An era ends in Scotland as the video shop that outlasted Blockbuster shuts its doors for the last time.
Hannah Wright (@HanJMWright)
It’s hard to pin down the magic of the video rental shop. For many of us who grew up with limited television channels and no access to the internet, a visit to the video rental store was a chance to escape into a world of seemingly infinite choice. It was a place to develop a taste for movies and curate your own sense of cinematic style. Rental stores have all but disappeared from the public consciousness, so it may come as a surprise that there are still a small number in business in the UK, though, admittedly, their numbers are dwindling. April saw a particularly significant milestone as Scotland saw the closure of its last remaining shop: Vogue Video. This independent business, which outlasted larger competition to be one of the last of its kind, is a story that itself sounds like a movie plot.
Of course, in the tradition of the best kind of underdog stories, Vogue has another surprising twist. Though the shop may have been the last in Scotland, it’s not gone out of business because of a lack of customers or debts, but simply because it’s time for the manager to retire.
That would be Ben, and he’s been involved in Vogue Video since the very beginning in 1988, stepping in to run the store full time 10 years ago, taking over from his wife who owns the business. He was a regular fixture in the Newington community in Edinburgh where the shop was based, often seen pottering around outside the shop as well as staffing the counter, where he could always be called upon for a reliable recommendation.
The last three decades have been a significant time for the film industry, and Vogue bore witness to huge changes while remaining consistent in their pricing and their commitment to customer service. “It used to be Betamax,” he says. “And after a few years of Betamax, it changed to VHS and then DVD came along. The first day we opened up, we had our price at £1.50 and over 30 years later we’re still £1.50.” He digs out a magazine from the 80s, showing all the latest Betamax releases. “These films used to just be American… not even British ones… very American movies. And with very few actors – Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner – all these people… and they were very expensive.” He points out Freedom Fighter (1988) that cost £45 for dealers to buy to rent and laughs before adding, “you would never watch these now. Would you pick one of these from the shelf?”
Vogue stood the test of time while other rental shops around them floundered. When a huge Blockbuster opened at the end of the street, it could have meant a battle between the independent rental store and the faceless corporation, but Ben merely shrugs when asked about outlasting the rental giant. “The employees of Blockbuster used to come and rent movies from me… because they didn’t have the same variety as we had,” he explains. Vogue’s extensive range of titles is what helped it gain the attention and admiration of film fans across the capital and beyond. While Blockbuster was packing its shelves with 50 copies of the latest release, Ben and his wife curated a collection that ranged from new releases to cult classics, art house films and world cinema. It was this variety that kept Vogue afloat throughout the years and it’s something Ben is proud of. “Just before I put the closing down sign up we had 20,000 titles,” he says.
“Netflix advertise that they’ve got 7,000, but you have to remember the 7,000 they have… they’ve got fishing, making boats… it wasn’t actually all movies!” he laughs.
The rise of streaming services, and their at-home convenience, almost certainly contributed to the quiet decline of rental shops. But what was (and is) special about rental shops is exactly the opposite of the supposed perks of streaming. Going to the rental shop was an outing, an investment of your time. And as Ben points out, the huge variety of choice now at your fingertips is sometimes not quite what it seems. Ben’s fondest memories of his time running Vogue are of the people who rented the films from him. He has stories of meeting the children of customers who met while browsing his shelves; of being stopped on the street by people who fondly remember being brought in when they were young; and of choosing titles for customers with disabilities, who would send in lists and have their carers collect their selection. “We had a close relationship with the customers,” he recalls. “They weren’t like customers… most of them were like friends.”
In Vogue, and the others who closed their doors before them, we’ve lost this human connection to the behemoth of studios, production companies and film agencies. A good deal of the magic in the video rental store comes from this social interaction. Video stores are unique pockets of film passion. A place to run your fingers across the spines of hundreds of titles and seek out the expertise of knowledgeable workers who don’t own a stake in the films they recommended. They are wonderfully analogue, and require a journey to get there and consideration when making your choice.
Though the decline of video rental stores can easily be written off as the necessary march of progress, it feels as though we’re losing something important. Though Ben admits that if it weren’t for his age he would probably stay, on the whole he is more pragmatic. “Everything always comes to an end. Maybe it will be in a quiz book?” he smiles at this thought. “What was the last DVD shop in Scotland? Vogue Video. On one of those quiz shows on the TV.”
After 30 years of curating Vogue’s collection, and watching thousands of titles, I want to end our chat by asking what Ben’s favourite movie is. He takes his time, perhaps filing through the rows of DVD boxes in his head. “I like Shawshank Redemption, that was one of them. For a comedy, I did like My Cousin Vinny. And Madagascar. I like to move it, move it!”…