As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to work in a video store. Quentin Tarantino worked in a video store and he turned out okay. Randy, the movie geek in Scream movies, did as well, but that turned out less well. Be Kind, Rewind, a personal favourite of mine, was a movie about a couple of ne’er-do-wells trying to save their local street corner video store, but no amount of “Sueded” movies was going to save Thomas Video this year from the fate of so many other video stores. 2016 was a hard year for loss, but some losses, here in Guelph anyway, hurt more than others.
It’s interesting that this year would be bookended by the loss of two veritable local institutions, ones that suffer, they say, from the times. The recent one is Thomas, but the other, or course, is the Guelph Mercury. Granted the closure of a video store doesn’t have the same, relevant effect as the closure of a daily newspaper, but it’s hard not to see the parallels: two businesses, both facing a crush from other options that allow the access of the same services in a faster, easier, and more direct fashion online. Technology changed their game, and they both lost, and so did we.
There’s sometimes a perception here in Guelph that we live on an island, that the things that affect the rest of the world don’t happen here. Video stores were gone in a lot of places by the time the calendar turned to 2012; all the big boxes seemed to disappear overnight, but Thomas endured. Same for the Guelph Mercury. It seemed weekly that some paper somewhere was closing down, or some newsroom was cutting staff, and while the Mercury wasn’t staffed the way it once was, it was still cranking out a paper everyday. We didn’t know how good we had it.
That’s the interesting thing about both cases, the public reaction. An outpouring of laments asking “How are we supposed to live without this thing?” when the truth of the matter is that a lot of those people have been living pretty well without it for a while. We took things for granted. We expected that because a thing had been there for a long time, it will continue to be there, as if things like newspapers and video stores can live on people’s vague awareness that they’re still in business. I’ve worked at Thomas for months, and I’ve seen a lot of new faces that can’t believe the store is closing even thought the last time they themselves rented anything was 2013, or 2014. Blessed are the ones that confess this before delicately asking about buying Thomas’ videos for their own collections.
The blame is universal, of course. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, which is why the outpouring of affection for the Mercury, and now Thomas, is understandable and heartening, but do we learn anything from this? In so much as I appreciate Guelph Today for rescuing several Mercury staffers and freelancers, and for doing the kind of community reporting and coverage a city like Guelph needs, I can’t help but wonder if its existence abdicates us of any responsibility. According to Metroland, the Mercury was shuttered because of bottoming out subscriptions, which may be a convenient excuse, but anecdotally the Mercury’s last day of publishing was the first time in a long time I can remember seeing the paper sold out in *one* place, let alone every place.
The bottom line is that the thing we object to isn’t that change is happening, but rather that the change is permanent. While once there was the option to pick up a paper, or rent a video, now there is none. Change is inevitable, but rarely is it acceptable, at least in the moment. In the years to come, we’ll remember these things like we remember going to the arcade, or shopping at Bi-Way or Bargain Harolds, or Eatons for that matter. Honest Eds goes to retail heaven at the end of the day, and there it will join Sam the Record Man, which also once lived in downtown Guelph along with Records on Wheels and other music stores. Perhaps there’s no greater victim of the digital age than the ole record shop…
For many, 2016 has been characterized, for various reasons, as the worst year ever, but really it’s just another year. The bad times always stand out more starkly than the good times, but it’s worth remembering that with nostalgia it’s reversed, the good always overcomes the bad in our memory when we love an institution. It’s faults fall away as we ignore how outdated it was, or how we mocked its continued existence mercilessly, or how we wouldn’t step foot in it on a dare. It’s one of the reasons Jenny Mitchell’s downtown nostalgia t-shirts have been so successful, they capture one perfect moment in time. It’s ethereal. Forget that the Petrie building was falling apart around the Apollo, or that Budd’s couldn’t compete with big boxes, or that most wouldn’t pass over the threshold of Sun Sun’s during daylight hours and sober. On Jenny’s t-shirts they’re immutable, and everlasting. Like our memory.
The real lesson of 2016 has yet to taught because it will depend on time. So much of what’s happened this year is about people wanting to go back to the way things were in the past. The victories of Brexit and Donald Trump were, in part, a message from people struggling in the modern era and want to return to a time and place they understood better through sheer force of will, which is to ignore the fact that automation is killing more manufacturing jobs than trade or the immigration of foreign workers. Here again, technology is forcing a change in the world, and no amount of lamenting and complaining is going to undo that, which is a hard lesson those people are going to learn in time.
Unless computers go away tomorrow, progress will march on. The idea that the past will come back is a delusion because history only moves in one direction, so stop worrying about today and start thinking about tomorrow. Put on your Macondo Books t-shirt and wear it to the one of the two remaining independent bookstores downtown. Pay for your news, patronize local business, use the library, appreciate your beloved institutions now, while they’re viable, or worse still, borderline. Giving a business $20 the day after they announce they’re closing doesn’t do nearly as well as giving it to them the day before.