the vault is sealed

~ by john cribbs ~

Driving back from the city two weekends ago we passed through Rhinebeck, where my wife grew up. She turned into a small shopping center; when I asked what she was doing she continued to drive slowly down the line of stores, scrutinizing each one carefully. "It's gone," she informed me, and I realized she was looking in vain for Chelsea Video. Chelsea Video was a great place, second only to the former Rick's Video of Piermont as New York's best repository for obscure and out-of-print movies on both major formats. It's the only place I'd ever seen a copy of Victor Erice's The Quince Tree Dream, which like his elusive El Sur is still not available on dvd. I found it one day in the "Spanish" section next to the Buñuels and Orduñas and Fernán-Gómezes. Chelsea had such a large collection of foreign language titles they were categorized by country: even Macedonia and Kazakhstan were represented. They also had this funky vhs bootleg of Ingmar Bergman's Brink of "Death" in a clamshell case with makeshift cover that I never got around to renting because I was paranoid it would break my VCR. I guess I never will get to take that risk - having tried to look up the store's phone number online recently, I was fairly sure that it was gone for good. And I was right. But that didn't turn out to be the saddest news of the week.

That would be when I received my semi-regular email from Video Vault, Old Town Alexandria's famous outlet that I regularly describe as one of my top ten places on earth (which is even more significant considering most of the other places, like Reichenbach Falls near Meiringen in Bern canton, Switzerland and Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan, are places I've never been to.) I enjoy getting emails from the 'Vault because I don't live in Virginia anymore, so any new releases or recommended older movies usually found on their bulletin board or through the gossip of their film fanatic employees comes to me via their unofficial newsletter. This particular one read, in full:

After 25 years, VIDEO VAULT is going to shutter its doors. What happened? Well, the story of packaged media is simple: It’s all about digits. Too many digital downloads, too many digits on that rent check. We always believed in the value of good advice and customer service. In tough economic times, low cost and convenience trump all that. Competition from other indie video stores didn’t kill us. Blockbuster didn’t kill us. On their own, a recession, the decline of packaged media and Netflix wouldn’t have killed us. All three at once were a triple whammy--that ultimately did us in.

We are going to remain open for two months. We will continue renting and selling. But everything must go. Please come in and spend as much as your budget will allow. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, “Jane and I need dough and plenty of it.”

We want to thank everyone who’s supported us through the years. The Old Town community has given us some great memories. We have made friendships that will last a lifetime and we are thankful for that. I know many of you are saddened by this news but not as sad as we are.

"Saddened" by the news is putting it lightly. I feel like a part of me is gone somehow: a piece of my heart that I kept safely in another part of the world has been discovered by terrible little gremlins and destroyed. I've lived mainly in New York for the last 13 years, but I have family and friends in Virginia and made it a point to visit the 'Vault anytime I was in the area, returning to my parents' or buddy's house with a stack of videos. Tired of the excuse "ah sorry dude we don't own a VCR anymore" to get out of Italian horror movie marathons, I started storing one in my car trunk just in case. I would always make sure to hit the place on Tuesday, when all rentals were 3 for 2, and if there were a particular filmmaker or actor whose work I needed to bone up on I'd try to get there on that person's birthday, when all their titles were half off (using the discount as an excuse, I once set aside the entire month of February to binge on John Ford, Ida Lupino, Truffaut, Lee Marvin, Ben Hecht and William Demarest.) I'd always go with a three or four-page list in hand. Not all items were satisfied, but for every Welcome Home Soldier Boys or House of Psychotic Women they didn't count among their 65,000 titles they always had something I didn't expect to find: Satyajit Ray's The Adversary, King Hu's A Touch of Zen, Robert Downey's Greaser's Palace...

I've related my first exposure to this incredible establishment before (in the introduction to my Video Oddities), but here it goes again. I was an unhappy sophomore living in Springfield, Virginia. I needed to forget about being an unhappy sophomore, and my escape was Hong Kong action movies, preferably anything by John Woo, or starring Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh or Jackie Chan. But besides a bootleg video dealer at the Tyson's Corner comic convention selling the occasional horribly-subtitled (or not-subtitled) copy of something like Dragons Forever - which more often than not I'd get home only to meet an empty blue screen - it was impossible to find anything other than the widely-released The Killer and Rumble in the Bronx. So I checked the yellow pages and called around to every video outlet (subversively during school hours, in the dark room of the art department) looking for a copy of Armour of God. At the end of the alphabetical list was "Video Vault" in Alexandria - well I'm not driving that far for a video, I thought as I dialed the number anyway just for the hell of it. Turns out, not only did they have Jackie Chan's glorious Indiana Jones knock-off, they had John Woo's excellent Deer Hunter knock-off A Bullet in the Head and a rich cache of Chow Yun Fat flicks.

My disbelief keeps any potential excitment in check. Where exactly can I find these titles in the store, action or foreign? "The John Woo and Jackie Chan sections." Sections?? "But I can go take them off the shelf and hold them for you until you get here, if you want." Gadzooks! This customer service was not only knowledgeable, it was ardently hospitable.

I decided it was worth the trip. Navigating my way through the narrow streets of Old Town, where I only ever went if I wanted to impress a girl with a classy and expensive dinner date (i.e. I never went there), I was struck by what a great location it was for a video store. The historic buildings, high-end boutiques, fancy restaurants, theaters, art galleries and antique shops all reek of character and exude the kind of archaic aura that video stores had already started to themselves emit. The good independent ones had the look of well-preserved libraries, not the clinical, blandly clean design of corporate outlets like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. "Cluttered" is a word that doesn't get kicked around very much in a positive sense, but that's what great video stores are: cluttered. Inundated. Messy.

I found the address, parked in a lot behind the building and went inside. The scene in Clerks where Randal abandons his post at the shitty RST Video to rent a movie "at a GOOD video store," one so opulent it literally brings him to his knees in genuflection, is a perfect literalization of my first time inside the 'Vault. A gorgeous three-story building, every room literally wall-to-wall movies (with a tiny compartment left open for cash register and return site), it was every film freak's dream. Everything was grouped alphabetically by genre, but with auteur-themed sub-categories: "Peckinpah" in Western, "Preston Sturges" in Classic Comedy - you get the idea. But their brilliant pitch "Guaranteed Worst Movies in Town!" was affirmed by their mammoth Cult section. Located on the top floor, it featured everything from Roger Corman to blaxploitation to sex romps to drive-in classics to every film Russ Meyer ever made (even Motor Psycho!) I emerged from that section with Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and Rudy Ray Moore's stand-up film Rude to go along with the Hong Kong action movies I'd come to find. I couldn't wait to bring them back and see if Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! had been returned by the current renter.

I also took home their full catalog, a beautifully bound index of the entire rare and weird collection including images of some of their more oddly-titled features ('Gator Bate - "untamed and deadly, she ruled the swamp with a blazing gun and a luscious smile!" - and The Fool Killer - with a post-Psycho Anthony Perkins hoisting an ax - spring to memory.) Thinking it impossible that they'd carry the early films of John Waters, whose work a friend from Baltimore had recently turned me onto, I flipped to the "John Waters" heading and found under it every movie he'd ever made: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, even the 16mm Diane Linkletter Story from 1969. If a video store can be judged by its horror selections (and I always personally thought they should) then the five solid pages of horror titles proved that these guys weren't kidding around. Particularly reassuring was plethora of world cinema: all the great New Yorker releases of films by Bresson, Fassbinder, Godard. I'd re-read a passage in some film book about Week(end) a dozen times, and now I'd finally be able to see the moving images of French country roads strewn with burning cars for myself.

This place I'd discovered was a Mecca for film lovers. It was even staffed by movie nuts: every title I'd rent came with commentary from the clerk and it seemed like there was always some heated film discussion playing out behind the counter. There would be an interesting choice of film playing on the tv, The Magnificent Ambersons or Sidney Lumet's Eqqus or The Sadist with Arch Hall Jr. After reading an article on David Cronenberg, I called the store asking if they had copies of Rabid and Videodrome. The guy instantly responded, "Yep. Having yourself a Cronenberg double feature, huh?"

You have to understand what such an obvious inquiry meant to me. I didn't have "film buddies" in high school. My friends would get into anything I showed them, but Bruce Lee was probably the most relevant film icon any of them could name. * Nobody I knew was into horror movies: as a result, I spent a lot of time alone in my parents' basement with a bag of potato skins and the Evil Dead trilogy (sorry ladies, I'm currently spoken for.) Video Vault was my first confirmation that there were people out there like me, that I wasn't wasting my time watching movies, reading and writing about movies, trying to make my own movies. I never got to know any of the people who worked there (owner Jim McCabe - his own name a movie reference! - would always be sequestered in what I assumed to be his office, a tiny dark room that looked like the walls were made of video cassettes, viewing something or other on a small tv), but their appeciation of the good, bad and ugly movies was imbued within that place. And although I held a grudge for a while after being tricked into renting Confessions of a Blue Movie Star, erroneously inserted in the Polanski section, I was constantly finding new and interesting things each time I visited.

I frequented the 'Vault throughout high school, even while I worked at a local Blockbuster (Video Vault was never hiring!) Like Randal, I'd shed the confines of a movie-churning factory that didn't really care about movies at all, no matter how many copies of Independence Day they had in stock, and head for the "good video store," in my mind the only video store. When I came back to visit from college, I'd be elated to find that it was still there, nestled in the middle of Old Town and finally starting to incorporate dvd's onto the shelves. I lost track of the place after moving to New York permanently, happy with the titles to be found at the excellent (but not quite as transcendent) Rick's Video in Piermont across the Tappen Zee Bridge. By the time I made my way back to the 'Vault it had moved out of that great building into the basement below a furniture store. But it was still there - a little more cramped maybe, but still the only place to find the best and worst movies in Old Town.

I got to re-live the video indulgence from my high school days during my extended vacation in Virginia in 2008 and picked up right where I had left off, journeying to Alexandria and heading back with more rentals. Dodsworth, Shack Out on 101, Une Femme Mariee, Deadbeat at Dawn, Smash Palace, Fight for Your Life, Accion Mutante, Cocksucker Blues, Altman's Brewster McCloud, Mizoguchi's Princess Yang Kwei-fei, John Flynn's The Outfit, Kon Ichikawa's Makioka Sisters...some I actively sought, others were staff recommendations, more than a few I happened upon while browsing. It was during that time I decided to dedicate an on-going series to the true oddities one might find at this kind of store, an ode to the ancient art of video browsing in general. I was also inspired to start a regular marathon of "BadAss Cinema" featuring fun, under-appreciated action movies from the past, several of them 'Vault videos. This inspired a friend (who actually lived in Alexandria, the lucky bastard) to create his own "Samurai Night," with a classic of the subgenre screened after delicious taco dinners. The first movie I personally programmed for such an evening was Hideo Gosha's Goyokin, which also turned out to be the last film I'd ever rent from Video Vault.

With the recent closing of TLA and Kim's Video in New York and the rise of Netflix, not to mention the inauguration of "video on demand" through digital cable, I guess a part of me knew (although I never would have let myself think about it) that my favorite video store only had so long to live and I'd better make the most of its existence while I could. Considering I may never have gotten that chance, I consider myself fortunate.

The closing of Video Vault, for me, represents the official death of the video store. Pretty much everybody else in the world will agree that the moss on its tombstone ain't exactly fresh, that the few remaining independent outlets were like decaying zombies struggling forward on legs slowly but surely deteriorating until the flayed bones rotted into ash and scattered inperceptively across the earth. Former giants like Eros and Hollywood are gone while Blockbuster keeps limping along somehow. Even Chris Funderburg threw out all his vhs tapes recently (without giving me a chance to take them off his hands!) I was aware of all that, but there was always something in me that refused to believe that everything in the future - movies, music, books - will be digitally plopped into the viewer's lap at the touch of a button from the comfort of their couch. What about the socialization? What about the future of video box art? What about the sense of discovery and the pleasing aesthetic of a good video store and the love of film that lives in those walls?

And I admit to having a Netflix account - hell, I love Netflix. My natural American lust for list-making and getting things in the mail makes their conveinent services irresistible. But I'll never find an incredible bootleg on Netflix. Unless I'm following some specific actor or director, I'll never find anything new. I'll never be forced to loiter around browsing titles, waiting for a certain movie to be returned to the store while the clerk shoots dirty glances my way like I did when I had to make due with the ghetto video store in Germany when I was eleven years old. I'll never get charged for not rewinding my movie, or return home with a bag full of weird treasures after browsing my "queue." And I sure won't find Roberta Findlay's unsung trilogy  The Touch of Her Flesh, The Kiss of Her Flesh and  The Curse of Her Flesh, which I was looking forward to getting at the 'Vault next time I took a trip down Virginia-way.

I really don't know what it means that there are no more video stores. Beyond the politics of fading small businesses (which has been a big issue in Alexandria for as long as I can remember), they're such a strong part of my generation. They bred Quentin Tarantino and multiple other maniacs who got a hankering to one day have a movie they made packaged into one of those rectangular boxes and found on a shelf by somebody sharing their enthusiasm. It's genuinely hard to think of them being totally extinct, and I'm not looking to halt the cogs of natural progression by suggesting that this is somehow sinister or unfair. But like the Drive-Ins, the video stores take with them a way to enjoy movies: a social venue for cinema lovers to converge and share and unearth. It takes a little of the work, and a lot of the fun, out of film appreciation. As time goes on it'll be harder and harder for people to realize that they genuinely love movies, and what it means that they do.

Even if I were in the area, I wouldn't go to the liquidation sale. There are literally hundreds of movies from their collection I'd love to own, but it would be too damn painful. Just watching the 'Vault being gutted ravenously by over-eager, over-weight film nerds hauling off stacks of videos, let alone being one among their number, would be torture - like observing powerlessly as an old friend is ripped apart by rabid dogs. I've hauled off countless movies from closing video stores over the years - so many that I've subconsciously turned my apartment into my own Video Vault, cluttering it with as many movies as possible, any of which I can pluck off the shelf, glance at the back of the box, and either throw into the player or put back in its proper place (alphabetically by auteur) - but I couldn't do it to my favorite store. All I can do is remember the good times and somehow keep up my Video Oddities. I hope I write a hundred entries for the series - they'll all be dedicated to the 'Vault.

Here's the Washington Post article on the store's closing...

And a FOX report, which somehow alleges that Avatar is to blame for Video Vault's demise (and has a shot of their great Doctor Who section - hey, I rented those!)

~ MARCH 15, 2010 ~

*That changed a little with the popularity of Fargo the following year - then I found "Coen Brothers Buddies."