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A relic of the home-video era, Family Video is going away almost before we even knew it existed

A relic of the home-video era, Family Video is going away almost before we even knew it existed

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The most surprising thing about the news this week that Family Video will close its 250-store chain is that there still existed a 250-store video-rental business.

For those of us in areas favored with decent Wi-Fi, those fee-based movie lending libraries were relics of another era, like cellphones that fold in half and speakers that plug into your amplifier rather than a wall outlet.

Such stores were consigned to the memory bin, alongside half-completed free-rental punch cards, the pink copies of membership agreements more intricate than your apartment lease, and too many hasty trips to push the VHS of another Hollywood disappointment through the slot before the late fees kicked in. You did not want to pay double for “The Hangover Part II.”

Nevertheless, Family Video persisted. In smaller towns across the Midwest, including 30 in Illinois, it outlasted the mammoth Blockbuster chain, once 9,000 stores strong. Go to blockbuster.com now and you’ll find only a few hard kernels in the popcorn box. The header says “Blockbuster Store Location,” and the singular noun is not a typo: The oft-chronicled lone survivor, a kind of northern white rhino of the home-video era, is in Bend, Oregon.

Family Video weathered the easy transition from VHS to DVD, with its smaller and more user-friendly format. And it even survived the development of video streaming, which in the course of just over a decade went from herky-jerky teen prank YouTube videos to almost seamless on-demand playback of films in breathtaking image density — at least for folks in areas populated enough for the wireless companies to serve them with sufficient bandwidth.

Begun in 1978 when rotary phones were still commonplace and TVs were big boxes, the company made it to a time when your phone, virtually a supercomputer, could share a movie to your TV screen, a book-thick video wall, through the air.

But the happy anachronism based in the Chicago suburb of Glenview could not survive the coronavirus. “The impact of COVID-19, not only in foot traffic but also in the lack of movie releases, pushed us to the end of an era,” the CEO of the parent company Highland Ventures said in a statement this week.

Wednesday was the last day for movie rentals, and now the company over the coming weeks and months will liquidate everything in its stores, from multiple copies of superhero movies to the shelves they rested on to the CBD products the chain added in recent years in an attempt to pivot.

Indeed, (Town Name) Family Video & CBD Store is the standard outlet moniker as the curtain draws, a name that perhaps did not do the company any favors with its coverage of too much of the wholesomeness spectrum.

The overall company, though, seems like it might be fine. Unlike Blockbuster, which closed its corporate stores in 2013, Highland owns most of its real estate, which is what allowed it to survive. As video sales have shrunk it squeezed sibling businesses into some of those store footprints, especially Marco’s Pizza.

Meanwhile, hard-copy video rental is not dead-dead. Local independent operations, including Odd Obsession in Wicker Park and Video Strip in McKinley Park, are still kicking, and the great Chicago outfit Facets, long on foreign titles, now offers a Netflix-style monthly mail rental service.

Among the remaining nationals, Netflix itself will still mail you all the DVDs you want, if you insist, for $8 or $12 a month through the business it now calls DVD.com. And Redbox, which rose up in the wake of Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video, still has 41,000 of those distinctive vending machine kiosks in action, according to the website of the Oakbrook Terrace-based company.

Losing Family Video and the last big tranche of video stores, however, still feels like the end of an era. Plucking titles from an online catalog or pecking away at a Redbox screen in the vestibule of your local Jewel is hardly the same as wandering the aisles in an actual video store.

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The last one I went to with any regularity was a Blockbuster at North and Harlem Avenues in Melrose Park, back in the days when pawing boxes in a small room with other people would prelude to an evening’s entertainment, rather than a week’s anxiety about whether you were exposed to the virus.

I remember both the occasional moments of serendipity, when I’d stumble across something interesting I didn’t expect to find, and the more frequent moments of frustration, when all the copies of what I wanted were out and I would pine for the days when I lived near Facets and you could still walk in and rent the masterpieces of world cinema.

A fair amount of my Blockbuster time was spent resisting the allure of that add-on Twizzlers bag and asking the clerk to show me what people had dropped off but hadn’t been put back on the shelves yet.

But that place fell off my radar, maybe because it closed, or maybe even before that. Either way it was like a lot of other faded roses of American commerce. I don’t get milk from a milkman anymore, and I don’t bundle up with my sweetie and head to the drive-in.

Sometimes old things become new again. Drive-ins have staged an unlikely comeback during the pandemic, maybe enough to remind people of their charms and keep more of them going in the post-vaccination times. Ink-on-paper newspapers are 100-percent headed for a renaissance, don’t try to tell me otherwise. Even folding cellphones are attempting to return in the form of ultra-high-tech bendable screens that are inching toward the mass market.

But it’s hard to imagine anything of that nature for a large-scale, four-walls-and-a-roof video-rental business. The times have not been kind to the likes of Family Video. They did not rewind.

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