With VHS and Video Stores, ‘Tapeheads’ Are Fueling an Analog Revival

Jessica Pons for The Washington Post
Neil Oktay leaves Be Kind after renting a movie. Video stores are building surprisingly intimate relationships with their customers, many of whom say they’ve had it with streaming services.

LOS ANGELES – Video Home System. Even the name sounds anachronistic. It’s been nearly 20 years since the last major film was released on the clunky format, a plastic rectangle about the size of a box of mac and cheese. Prognosticators pronounced it dead long ago.

But the demise of VHS has been greatly exaggerated.

Quietly, over the past two decades, as Blockbuster rental stores closed by the thousands, DVD replaced VHS, streaming replaced DVD and digital began to dominate analog media in the war for consumer attention, a few resisters clung tight to their tapes.

Now, in the year 2023, this growing group of enthusiasts – who sometimes self-identify as “tapeheads” – are rewinding time to an age before on-demand, and they are bringing the VHS and the video store back to life.

A swirl of societal forces has made the moment ripe for this unlikely rebirth: A booming nostalgia economy that was supercharged during the pandemic, fueling skyrocketing sales of all things retro; mounting fatigue with increasingly costly subscription services; and a growing disillusionment with the algorithms that mediate so much of modern life in favor of unexpected human connections.

“It’s exploded,” said Josh Schafer, the editor in chief of Lunchmeat, a magazine dedicated to celebrating and preserving VHS and video store culture. “Ten years ago, it was just a bunch of people nerding out in a room, talking about VHS tapes. Now, that room is bigger, it’s more diverse and it has so much more action inside.”

Consider a few eye-popping indicators: A mint condition VHS copy of 1985’s “Back to the Future” sold at auction for $75,000. A copy of “The Goonies” – made that same year – sold for $50,000. On eBay, amateur collectors are swapping tapes for four and, occasionally, five figures. And celebrity speculators are making splashy investments.

From Instagram posts to Halloween costume inspiration to the shelves of retailers such as Walmart and Urban Outfitters, the VHS aesthetic is seeping back into the zeitgeist in a way that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

But perhaps the best measure of the tape renaissance can be found in the reemergence of the bricks-and-mortar shops that specialize in renting or selling them. Here, in the city that brought us Hollywood, the trend is clear. In the past two years alone, one video store after another has opened or reopened in Los Angeles, joining a small number of long-running operations that resisted the changing times by catering to a niche clientele.

L.A., where the nation’s first video store opened in the 1970s, is once again a center of the scene. And as big box stores such as Best Buy abandon physical media, these new or revived businesses are thriving, meeting a pent-up demand for the tactile – mirroring the earlier resurgence of vinyl and independent record shops.

Before tapes can make a full-fledged comeback, they need a high-profile champion, Schafer said, someone who will inspire manufacturers to resume production of VCR sets and push the film industry to release new titles widely on VHS – akin to rock star Jack White’s messianic role in the vinyl resurrection.

But even without that singular savior, at a moment when the entertainment industry is wrestling with its future, video stores and a format once left for dead are making the case that the best path forward runs through the past.

‘This has to be my church’

Jessica Pons for The Washington Post
Matthew Renoir, Be Kind founder, stands for a portrait at the shop holding a few of his favorite movies.

When Matthew Renoir was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t much going on in his tiny Central California hometown. Stevinson, pop. 300. TV channels: four.

But one town over, he found an escape. A video store.

“That was an oasis,” said Renoir. “It was this incredible gateway to a whole other world.”

He went off to film school in San Francisco, then moved to Los Angeles to work in production. But his childhood dream, opening his own video store, stayed with him. Late last year, he got his chance.

Renoir, who had no experience running a business, teamed up with a friend who owns a vintage typewriter shop and opened Be Kind Video in Burbank, where he rents DVDs and sells VHS tapes. The store is decorated with an enthusiast’s touch – a starburst carpet, horror movie action figures on the shelves and movie posters on the walls. It smells vaguely of plastic clamshell tape cases, and it has already attracted a dedicated crowd of regulars.

“I love videos and I love stores, so this has to be my church,” said Cyrus Arnold, a 20-year-old actor who has been coming to Be Kind since its opening day. “I think there’s a warm and cozy feeling from popping in one of those tapes. It’s like a time machine. They’re slices of history, and they’re more personal and tangible than any other format.”

The relationships between store and customer have grown surprisingly intimate. There was the one who ducked inside during a hard day because it felt like a safe space, or the couple who moved into an apartment nearby because of its proximity to the shop.

Several patrons return weekly to peruse the store’s dedicated horror section – Be Kind’s main attraction and the genre with the most ardent VHS fans, said Matt Landsman, a horror expert who runs the store’s programming. Landsman himself has forged many new friendships at the shop.

“You really built something and they came,” he said to Renoir, an ’80s movie quote sneaking into the earnest remark. “You really created a community.”

Still, casual customers regularly wander into the store marveling at its existence. Sometimes, they’ll lean over the counter and ask Renoir seriously: But really how is business?

The answer shocks the uninitiated. So good, he said, that he’s hoping to expand to a larger space within the next year. Even he is a little surprised at the success.

“I was so ready to fight,” Renoir said. “But it’s almost like we drop it on the ground and it’ll grow.”

Jessica Pons for The Washington Post
Be Kind Video in Burbank is one of several new video stores serving Los Angeles’s growing number of “tapeheads.” Matt Landsman, left, is Be Kind’s programmer, and he’s forged new friendships at the shop – like with Cyrus Arnold, right, an actor and frequent customer.

‘You can just disconnect’

Jessica Pons for The Washington Post
Whammy! founders Jessica Gonzales and Erik Varho at their shop in Echo Park.

A few miles south, Erik Varho and Jessica Gonzales did not set out to re-create a video store of yore.

Instead, the two former musicians wanted to replicate the feel of the secondhand record shops they grew up with in Orange County. So they swapped vinyl for VHS and opened Whammy! Analog Media in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, a low-key store and microcinema that will soon celebrate its second anniversary.

Like any great record shop, customers can wander Whammy! and stumble upon titles they’ve never seen before – low-budget slasher films on one shelf, skateboarding tapes nearby and a section dedicated to the movies of Nicolas Cage a few feet away. This spontaneous, IRL discovery is the antithesis of the paralysis-inducing never-ending streaming scroll, they say, and it has more and more people returning to VHS.

“It’s more fun to go somewhere physical and look around, versus sitting at home and one person is clicking and another is like ‘No, no’ and it just becomes annoying,” said Jaime Munoz, a 39-year-old who was browsing Whammy!’s stacks on a recent afternoon. “Here, it’s a hands-on experience, it’s a different environment. You don’t feel like you’re connected to this big, giant internet system. You can just disconnect, put something in and not look at your phone for a while.”

Varho has been collecting tapes since he was a kid, and his personal library steadily grew until it crowded the couple’s small studio apartment. That’s when he and Gonzales, who goes by Jessica G.Z., decided to create an Instagram account to sell some of their most obscure titles. The response astonished them.

“We were really taken aback by how much of a scene there already was,” said Varho, 33. “I thought there were only 17 weirdos like me in the United States who were interested in this, but no – there are thousands and thousands. It snowballed from there.”

Varho and Gonzales pride themselves on stocking the strange and unexpected – especially when it can’t be found anywhere else. One of the shop’s shelves is labeled “Stuck on VHS” and is devoted to films that never made it to major streaming services and are at risk of being forgotten.

Each VHS bears traces of its past, whether on its plastic shell, which is so often adorned with stickers from previous video store ownership, or on the tape itself, where frequent watching or rewinding has left aberrations or glitches. (This is most obvious during a movie’s sex scenes, Gonzales said.)

Whammy! has diverted thousands of tapes from landfills, a gesture that, in addition to its environmental upside, has helped preserve generations of fun, funky and frightening film history.

“When you’re surrounded by seemingly lost titles, or titles stuck on VHS, it feels important to history to be reminded of what technically isn’t forgotten,” Gonzales said. “Physical media hasn’t gone away.”

‘The only path forward’

Not long ago, however, there was good reason to fear for its future.

In 2017, one of Los Angeles’s most iconic and long-running video shops, Vidiots, shut down. It seemed like the end of an era. Cue the credits. But at least one more cinematic twist was in store.

Jessica Pons for The Washington Post
Maggie Mackay, Vidiots executive director, stands for a portrait in front of a wall of founding members at Vidiots.

Like other still surviving institutions – Scarecrow Video in Seattle, Movie Madness in Portland and Beyond Video in Baltimore – Vidiots had transitioned to nonprofit status. While the store was closed, executive director Maggie Mackay, along with Vidiots founders Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber, plotted its comeback.

They weathered a pandemic, rebuilt their board of directors and, in June, reopened in a new location. The sequel, Mackay said, comes with a new vision. The video store and its treasured original library of 60,000 rental titles are still central to the mission, but the sprawling space in northeast L.A. is also home to 271-seat movie theater and bar.

Vidiots is now deliberately positioning itself as a community center – a space for screenings, readings, comedy shows, concerts and parties – a model that Be Kind and Whammy! have also embraced.

“That’s the only path forward,” Mackay said. “What people really need in the 2020s is a place to gather, a place to hunker down with people who they have even one iota of something in common with.”

Over the years, Vidiots phased out VHS rentals in favor of DVDs, but it still maintains a collection of 11,000 rare tapes, including many from queer, Black and Brown filmmakers who were long shut out of the industry’s mainstream. Archivists have digitized about 250 tapes and Vidiots is fundraising to continue that work.

“We’re holding a huge amount of film history, and specifically Los Angeles history, in our rare VHS collection,” Mackay said.

Mackay sees this VHS preservation work as complementary to tape rentals and sales, each a way of protecting the medium’s past while converting new enthusiasts to carry it into the future.

Years ago, the Vidiots team received a note of encouragement from an unlikely place: Blockbuster. The world-dominating video chain, which at its peak boasted more than 9,000 locations, had found itself in the same boat as the fiercely independent L.A. store.

With Blockbusters closing in droves, a company executive wrote to Vidiots leadership, urging them to continue fighting to survive amid increasingly long odds. The executive signed off with a prescient final thought: “I feel that no digital database can replicate a human being that is knowledgeable and passionate about filmed entertainment.”

Written like a true tapehead.

Jessica Pons for The Washington Post
The longtime Los Angeles institution Vidiots recently reopened in Eagle Rock as a video store, movie theater and event space, modeling itself as a community arts center.