"I love this book. It is funny and sad and sharp and clever and, every now and then, fantastically naughty. It will make you feel both keening nostalgia for the lost days of video shops and joyful relief that you never have to go into Blockbuster ever again." - Sam Jordison, Guardian critic, editor of Crap Towns, co-director of Galley Beggar Press.
From the early 80's until just a couple of years ago, the video shop was a little part of everyone's life in the UK.
Except mine. It was a really big part of my life. And across those three decades, I spent a lot of time in them. I was the wide-eyed kid staring at the gory painted covers in the horror section. I was the teenager hanging out that they couldn't get rid of. I was the surly bastard till jockey. I was the stressed-out manager and eventually I was the guy who got to open his own chain of kick-ass cool indie video stores.
I'm a filmmaker and a film writer now, but through my teens, twenties and thirties I worked in a total of thirteen different video shops - from monolithic corporate outlets, chains that desperately tried to emulate those monolithic corporate outlets, to long-forgotten back street Mom n' pops, to raging, vibrant high street indies. And I have stories to share.
Videosyncratic is my book about my adventures in, and observations of, that industry. Think 'Kitchen Confidential' but replace the hardworking kitchen staff with a bunch of lazy, rude, wisecracking bastards, sitting around watching films and finding new and creative ways to upset customers.
For an entire industry that came and went in our lifetimes, the UK video shop culture has been woefully undocumented - it was a bizarre clash of failed homegrown entrepreneurship and the awkward application of American customer service values onto a confused and apathetic British workforce. In this book, I'll guide you from the early 80s to 2010, when I closed down my own video shops and left the industry in its death throes.
The book has everything you could want from a book on video shops - video nasties, late fees, corporate sleaze, indie hijinks, triumph, failure, romance, adventure, grown adults being dragged out of shops by their ears, awkward sex in the VHS section and, most importantly, film geekery of the highest order.
I loved video shops and I miss them and this book is my love song to them. I desperately want to get it out there and share that love with all the film geeks, retroheads and anyone who ever cherished their time walking the aisles of their own local outlet.
The book is completed and has been edited. This campaign is to raise the money to have the book designed, formatted and printed. So the turnaround should be quite fast.
Here's a mini-doc I made in 2010 about closing my video shops down, it'll give you a flavour of some of the people and weirdness you'll find in the book. Below that is the chapter list from the book and some samples from it.
STRETCH GOALS ANNOUNCED 23/01/17
Chapter list from VIDEOSYNCRATIC:
CHAPTER 1: ELECTRIC DREAMS
CHAPTER 2: AMERICAN BEAUTY AND VIDEO NASTIES
CHAPTER 3: THE ENORMOUS CARDBOARD JAMES BELUSHI
CHAPTER 4: BUSTING BLOCKS WITH MICHAEL IRONSIDE
CHAPTER 5: PRIDE, PREJUDICE, FEAR AND LOATHING
CHAPTER 6: ULRIKA JONSSON VS POOZILLA
CHAPTER 7: SCOTTISH INDEPENDENTS
CHAPTER 8: BOX OFFICE SMASHES
CHAPTER 9: THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE VIDEO SHOP EMPLOYEE
CHAPTER 10: CONFESSIONS OF A VIDEO SHOP OWNER
CHAPTER 11: VIDEOSYNCRATICS
CHAPTER 12: JERKBEAST
CHAPTER 13: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF SPIRA
CHAPTER 14: REQUIEM FOR A VIDEO SHOP
Appendix I: TALKING SHOP: A conversation with Chris Stacey, owner of Mister Stacey’s Most Excellent Video Emporium in Cambridge.
Here's a moment from the book - it's 1996 and my exasperated manager at Blockbuster Video has called in the area manager to give me special training:
Russ was ex-military and looked just like Michael Ironside. He had tattoos on his arms and was probably terrifying in a military situation but it’s hard to command much respect in retail when you're unarmed, at the mercy of civilian law, your staff are smarter than you and only getting minimum wage.
I don’t want to paint him as a pathetic figure, because he wasn’t, he was a perfectly respectable guy, it’s just that nobody really cared about their jobs enough to take any shit and it’s not like he could have courtmartialed us or resorted to violence.
“Why aren’t you in uniform, Jon?” “Because my shift hasn’t started yet” “According to my watch, Jon, your shift started 2 minutes ago”
I check my watch.
“No, I’ve got like a minute and a half to go” “Not according to my watch, Jon” “Well, I set mine by the GMTV clock and, you know, that must be the official time” “It’s not good enough, Jon.”
He was overusing my name and I couldn’t work out why, I thought it must have been one of those military psychological tactics where they throw you off-balance by creating confusion then your mind is theirs for the taking. Since I had no such strategy up my sleeve, I just used his.
“What’s not good enough, Russ?” “Jon, you should be here, in uniform ten minutes before your shift starts” “Russ, why should I do that?” “Because it’s good practice, Jon” “Russ…” “HEY! Don’t get smart with me, Jon” “I wasn’t trying to, Russ” “Now, you’ve wasted two minutes of both of our time. Go and get into your uniform, Jon” “OK, Russ”
What followed was a day of training the Russ way. It was frustrating and idiotic but I could easily see how people of lesser will could be brainwashed and indoctrinated into becoming horrible little corporate puppets. The most insulting part of it was that he genuinely seemed to think that if I did a job properly and well, I would actually get some kind of sense of satisfaction out of it.
At one point, Russ had gone off to make some phone calls and I was stood at the counter seriously considering a dramatic resignation (“Russ, I'm leaving, Russ. You see, Russ, Russ, I just Russ can't put Russ up Russ with Russ this Russ shit Russ any Russ more, Russ!”).
Russ appeared behind me, seemingly out of nowhere. Stealth like.
“What did you just do wrong, Jon?” “Russ, I just don’t know” “Jon, think about it” “…… no, Russ, nothing springs to mind.” “Think, Jon. I want you to think.” “Russ, are you reading my mind?” “Jon, what’s the magic number?” Woah. Was this fucker programming me? I had nightmare visions of my manager croaking “Jon, 26!” and me having some Pavlovian response like cleaning the windows or dusting the back shelves.
“Russ, is it a hundred and two?” “Jon, I told you the magic number!” “In my mind, Russ?” “An hour ago! THREE! THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER! Weren’t you listening?
Of course I wasn’t. The only way I’d got through his training was by picking out key jingoistic sentences and setting them to music in my mind (“Oh, the company is a pyramid and you are at the top and all our work is squandered if the tiles you do not mop!”, “Respect for your job, means respect for yourself, the feeling of a job well done, a perfectly stocked shelf!” yes, Blockbuster The Musical was shaping up nicely).
“The Rule of Three, Jon. If a customer is either three feet into the shop or has been in the shop for more than three seconds and you haven’t greeted him, you’re letting the side down.” “OK, Russ” “Here comes one, Jon”
A guy walked into the shop, we made eye contact, I smiled and nodded, he smiled back and went to look for 'drama/thriller'. That actually was kind of nice, it’s nice to get a smile! Maybe Russ was right!
“Jon, what was that?” “I greeted him, Russ” “Jon, that was not greeting” “Really, Russ? I mean, he seemed adequately greeted”
Another guy walks through the door and heads for the New Release section “GOOD MORNING, SIR, HOW ARE YOU?” Russ roared at him. Both the customer and I jumped in shock. The customer stopped and stared at Russ. “GOOD MORNING!” Russ continued. The guy offered a confused smile and a nod.
“You see, Jon” “Russ, you terrified him. People like being acknowledged, I’ll give you that, but nobody wants that Disney Store crap where they stand outside and patronise you in.” “I think Disney are fantastic, you always feel welcome there, Jon. That’s EXACTLY what we should be doing!”
Another guy walks in and I scream “HEELLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” at him, The first guy, having overheard the conversation, giggles. The greeted stares at me for a minute as if he wants to see me bleed then stomps off towards the horror section. I turn to Russ for a reaction. He pats me on the back with something between pride and murderous disgust.
“Well done, Jon”.
This next section is about one of our favourite customers in the Cowley Road branch of Videosyncratic, from 2008:
My first experience of Tony was just a few months after the shop opened, he wandered in – as so many denizens of Cowley Road did – in a filthy, stained coat, with a confused grimace. He looked around for a couple of minutes with a look of utter disgust and disappointment. “IS THAT IT?” He shouted at me with his old Oxford farmer drawl. “Is what it?” “THAT’S ALL THE FILMS YOU GOT?” I nodded. He sighed deeply and looked crestfallen, shook his head and pointed around “I’ve got more films than this in my fucking house!” Then he left.
He next came in a few days later, I thought he was drunk but it later dawned on me that this is just the way surly people behave once they hit their seventies. He walked up to the counter with a warm smile “Now, ‘ave you got the film ‘Orrors of the Black Mausoleum’?”. I check the system, “No”. His smile drops all the way down his face into a disbelieving sneer. “Well, what fucking use are you?” He asks and dismisses me with a wave of his hand.
“I might be able to get it!” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah, What’s it about?” “Well, it’s that man Michael Gough. He’s in it. And in the opening scene, this woman, right, she gets a parcel from a secret admirer. She opens it up and it’s a pair of binokkelers (I have to write some of this phonetically because he had a beautiful way with words) and she goes to look out the window with ‘em, adjusts the focus dial, and these fucking nails shoot out of them right into her fucking eyes”
He laughs like a drain for a moment.
“What happens then?” “I don’t know, I fucking turned it off, didn’t I? I’d just fucking ordered a pair of binokkelers, had to give ‘em to me mate to try out before I’d fucking use them!” “OK, well, the film’s available, I can get you a copy!” “I DON’T FUCKING WANT A COPY! I TOLD YOU, I ‘AD TO TURN IT OFF!”
And once again, he stormed out leaving me frozen in a half-shrug of confusion.
Later that week, Jamie asked if I was aware of a ‘piss-smelling man’ coming in regularly, asking about obscure films, shouting and then leaving. I confirmed that I was, as did other staff members, until we realised that he had started coming in daily.
Tony, (or ‘Pissy’ as we now called him, more because of his attitude than aroma) turned out to be a well-known character on the Cowley Road, every day he’d walk a circuit of it twice – first walking his dog Teddy, then by himself, popping into several shops for a quick chat or, in our case, to berate, confuse and annoy us, then leave.
One day I was bored and decided as he stormed into the shop shouting the odds about one thing or another to actually engage with him. To steer him into conversation. It turned out he was an old-school film geek of the highest order. He only really cared for horror films, but his knowledge was encyclopaedic. He knew horror films like nobody I had ever met. Right from the Tod Slaughter films of the 20s up to the most obscure straight-to-video twaddle of the last few months. He loved it all equally, horror was his obsession and, combined with his previous career as a grave-digger, we tried to overlook how potentially terrifying he must have been as a younger man and embraced him as our favourite visitor.
Tony had fallen in love with films as a child and, pre-empting the video era by some 30 years, the first thing he bought himself when he started earning a salary was a 16mm projector. Every week, he’d go into London to a shop on Tottenham Court Road and buy the latest horror films on celluloid (or ‘sellaloy’ as he’d call it). Sometimes he’d hold screenings for friends but generally he was happier on his own in his own private little cinema. He told me that by the late 60s he’d racked up a huge collection of film prints, most of which he sold, as rarities and collectables, for a great price when home video surfaced.
Video seems to be where Tony flourished. He often told me that he had thousands of videos at his house. I took that as exaggeration until the day his roof fell in.
“My FUCKING roof’s falling in! I’ve got to clean my FUCKING house out! Do you want some of my videos? I shan’t have time to watch them again at my age and if you don’t want them I’ll sling the fucking lot!” “Yeah, we’ll take some” “There’s a lot!” “OK”
He told me to take my car round to his house at the end of Alma Place and to wait outside. He came round from the back with bag after bag of dusty old ex-rental videos. That first visit, he gave me about 200 tapes. When I got them back to the shop, I couldn’t believe it. Although DVD had rendered video of little financial value, these were some of the rarest tapes ever. I don’t even know where he got these from. These weren’t even collectable-rare, they were just weird! He had a copy of a film called ‘Rambu’ – an Indonesian Rambo knock-off. He had bizarre little sci-fi films that starred Klaus Kinski, original pre-certs and video nasties. Exploitation films that Tarantino would freak out for and some of the craziest, sickest box art I’ve ever seen. The films didn’t stop coming, Tony gave us over a thousand and was still calling me up to pick bags of them up from his place that friday. Which was the last time I saw him.
In return, I’d scour the internet to find him DVDs of the films he’d loved as a young man, bizarre rubbish horror films that nobody else would get through ten minutes of and any films in which Hercules or some other mythical Adonis would fight big monsters. He’d come to me with a list of titles and ask me for a synopsis (or ‘snipopis’), I’d usually get a sentence in before he’d stop me (“Ilsa is a beautiful young girl with a secret, she loves the taste of blood and will kill….” “THAT’S ENOUGH, I’ll have it.”).
He’d order his DVDs in batches of five and, from the moment the order was completed, he’d be demanding to know where it was and why it hadn’t arrived yet. This perceived slowness of delivery could drive him into an absolute rage. My enduring memory of Tony will always be the image of his face pressed against the glass of the front door with raised eyebrows, asking without words whether his order had arrived, when I would shake my head, he’d launch into a tirade of pointing, shouting (which I couldn’t hear as the door was closed, but judging by the reactions of passers-by, was peppered with his trademark salty favourites) and fist shaking. Then he’d wave both hands down to the side, mouth ‘well you can FUCK OFF’ and storm away. The angriest I ever saw him was when I was half an hour late opening the shop, he’d not only been waiting but had seen the postman put the ‘sorry, we missed you’ delivery slip through the door. Tony was so angry, he couldn’t even find words, just facial expressions and bizarre experimental poses of rage, punctuated by grunts and whines.
But he wasn’t just an angry old man, as often as he was comically furious, he was also quiet and sweet and decent. Offering bits of advice, asking strange and random questions (“Have you ever eaten one of them pizzas?”, “You got toothache? Why don’t you have ‘em all pulled out? I did! Makes things much easier!”). He took great pleasure from mocking us and trying to get us in trouble with each other. He’d often come to me with stories about how Jamie or Liam (or Jeremy and Lee-mo as he insisted on calling them) had been shirking their responsibilities. Equally, he’d go to them and tell them I wasn’t fit to run a business. I once played him a song from one of Jamie’s albums and he made sure to tell him “I thought a fucking cat was being strangled” the next time he saw him. He particularly loved to torture Dan, often holding him responsible for the failings of myself and the Royal Mail. There was always a twinkle in his eye, though.
Aside from film, Tony’s other love was Alma Cogan. The ‘voice of the valleys’, a Welsh singer from the 50s and 60s. He adored her. He used to go to London whenever she was performing and would fight like a maniac, throwing people out of his way to get her autograph at the stage door. It’s my one regret that I never managed to track down a CD for him with the track ‘Ricochet Blues’ – he had been looking for that for years.
His most memorable moment, and the phrase we most fondly attribute to him was on a day much like any other, a couple of us stood behind the counter. He marched in, stopped looked suspiciously between each of us and demanded “What do you two fuckers know?” The last time I saw him, he’d received an incomplete DVD order, one of the films (the wonderfully titled ‘Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things’) had been out of stock. Three times he reminded me to chase it up and not let them forget we ordered it. His last words to me were “Don’t let the fuckers pull the wool over your eyes!” Words to live by.
He died shortly after, we went to his funeral. It was weird.
If you've enjoyed this little preview of the book, please select one of the funding reward categories on the right of this page and help me get the book published. Thanks for your time. Jon
"Videosyncratic" song written & performed by Ben Walker, used with kind permission
Risks and challenges
I can't see any real problems with completing this project, the book is already written and edited. I've already done my research and fully budgeted the venture. Although I don't have previous experience of producing a finished book myself, I have friends in the publishing industry that I can turn to for advice and support.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)