What in the World is a Video Store?




A while ago, as I was leaving a friend’s house, with two large capacity flash drives in hand, it occurred to me, between the two, I was carrying some thirty movies in my left trouser pocket. In a simpler time, I would have needed a suitcase.

Not a hundred yards away from my house, there is a video store, which has operated as such for the last decade or so. For the past four weeks though, I have never seen it open. I fear its proprietor has closed down under the weight of an ever increasing rent price, and a diminishing market for movie rentals. This sad outcome took me back many years, to the days when movies were recorded on videocassettes.

The first ten years of my life were spent renting as many VCR cassettes as possible from the video stores that Kazanchis – where I grew up – was replete with. These cassettes, being bulky and all, required stores that were bigger, and for some reason, flashier. Renting price was also more expensive (3 Birr, if my poor memory serves me right), probably because, as opposed to CDs and DVDs, that would soon take over the market, they are very unwieldy to ship in (hence more expensive).

To rent a movie, one needed a legitimate ID card, which made adults the main customers. The second I was off age to get out of the house on my own, with money in my pockets, I would take the IDs of either of my parents. Once, I remember, while my parents were out of town, I was so intent on renting a movie, I took that of our housemaid’s.

But even with the ID of a legitimate blood relative (otherwise, they think it’s stolen), it took wit and patience to get respectable video stores that had good movies (and clean cassettes). This mostly depends on the store clerk, who should have an estimable film vocabulary. Back then, satellite dishes weren’t household items. I had never heard of the US box-office, so the decency of the film I rented was contingent on the sophistication of the clerk.

The speed and ease with which technology can make anything completely obsolete is terrifying. One day, I woke up to find out there were no more videocassettes, but CDs. A single movie would be contained into two CDs of 700 megabytes size, which will then be stored in a package that showcases the movie’s poster. I didn’t mind at all this swift and remorseless conversion into digital storage, because renting price went down to about 1 Birr.

The age of CDs coincided with the mass infestation of satellite dishes into almost every household. This was both good and bad for video store owners. Firstly, it made people a little bit more movie savvy. No one no longer just went for whatever the clerk recommended – usually some martial arts movie – but people came looking for something specific, especially a type of film they couldn’t find on those satellite channels, and were in the aforementioned US box-office.

Nonetheless, video stores have to be very grateful of satellite channels, in that they taught Ethiopians of the existence of TV shows. In that time, both a movie and a TV series rented for the same price, but the series, given a plethora of cliffhangers, were far more addictive. I sometimes rented more than ten consecutive episodes a day, which would last me about two days. The video stores saw a time of intensive competition between themselves – it wasn’t an easy job any longer, they had to be constantly on the lookout for new releases.

All was good and well, until technology struck again. There was once again a digital invasion of our households, this time with laptops, flash drives and the Internet.

I stopped going to video stores when two things happened to me simultaneously: I got my first personal laptop, and the sister of a close friend of mine went to college. College students get fast Internet connections, so she would download an inordinate amount of movies and give it to her younger brother, who would then come to school and distribute it amongst his classmates.

A lot more people stopped renting movies for more or less the same reasons – cyberspace short-circuited the video store market.

However, the stores still survived, and did tolerable business. There were a lot of people that still didn’t get adequate Internet connections. Far more importantly, it was a time of a somewhat renaissance for the Ethiopian film industry. There were a lot of films that were making their way from theaters into CD, and even more went straight to DVD. Since these movies couldn’t be found on the

Internet, they were relatively expensive to rent, and indeed there was a market for them.

Through all of this, although I had never rented a single movie for such a long time, seeing the video stores open, in operation and with their loud speakers blaring to announce their existence (as if saying, hey, we’re still here), I don’t know, it felt good. But all great things – and not so great things, too – must come to an end.

Video stores were able to survive through a time of great upheaval and change in how people assimilated content. But what finally put the nails on the coffin, in my humble opinion, was the Kana satellite channel.The only thing the stores had to show for themselves was a consistent number of Amharic language movies, which the channel finally pulled the plug on.

Some video stores still survive, barely, I am sure, and if they finally go extinct, movies can still be bought from Internet houses that give away films on flash drives. Life goes on, all will be forgotten, and someone of the younger generation is probably reading this article, already thinking, “I know torrent sites, and I have heard of Netflix, but what in God’s name is a video store?”



By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a Film Critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He could be reached at christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com.

Published on Nov 01,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 861]


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