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  • Writer's pictureArwen Rasmussen

Dusting Off Some Local History: “Don’t Forget to Rewind the Tape”

By Greg Kocken, Archivist, UW-Eau Claire,

Over the years I have researched and written about many firsts in the Chippewa Valley region: airports, automobiles, sawmills, radio stations, etc. While considering topics for this column, a member of my team suggested I flip the script. Instead of examining a first how about examining a last? After discussing a few ideas, I settled on a topic which reminds us of how quickly technology changes our lives: the rise and fall of the video rental store.

In 1977, shortly after major Hollywood film productions began to be released on magnetic tape, the first video rental stores began appearing in the United States. In the Eau Claire area the first video rental store is listed in the 1984 city directory, but it is possible that rentals began a few years earlier. Nationally, there were around 30,000 video rental stores by the start of the 1990s, even outpacing the number of movie theatre screens (Hebert, Videoland, 18). Most communities throughout the Chippewa Valley offered some type of video rental store option throughout the 1990s. These stores were part of our landscape and reinforced a growing media culture in the United States. Between 1992 and 2002 the Eau Claire area was home to nine video rental stores.

Even before the arrival of the video rental store, people across the Chippewa Valley were accustomed to watching movies on television. By the early 1970s, nearly a quarter of all prime-time television was devoted to broadcasting movies (Hebert, 22). VCRs were marketed to American consumers in the late 1970s, but initially they were viewed as a tool to record broadcast television rather than consume rental movies. The rise of the video store corresponded with the rise of VCR ownership. In 1980 only 1.9 million American households had a VCR, but by the end of the decade that number jumped to 64.5 million households (Hebert, 26).

At its height, Blockbuster Video, a dominant video rental store across the American Midwest, had three locations in Eau Claire in the 1990s and 2000s. City directories indicate the first Blockbuster Video opened in the Eau Claire area around 1991 and exited the local market around 2013. As VHS tapes gave way to DVDs the rental industry struggled to adapt. Many small stores closed, unable to overhaul their inventory to the new format (Hebert, 42). Increasingly, competition from big box stores also hurt the video rental industry, but the rise of internet retailers like Amazon and streaming services like Netflix were too much for the video rental industry to overcome. Almost as soon as they arrived, they began to disappear. The most recent city directory for Eau Claire, published this year, does not list any remaining video rental stores in the area.

I remember going with my father to Blockbuster Video to pick out a new VHS to rent almost every Friday night. Fast forward a decade and I would eagerly await the arrival of the latest DVD from my Netflix queue, and now all those VHS tapes and DVDs I purchased in my youth collect dust while packed away in boxes. There remains, however, something nostalgic about watching a VHS tape on an old VCR. This summer my wife and I dusted off a few Disney titles from among our VHS collection to watch with our daughter. She was frustrated that it would not play right away (someone forgot to rewind the tape).

Is there a local history mystery or topic you want to know more about? Do you have a suggestion for an upcoming column of “Dusting Off?” Please contact Greg at the UW-Eau Claire archives. He would love to hear from you.

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