It had been a long summer of keyboard clacking and monitor swivelling, but it was finally time to sit back, relax and go camping, an activity that is, in itself, not terribly conducive to lethargy. After all, I don’t generate my own heat and light at home by releasing the stored aeons of a wooden power cell, but, when in Rome, you need to cook dinner somehow.
Now, getting the dinner, that was the worthier part. The real reason, the true motivator behind this trip, was the languorous hours I would spend floating blissfully on the water while trying my very best to catch nothing more than seaweed.
But, before I could sink into bug-bite bliss, we had to hit a lakeside town for the supplies you inevitably forget when you spontaneously decide that a long-weekend camping trip would be a good idea. So, we rolled out to the town nearest to Middle-of-nowhere National Park and started the short hunt for a fillet knife and some contingency groceries.
It was an incredibly hot weekend, record-breaking, as I kept reminding myself to put the lack of air conditioning into perspective. The hot vinyl interior was playing tug-of-war with my skin, despite the wind from the window blowing full-force in my face.I couldn’t complain, though. I had this privileged seat bestowed on me because sitting in the back caused my body to form a shape approximating a parabola; I couldn’t begin to imagine how my companions in the back seat felt. Then again, they were busily engaged with the daily activities of caring for a wee one in the car-seat between them, which is a mind-set I’m totally unfamiliar with.
Behind the driver’s wheel, bathing in the same cooling waves of air I was, sat my long-time friend Justin. We’d known each other for over a decade now, since our younger years piddling around the streets of big-town-small-city Alberta.
Maybe it was the nostalgia that road-trips inspire in me, or maybe it was some form of mild heat-stroke brought on by dehydration, but as we pulled into the town, which could be best described as two streets and a gas station, I was oddly reflective.
It wasn’t quite the same as the towns of my early youth. For one, it developed because of its sheer proximity to the lake, as if the desires of the nearby campers for ice and Subway had willed it into existence. For another, it wasn’t the interwoven mish-mash of residential houses and commercial buildings my hometown had been. The twin commercial streets of this town were pure commerce, acting as a bulwark against the incursions of tourists into the homes and streets of its residents.
We were slowing down as we entered the first street; my passenger-side “air conditioning” flagged to a dull roar. I sighed and hung my head out the window, pulling my hat further down over my head.
“Well, at least we won’t get lost on THESE roads,” came a voice from the back seat.
“Next time, why don’t you drive?” Justin laughed, a fine jet of milk from a baby bottle catching him in the side of the face, “Kim! That came out of you!”
“Doesn’t seem to stop David,” she winked.
I pretended to wretch out of the side window, spawning contagious laughter from inside the vehicle.
After I moved to the city, I found a growing appreciation for small-town shopping. Perhaps, partially, because of my upbringing, but I’ve always felt there was something honest about them. It’s not that I’ve never been ripped off in a small-town thrift shop, but they felt… real.
City shops cater to a very great many people a day, so the character of each customer becomes diluted, washed away in a sea of competitive pricing. Here, though, with fewer than three hundred people in the entire town, there wasn’t the foot traffic for the kind inventory decisions busier shops could get away with. Here, you had to have exactly what the people wanted. Those 300 people? They stocked the entire shop.
An entire store dedicated to hand-bags? Ha! You wish! A video game retailer? Try the Wal-mart on the outskirts of the town?
This town was no different. I squinted, trying hard to catch a glimpse of the interior of a dimly-lit boutique with a one-armed mannequin tipping its hat in the window. The doll’s existence was almost paradoxical; on the one hand, it was inviting us to enter, on the other, it was blocking our view. Then again, that might be too weighty a charge to level on a one-handed mannequin. So, on which hand was it?
I was pulled wholly from my ruminations by a square splash of yellow and blue, a silhouette I would know anywhere. The movie-stub design echoing a still earlier era: the Blockbuster Video sign.
“I thought they closed those all down!” spilled from my mouth before I had a chance to stop it.
Oh. It wasn’t a Blockbuster at all. It was some place called “Smiley’s Video.”
“Yeah, in the big Smiley’s purge of ‘06.”
“I still remember where I was when the last Smiley’s video closed down.”
“Thousands of jobs… snuffed out in an instant.”
I said something less than friendly to the jackals and pulled my head in the window.
“Can we stop there on the way back out? I haven’t walked through a video store in yonks.”
“Yeah, sure. Why not. Maybe they have air conditioning.”
I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not, but I didn’t care. I gave a snort, somewhere between derisive and amused, and tried to remember the last time I’d been in a video store.
It had been close to 10 pm. My friend and I had walked out of garish lights of main street and into the shadow-strewn parking lots of the power-wall shopping outlets. Our local Blockbuster was closing and that had drawn us out of our mid-winter hibernation like the water from a cellphone in an alcohol bath. Or, more pithily, like condensation from the air, we manifested outside of the brightly-lit store-front.
Its welcoming window-front made me forget for a second that this was a dying thing, a husk, smiling in its death-throes. And we, like most scavenging beings, were here to harvest the remains, the remains of Empire.
Stepping inside fulfilled my greatest fears: despite its glowing appearance, the carcass had been picked to the bone. Shelves that once proudly displayed the latest releases were reduced to shrink-wrapped copies of “Transmorphers” and “Species 2,” their fronts marred with cancerous red masses of sales stickers.
All was not lost, though. The sale was what we were there for, and while all the good games had been picked over, and out, we left with our bags bursting with cans of cheap Rockstar energy drinks.
It was surreal. I’d spent a good chunk of my late teens working in video stores. I’d clopped across the cements floors of my home-town Blockbuster and sealed DVD boxes in pristine plastic prisons. I’d chased thieves out of Rogers Video against the better judgement of my manager. I’d even done a brief stint at Gone Hollywood; it was hard to resist the checkered allure of a wall of free movie rentals.
And those places were gone now. Not just closed. Extinct. Except here, in a town where the crush of progress slowed to a crawl, its inertia already spent chewing through areas of greater commerce.
Smiley’s, it seemed, lived on the whims of the 300. Or, was it thanks to people like me that would rent or buy for the sheer novelty of it? Did it matter?
We found something to gut our imaginary fish and a load of camp-fire food. I pulled the seat forward and let the distracted couple climb back inside.
“This’ll be his first trip to a video store,” I mused, collapsing into my seat, “And his last.”
“What should his first rental be?”
“Meet the Fockers!”
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!”
“Is that the comedy or the porno?”
“Guys! We don’t even know if they HAVE porn.”
“Where else are they going to get it? Home movies?”
“You know, they do have the internet out here.”
We let out muted chuckles. That seemed to have settled the matter.
Justin circled the car around and settled into an angle-parking stall in front of the store.
I jumped out and peeked over the hours sign, through the window, greasy with fingerprints, and into the murky halls of the store, its shelves ripe with blurry rectangles.
“You know, at one time,” I said, propping open the door with my foot, “A video store meant the place wasn’t totally ass-backwards.”
“LoL,” was the sardonic reply.
It was too true. Once, a bit before my time, they had been a scourge of modernity, a symptom of the spread of the idiot box. But, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I recalled, quite vividly, the welcoming lights of the Gone Hollywood Video on my first night in my first city.
My parents and I had just moved from the last small town I’d ever live in. There weren’t many similarities between where I’d come from and where I’d gone. Even the shadows from the trees along the side-walk had seemed to hold dark secrets. So, we had gone to the one place we knew I could find something familiar.
I could see bits of that store in this one. The cover art had all been different from the stuff I’d known, but I’d picked out two old favourites: “Spaceballs” and “Tremors.” Of course, there I’d picked out the DVD versions. The VHS copies had long-since been relegated to the overflow shelves. Their covers were pocked, as well.
Now, as I walked slowly down the aisles, I felt solemn, overtaken by a graveyard dirge.
The dirty, red carpets. The small burst of colour from the Blu-ray cases. The smell of stale air and the choir of the Coca-cola cooler buzzing in the corner. All of it added to the sheer force of the red masses on those strange, rectangular boxes.