This month I’d like to take a step away from the ugly world of racism and instead go somewhere else entirely. So, come with me, to a place very far away! Don’t worry! It’s a wondrous place! A place where we’ll find a veritable embarrassment of cultural riches! And our only limits will be our collective imaginations! We’ll find mystery and suspense! Action and adventure! Drama and comedy! Thrills! Nostalgia! Maybe even something for the kids! And there’s absolutely no need to worry about the icy roads of February, because where we’re going we don’t need roads! That’s right! We’re going back in time — to a video store!
If you didn’t know, long ago, in the antiquated days before streaming services, there were things called video stores. Instead of scrolling endlessly on a screen until opting for a forgettable choice out of boredom and exhaustion, you would leave your home and walk around a big room to do more or less the same thing.
Much like the rest of everything else, there were giant corporate monolith video stores and small, independent, mom-and-pop video stores. The particular video store that’s our destination is called Videoport.
Portlanders of a certain age are very familiar with the legend of Videoport, but for those of you unfamiliar, let me explain. It was just after my 18th birthday when I discovered the place. I’ve been a movie nerd my entire life. And I was used to the video stores in the cookie-cutter building with the popular new releases and the uniformed, unaccommodating, underpaid teenage staff in constant turnover. Videoport flew in the face of all that.
First of all, it was literally underground, in a weird basement. Also, there was no new-release section at all. Instead, there was the widest and wildest collection of anything I’d ever seen. It dared to stretch the imagination of a movie nerd beyond possibility. And the staff seemed so cool. They were beautiful and lively and however much you thought you knew about movies, they knew more. A lot more.
The staff wasn’t helpful so much as magical. I didn’t see customers choosing movies out of boredom or exhaustion. Instead, I watched customer after customer come to the counter scratching their heads, asking things like, “What’s the one with the guy with crazy hair and the kid in the red vest?” or “Um, the pizza place and the riot…?” or “You know… the… jeez… Quantum Leap guy and the bad guy huffs gas?” Without missing a beat, you’d see the employee smile and nod and say, “Yeah, you’re talking about Back to the Future/Do the Right Thing/Blue Velvet! It’s right over here,” and lead the amazed customer to the place in the store at the tip of their tongue.
Years of being a devoted customer went by before I heard about a job opening at Videoport. I applied, wanting nothing more in the world, and I got the job. That’s when I stumbled upon the quality of Videoport’s that was the most fantastic of all! In that moment, I understood why the staff was a little older than at other video stores and why there was virtually no turnover. The answer was simple: the boss treated the staff right. That’s it, really. Full-time employees were paid well, given two weeks paid vacation, and full health insurance with a $20 copay.
Outlasting almost all of its competition, Videoport closed its doors for the last time in 2015. I’d worked there since 2003. I’ve been thinking about that time a lot recently. I wonder what it would be like to work there during a pandemic. I wonder how much of a cut a DoorDash or an Instacart would’ve taken. I wonder if the store would’ve been killed by COVID or benefitted from it. Then I think about the public-facing workers now and the fight in Portland over emergency pay and a livable wage. It’s gutting to see the same people called “frontline heroes” when it’s convenient, and then “low-skilled labor” for the very same convenience.
Some business owners talk as though frontline workers just don’t understand or couldn’t possibly know what owning a business is like. There are business owners who behave as though their employees aren’t literally counting the money as it comes in. But they are. And they know when a business is designed to benefit the workers or exploit them. To think otherwise is just living in a fantasy.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.