Growing up in western Maryland, the major local video rental chain was called Potomac Video. They had a location within walking distance of my house, in addition to a dozen other franchises within driving distance. New releases cost $2 for a one-night rental, but sometimes for your birthday you got a 12-punch card, which cost $20. Movies were due back the next day, unless the next day was Sunday, or unless the movie was a two-tape film, such as the extended cut of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The movies were displayed on white 3- and 4-shelf particle board racks, which filled the two rooms of the ugly little shack, or on 5-shelf brown wooden racks built into the walls. Altogether, I would say the store held about three hundred movies, grouped loosely and subjectively into “New Releases”, “Action”, “Family”, “Science Fiction”, “Western”, and “Drama”.
The way it worked at Potomac Video was similar to Blockbuster: the colorful cardboard covers for the VHS tapes leaned on the shelves, each filled with parallelograms of styrofoam in place of the cassette. If there was a plastic Potomac Video case behind the factory cover, it meant that the movie was available.
This was a superior system to our other major local chain, National Video, which used the cover itself as the indicator that the movie was available. (The cassettes were stored behind the desk.) Under Potomac Video’s system, you could differentiate between a movie being rented and a movie not being carried.
But my strongest memory of Potomac Video is their plastic cases, which were unusual.
Most people are most familiar with the Blockbuster-style videocassette cases: perfect plastic rectangles with slightly rounded corners, whose tops had prongs which fitted into slots in the bottom. This was also the style preferred by National Video, whose cases were a thin, wan shade of beige.
But Potomac Video took a different tack. Their cases were made of a thick black plastic, the surface mottled with tiny raised lumps like sandpaper skids on an outdoor stairwell. The cases were not perfectly rectangular, but rather beveled at forty-five degrees across the right-hand corners. This design increased the overall size of the case by about ten percent.
Overall, while Blockbuster-style cases were nothing more than a slim plastic condom wrapping the videocassette, Potomac Video cases suggested ruggedized magazines for some enormous gun. The image of my father carrying a stack of them under his arm, to entertain me while he and my mother threw a dinner party elsewhere in the house, suggested a man transporting significant, and perhaps dangerous, materiel.
When the case was opened, the videocassette sitting inside seemed like a precious and vulnerable thing, like a pre-invincible infant Superman cradled at the center of an indestructible Kryptonian escape pod. I remember wishing that the whole case could be made to slide directly into the VCR, so that I would not have to handle the delicate treasure inside.
Potomac’s big, black, weapons-grade videotape cases were a significant factor in my preference for that chain over National Video. National’s cases made me feel as if they were always slightly oily, as if the plastic had not been given enough time to cure in the rush to get them onto the shelves.
When you sat in the dark of movie night, National’s bland-colored case could still be seen next to the television on our plywood entertainment center, glowing sickly tan in a splatch of greasy reflected light. The sight had the power to cast a pall over my enjoyment of the movie. Whereas a Potomac Video case bowed respectfully into invisibility when you pressed play.
Despite the sublimity of the Potomac Video experience, Blockbuster’s unstoppable inventory and variety eventually lured me away from a responsible life of locavorous video patronage. I sold my soul for three thousand square feet of blue and yellow, a lifetime’s worth of magnetic media wrapped in inelegant, serviceable, perfect little white rectangles. Blockbuster at least had the foresight to color the insides of their cases black, but sometimes the light from the television would catch the white edge of the front logo’d cover, which would stare at me through the darkness like a squinted, possessing eye.
In time, though, such games of loyalty and value and experiential joy were all just so much dust. The industry whose value was the direct result of the scarcity of its product was toppled by technologies designed only to saturate demand, and to replace anticipation with satiety, however temporary. Movies ceased to be objects in the world, and became instead an unbroken fluid substance, like nitrogen, whose sheer abundance allowed us to use them to paint the walls of our newborn digital world.
The movies themselves got better in many ways, but only because they had to: they were no longer automatically special and holy things. Now they had to earn our reverence, or at least pretend to. Movies had officially broken their ties with the world of “things”, and those of us who loved them followed, to our mutual damnation.