The past ten years were host to the greatest challenges and joys of my life. I started the decade as a tough-minded grad student at the New School for Social Research. Somewhere along the way I turned an unpaid hobby into a career. Crazy, huh?
In between times, I made the best out of underemployment, teaching myself about movies during a stretch as a video store clerk. I fell in love with film at TLA Video’s store at 4th and South Sts. The store closed earlier this month. Needless to say, it was a Philly institution that will be sorely missed by anyone who set foot in it.
I feel fortunate to have worked with the people who made TLA Video a safe haven for cinephiles here in Philly. I can’t tell you how many customers thanked us for simply being the loyal opposition to Blockbuster. We knew who Wim Wenders was when the big box stores barely carried foreign titles. Sure, it was a low-paying retail job, but at least it had a mission and a clear identity. We were going to offer the sort of movies Blockbuster edited out of existence, whether that was foreign or adult or whatever. TLA was everything Blockbuster wasn’t.
The road got rockier when Netflix started to bully brick and mortar. When I think back to my time there between 2003-05, I swore I’d never go to Netflix. It lacked immediate gratification, I thought, disregarding all those times I went into the store only to discover the movie I so desperately wanted to see was currently rented. I thought the mail was just a clunky way to deliver movies. How wrong I was. Customers loved it and we watched our business dwindle even in Netflix’s early days.
I think the people who worked at TLA made it the institution it was. I was introduced to more off-the-wall movies by my co-workers than I have been in 3+ years as a Netflix customer. Everyone had their area of expertise and our regular customers sought out those of us they trusted most when they needed to see something, but weren’t sure what to rent. It was a joy to help people find new and interesting movies to watch, and a greater pleasure to discuss them when they returned. It was the only thing we could offer that the computer and it’s Amazon.com-esque recommendations couldn’t.
Ultimately, consumers chose convenience over that level of customer service. Onerous late fees and the hassle that came with them were enough to kill off the brick and mortar biz. Trust me: we hated those arguments as much as you did! The brick and mortar business tried to accommodate this customer with terrible results. There was no price point that would work for a company with the sort of overhead TLA had. What made TLA Video special will ultimately kill it off. The video store will not die with dignity, but rather a slow, lingering death at the hands of Netflix, Redbox, and the motley offering from your cable provider.
When TLA laid me off in 2006, I was hurt most because I really believed in what they hoped to accomplish. It still hurts. I’ve watched helplessly as they’ve laid off many of the people who made the company great. I’ve since moved on and am very happy where I am, but I still miss the ideal TLA represented, even if it set a standard no business could live up to in today’s economy.
I think what’s strangest of all is how I will struggle to explain what a video store was to my son when he asks about the jobs I’ve held. Are knowledge workers at the shallow end of the jobs pool destined to go the way of the milk man?