to hear Darth Vader booming : "I have you now!" one last time. Star Wars will never be the same.

I had made up my mind, however, not to so much as glance at the videocassettes. It was hard, I tell you, walking past those rows of forlorn VHS titles: like being at a dog pound with two thousand puppies, only some of these puppies I've literally known for half my life. Really, though, I'm conflicted about the whole idea of "owning" movies, so I picked up a fistful of kid things, a few VHS tapes someone had asked me to look out for (requiring intense concentration not to notice anything on either side), and a very few things for myself. Nothing special, nothing impossible to find elsewhere, and really nothing really meaningful to me.

I would have broken my embargo on VHS tapes to buy the copy of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls I once rented and took with me to Finland for six months, but that one went missing years ago. Almost as sad as the store's actual closing was the shelf of DVD cases with missing or damaged contents: grim evidence of how people mistreat libraries. One of these orphaned cases was for Die Nibelungen. I always wondered how someone who would actually rent that movie could be so disrespectful.

I started getting depressed, so I made my purchases and left without soaking in any more of the "atmosphere"—the very thing I'd professed to be after when I waved my flimsy press credentials earlier—than I had to. The doors had barely opened to the public and already people were barking questions over both my shoulders at a flustered Jace Laakso as he sat furiously pecking numbers into his computer: Is this shelf for sale? Is that shelf for sale? Can I have some tape to put my name on it?

I turned to leave, pushing through what now seemed to me a pack of ravenous jackals: not somber cinephiles come to pay their respects, but scavengers with bared teeth and wildly searching eyes, greedy for any bargain just because it is. "Dear God," I thought. "Here they're selling off the cathedral, and these people are wondering if there's any warm Tab for the communion glasses."

Well, the hell with it then. Netflix here I come.

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