I just learned from my friends Bryan Hilson and Brian Saur that the video store we used to work at, Laser Blazer, will shut its doors permanently on December 25th after 23 years of business. When I read this news last night, it felt like an old friend had died – one you sort of knew was really quite, quite sick – but still, you truly hoped they’d pull through and surprise you by, well, never dying. Alas, it was not meant to be. This big, friendly, family-owned video store will now only exist online as they continue to sell inventory and collectibles.
My friends and I worked together at ‘the Blaze’ in the late 90s/early aughts. I was at UCLA working on a Masters in Film Snootiness (”Critical Studies”) and getting a job at the video store was not just about earning a little pocket cash, but it was also an added bonus for school – a whole separate DVD (*and* laserdisc) library to plunder and raid and over-analyze and worship and love. Most of us working there were cinephiles, turning our paychecks back over to the store in exchange for first crack at the DVDs, right out of the box, right off the UPS truck – like fresh green movie apples. Seriously.
My sadness is definitely cut through with a sense of GUILT – after all, I now work for Netflix, the corporation that smashed the video store once and for all, from the lovable mom & pop places like Laser Blazer, to the soulless hellholes that were Blockbuster stores. As penance, allow me to ramble on semi-coherently about my video store days – the salad days.
1. The Famous People
Yes, it’s L.A. so YES, I am going to start here. Matt Groening and Benecio Del Toro were regulars. Ex-Tapper Michael McKean would come in with his son to rent movies. John Woo perused our foreign section and Wes Anderson visited – just once – to buy some DVDs; his receipt with the list of films was circulated amongst us film geeks for intense study. (Brian Saur, do you remember what he bought?) Snippy Hollywood blogger Jeffrey Wells used to come in all the time but I never wanted to ring him up, as he wasn’t the most pleasant customer and bitterly anti-chit chat with us. Randomly enough, Ray Manzarek of the Doors came a LOT. It felt strange to rent movies to someone whose music played incessantly on Arrow 93.1 at the time. I’m sure I’m forgetting other famous customers. Wasn’t Martin Short in the store once? Janet Jackson came in and asked Saur where she could buy a blank VHS tape. But the sighting that caused the most ‘whoahs’ from us all was when Joel Hodgson of MST3K fame was spotted in our aisles. That time, we just STARED.
2. The Laserdiscs!
Laserdiscs were firmly on their way out by the time I was working at Laser Blazer but owner Ron Dassa never changed the name of the store because hey – they were still there, taking up bins. Only hardcore movie collectors on Ebay were snatching up this bulky media form. Sometimes rare gems would surface – and by ‘gems’ I mean, very early Traci Lords’ “films” on laserdisc. Every so once in a while, we’d box up 30 Criterion laserdiscs and ship them to a faraway movie geek bidder in Australia. Once we sold a copy of The River’s Edge on laserdisc TO Crispin Glover himself. Best yet, once we sold a random laserdisc to Arch Hall Jr., the teenage star of Eegah!, a terrible drive-in turd that was lampooned with its own MST3K episode.
3. Airport ‘77
These were the days before you could get an HD flat-screen TV for $200 on a pepper-spray-laden Black Friday. The big, flat TVs were thousands of dollars and took up one nook of the store, along with combo DVD/laserdisc players – and we used to fight over what to play on these monitors. Ron, the store’s owner, always wanted Pixar. Pixar movies made the new TVs look extremely impressive and worth the investment. Once Ron came in and caught us watching Dragonball Z on the monitors (hey, I didn’t choose it) and declared the anime series too shitty looking to be on such nice TVs. Instead, we got stuck watching Airport ‘77 quite a few times, because one of our most beloved coworkers had a *major* Karen Black fixation. We also saw a lot of Logan’s Run, his other favorite movie. We all loved Mick and his joyous embracing of not-all-that-great 70s cinema.
4. That Golden Criterion Section
Laser Blazer always, always kept the Criterions separate from the other DVDs, AS THEY SHOULD BE. It’s not a DVD, it’s a CRITERION.
5. The Porn
Why would a feminist young lady of relatively good breeding actually miss the porn section? Because it was funny. It used to make me laugh my bits off. We’d have to make sure we were giving customers THE SOPRANOS and not the SOPORNOS because they were right next to each other in the bin. Schlubby male customers used to ask me why they had late fees and I’d have to tell them it’s because they kept Anal Gangbang Academy Volume 12 out for 3 extra days last week. 3 extra days, huh? You couldn’t just move on to Anal Gangbang Academy Volume 13 and save yourself both the late fees AND the embarrassment? The porn corner of the store was right next to the foreign section too, so it was awfully convenient if you wanted to fake like you were renting La Strada with the newest Chunky Chicks outing.
6. SIMON PEGG
Those of you who personally know me know I worship a zombie-killing English deity named Simon Pegg. YEARS after I worked at Laser Blazer I found myself lining up outside for hours to get my Spaced DVD signed there by El Pegg, Edgar Wright and Jessica Stevenson. I was hoping my former status as a clerk would help me jump the line but I should have known the unspoken rules of the nerd queue would be upheld by my former employer. That day I asked Jessica Hynes what it was like to snog the Doctor and Simon Pegg lightly rested his hand on my shoulder while I had my photo taken with him. Laser Blazer is not just the earthly home of my academic cinema lusts but my…womanly ones as well.
7. The People
No matter how hard you squint and how many drugs you do, Netflix will never be your friend. Sometimes Netflix acts like it knows you (”Violent Foreign Thrillers featuring a Strong Female Lead”) but it won’t ever laugh at your jokes. The friends I made as a clerk at Laser Blazer in 1999 are still my friends today, mucking up my Facebook and Twitter streams with sarcasm and plenty of film discussion to this very day. We used to actually help people find movies, we’d have long, rambling nerdy conversations with customers about favorite films and the newest underrated film that finally got a DVD release. It was like movie blogging – but with your mouth – and in person — remember that?
May we never forget the age of the video store – for all its pros and cons those little businesses represent a special age of browsing and movie discovery that can never be replicated in the over-lit aisles of Best Buy, or in the cold interfaces of the internet. So let us bow our heads for a moment, and pour a little Mountain Dew* on the ground for the Blaze.
*special shout-out for one Dave Lewis who drank epic amounts of this particular beverage as a Laser Blazer clerk