Living on lockdown, quarantine, or self-imposed isolation due to this horror film we’re collectively starring in right now got me thinking about how easy it used to be to move through and within the subcultures of certain communal spaces. Specifically, because I’m a nerd to the nth degree, I’m thinking about a range of public spaces in which I’ve spent considerable amounts of time over my life: video rental stores, comic book shops, bookstores, and record stores.
It dawned on me recently that I’ve been a regular, to semi-regular inhabitant of many of those places for much of my life now. Some periods more than others, of course – record stores and video rental stores have dwindled in number in recent years, so much of my time spent in them is very likely lodged securely in my past now. But these places most definitely helped shaped me and my tastes in movies, music, and literature.
Years ago I wrote about how it felt that video stores were omnipresent until, suddenly, they weren’t anymore. Not to quote myself but I’m totally about to quote myself because this still sums up my feelings on the loss of these spaces:
“You never mourned the loss of the video rental store; when it went away you shrugged. It’s just one more in an endless line of experiences you won’t have again that you never appreciate when you’re having them. These experiences take place in public spaces that are huge parts of your life for years and then, suddenly, they’re no longer there. Usually you don’t know its happened until after the fact and by then you’ve moved on, found new spaces within which to exist.”
When these stores close, or when the threat of a virus makes it impossible for us to spend time in them like we once did, some part of our past disappears along with them. Not really, of course. We’ll always have the memories. But that very real, tactile experience of soaking up the surroundings is gone – pawing through stacks of books or videos, eyeing the posters, reveling in all of the cool ephemera that decorate shops that sell physical media. Browsing movies, music, books, and comics in stores like these were as much a part of the overall experience as consuming the media later on. I’ve had lengthy discussions with friends about the differences between the hunt for back issues at a comic book shop versus the reading of said comics later, at home. They offer very different, yet equally potent, allures for comics fans, and together they create an almost irresistible pull.
These public spaces created subcultures within which many of us could feel safe dwelling, when we hadn’t felt we belonged anyplace else. There are subtle differences between each of the subcultures, making some more welcoming than others, at times. For as much as I love music, record stores were and still are by the far the least friendly places of the bunch. There’s a certain elitist snobbery to some record store employees and customers – some, I want to emphasize that, but it’s enough at times to turn me off. I was once one of those snobs, but having outgrown that phase (thank gawd), I can only chuckle now at those who never will. I mean, part of what made High Fidelity so resonant – both in Nick Hornby’s seminal book and the excellent movie adaptation with John Cusack – is because of how well it nails the record store vibe. Video rental stores, bookstores, and comic book shops always felt even more like home to me. Those were and are my people: film nerds, cinephiles, back issue hunters, arcane-knowledge seeking comic book wizards, literary wannabes, writers, and book lovers of all stripes and sizes. Sure, just like any fandoms there are jerks and know-it-alls who think it’s their job to play gatekeeper, but thankfully most of my experiences over the years hanging out in bookstores, local comics shops, and video rental stores are overwhelmingly positive.
These are the places where I and other art-obsessed searchers found popular hits and hidden treasures that would immeasurably change our lives. I first saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a sixteen year old because of my local video shop. The graphic novelization of Uncanny X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga was purchased my mom for eight year old me at our local bookstore, the Little Professor Book Shop. I rifled through hundreds of back issues and discovered new and exciting comics series and characters at my LCS (local comics shop, for those who were never bitten by the comic book bug), first as a kid and now at a different LCS as an adult.
Yet, right now, most of us can’t hang out in these public spaces, not while states and nations are practicing safe social distancing. Obviously, local restaurants or pubs are other public spaces in which we used to hang out yet now, sadly, can’t gather in for a meal or drinks with family or friends. There are so many reasons to be saddened by the current state of affairs, so this one seems relatively minor, but it’s still another blow to our mental health.
These places were sanctuaries for some of us. Other communal spots matter or once mattered greatly to many us, too, like movie theaters, coffee shops, or convenient stores – if you grew up during the 1970s through the 1990s, especially, the convenient store was a major hangout spot. Many of these locations disappeared a while ago for most us – either because we aged out of having time to spend in them or they literally vanished. Now, with our new abnormal way of life, the places that were still thriving are shuttered, or offering only curbside pickup. People’s livelihoods have been hurt, and scores of people who found community in these places are suddenly left to wonder when life will resume, and whether or not it’ll ever be quite the same again.