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c. 1970s - 1990s

The golden age of the video store

The first VCRs hit the market in 1975, and shortly thereafter the rental store boom began

camera
Employee Tammy Swier looks at VCR cassettes tapes at Colfax Video
Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Return with me, if you will, to a simpler time. A time before Netflix, a time before DVDs even. A time when watching a movie at home on a Friday night involved the very real risk that the film would be eaten. Assuming, of course, a copy of said-movie still sat on the shelf when you dropped by the store in the first place…

Yes, this was the era of video renting. The seeds had been sown by Sony, who created the very first home video player, in 1975.

The 70s were nothing if not a decade of convenience, and the video cassette was certainly that.

Extraordinary to think that spools of magnetic tape, easily eroded and prone to tangling, were the medium of choice. But so it was. The 70s were nothing if not a decade of convenience, and the video cassette was certainly that.

But Sony made the fatal mistake of prioritizing quality over cost. Although their Betamax system was superior, the VHS system of Sony’s nearest rival, JVC was cheaper. And despite vigorous protests from Sony, it was VHS that conquered Sony’s BetaMax.

Two years after Sony’s innovation,  the very first video rental store opened. George Atkinson’s store in Los Angeles offered just fifty films, all from 20th Century Fox.

For a membership fee, you could rent yourself a movie – one for the princely sum of ten bucks (remember, this was 1977).

But the idea worked, and the video rental store boom began. Yes, you could buy videos elsewhere, but for the latest releases, rental was the only way.

Soon there was a video rental store on every main and not-so-main street, and Friday nights belonged to the likes of Blockbuster, right across the 80s, and the 90s, and seemingly forever.

1984
In Castle Rock, Colorado a man answers the phone in the video rental section of his store – including Betamax
Lyn Alweis / The Denver Post / Getty Images
1986
Store manager Ken Broderius talks with an employee in the video rental department of the Rosaurs Super One. | Location: Colville, Washington, USA.
1986
Employee Tammy Swier looks at VCR cassettes tapes at Colfax Video
Lyn Alweis / The Denver Post / Getty Images
1986
Inside a Tower Video store.
Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
1986
Seeking video bargains
Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
1988
H. Wayne Huizenga, chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment Corporation. The original caption states he “wants to build a nationwide chain of video cassette rental stores. During the first quarter of this year, Blockbuster opened or acquired 84 stores and, as of June 30, they operated 235 stores, up from 19 at the end of 1986.”
Bettmann / Getty Images
1989
A video rental store.
Barry Iver / Getty Images
1997
A young man looks at rental movies in Channel Video, a video store in Manhattan, New York.
James Leynse / Corbis via Getty Images
1988
Blockbuster video store manager Doreen Giorgio arranges covers for the Titanic video that will go on sale and be available for rental at midnight. The store obtained 250 videos for rental and 96 for sale.
Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe / Getty Images
1995
Blockbuster Video store & Jack In The Box fast food eatery among Amer. & Mexican services & products advertised on street signs in border town.
William F. Campbell / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

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