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Rest in peace, Waterfront Video

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In 2010, on an unseasonably warm September afternoon, I stopped by Waterfront Video in Burlington to rent a movie. I was greeted by Molly Smith of WCAX-TV, who asked if I would care to be interviewed for a segment she was filming about Waterfront’s resilience in the era of Redbox, Netflix and on demand streaming video. What survived from my on camera ramblings and made it on the air was the following quote:

"It’s not like I'm just coming here to buy local. It’s the best store. That’s why I come here. … I don’t like getting stuff online. I like actually looking at the box. It’s just more tangible to come into a store and pick something out.”

Smith’s piece aired roughly two weeks before Blockbuster, once the bane of Hollywood’s theatrical livelihood, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and began rapidly shuttering storefronts across the county.

Waterfront Video—with its collection of nearly 30,000 movies, ranging from the silent era to the present, from new releases to obscure foreign films and rare VHS titles never released on DVD—survived for another two and a half years as the last refuge for Burlington-era cinephiles like me, who stubbornly held to the belief that the act of driving to a neighborhood video store to rent a movie made the experience meaningful and distinct from watching television or clicking a mouse and staring at a computer screen.

When Waterfront closed its doors for the final time on April 30, it marked the end of a significant leg of a personal journey through motion pictures that began at age 14 when I rented a VHS copy of “The Hustler,” the magnificent Paul Newman pool room tragedy, from East Street Video in my hometown of Pittsfield, Mass.

East Street Video was a derelict store with shabby carpets located at the back of a convenience mart in an unkempt section of town. But it had a small rack of “classics,” including “The Hustler,” “From Here to Eternity,” “The Great Escape” and three Hitchcock films: “North by Northwest,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (the 1956 American remake) and “Vertigo.”

When a Blockbuster store opened within walking distance of my childhood home, I then systematically rented its limited selection of movie classics. Many of the titles of films I first rented from its collection escape me today, but I distinctly recall the James Bond underwater extravaganza “Thunderball” (rented the day I graduated from middle school), the Bogie-Bacall love letter “To Have and Have Not” (rented the last day of freshman year of high school) and the trifecta of “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (rented simultaneously when I was recovering from a case of strep throat at the end of junior year).

When the Blockbuster store was replaced by a Hollywood Video franchise during my senior year of high school, I was able to experience for the first time such meat and potatoes foreign art house films as “The Seventh Seal,” “Seven Samurai,” “L’Avventura” and “La Dolce Vita.”

But when I moved to Vermont in 1999 and encountered Waterfront Video, it was my equivalent of François Truffaut discovering the Cinémathèque Française or Martin Scorsese first visiting the movie houses of Greenwich Village.

At a time when mainstream video stores like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video shelved movies by genre, Waterfront Video, in the true spirit of auteurism, organized films by director. Entire rows were devoted to the works of Godard, Antonioni and Bergman; neglected American auteurs like Peter Bogdanovich and Arthur Penn received their proper due; a bootlegged VHS copy of Robert Altman’s “California Split” was available for rental several years before it became available on DVD.

In the days before DVDs became the norm, Waterfront had a deal in which one could rent five tapes for five days for $7. During the heyday of my self-imposed crash course in film history, I took full advantage of that deal, at times watching up to five films a day.

When the digital revolution began in earnest, Waterfront gradually began replacing its VHS stock with DVDs. However, unlike most franchises, it crucially never disposed of a VHS tape before first obtaining a replacement on DVD.

What might be most disheartening about Waterfront’s closing is that many VHS titles that have never seen the light of day on DVD—films like Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore,” John Sayles’ “City of Hope” and Wim Wenders’ “Kings of the Road”—will now be unavailable for viewing.

As the Burlington Free Press reported, the entire Waterfront collection is being sold to a Burlington area family. One can only hope that the new owners of the state’s largest and best movie collection will soon open the next incarnation of Waterfront Video, and that the rare VHS tapes will survive as part of the inventory.

Until then, it’s one more reason to echo the mantra that film lovers have long repeated: Thank God for Turner Classic Movies.

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