Monday, May 7, 2018

Last days of the undifferentiated stacks

While we were in Bali, my kids fell in love with Night at the Museum.

It was one of a half-dozen shiny new distractions brought over by my sister-in-law, who was looking after them while we were out of the country alongside my mother-in-law. Others included Rise of the Guardians, Fantastic Mr. Fox and a few others I'm not thinking of right now. But the clear winner of the bunch was the 2006 Ben Stiller vehicle. They've watched it at least three times, maybe four, which is a lot for just a few weeks' time.

When I told them there were two other movies in that series, well, acquiring the next one became priority #1.

But I figured this would probably be an owner, not a renter. Yeah, we could have seen if they had it at the library (I can't imagine they didn't), and we could have borrowed it for multiple periods of three weeks, but purchasing seemed to be the way to go.

However, you kind of have to be lucky to find a movie like this at a decent price. You might well find it in the two for $5 bin somewhere, but you're just as likely not to. And if it's filed properly on the shelf, it's going to be at least $10, possibly even $15. Australia hasn't fully caught on to discounting physical media to the level that the public actually values it, which is close to zilch.

So I decided to try a different kind of luck and go to the wacky used DVD store in nearby Moonee Ponds.

What's wacky about this store? Well, a lot. For one, it is both a cinephile's dream (it has tons of movies) and a cinephile's nightmare (it's almost impossible to find the one you're actually looking for).

I should start by saying that DVDs are not the only thing sold here. They also sell CDs, books, and video games I think. CDs and books anyway.

The thing they all have in common is that they are in undifferentiated stacks that clog and spill out the shelves, in no order whatsoever.

This store might have literally 5,000 DVDs. I would not be surprised if you told me it was twice that. But the only way to go through them is to scan their spines until you find the title you're looking for. Or really, to not look for a title at all, but to scan them until you find something you want.

So going in looking for a specific movie was set to be a treasure hunt indeed.

The older child can read, so I sent him off to one section of shelves. The younger one can't, but he seemed dutifully committed to the search as well. I handled the higher shelves that they couldn't reach.

It was slow going. Not only are the shelves full, but the shelves are deep enough to contain an outer later of stacked DVDs as well as an inner layer hiding behind them. No effort has been made to put the more attractive titles on the outside and bury the lesser titles behind. The owner and proprietor and sole worker at the store -- a bald man in his early 60s who looked cantankerous as hell -- had just acquired them however he acquired them and threw them up there wherever he could find a crevice large enough.

So I was picking up stacks of maybe 20 DVDs at a time, accordion-style, and reviewing their contents as well as the hidden stack behind them, before sticking them carefully back in place, sure to knock back any corners that stuck out and prevented the stack from sliding surgically back into its vacated opening. This went on for upwards of ten minutes, maybe closer to 15.

I'd figured the kids would be getting annoyed and bored, and would start creating havoc, and more to the point, that the grumpy bald man would be getting annoyed with them. But none of these things happened, so the search continued.

At one point I asked him if he has a way of knowing whether he has something or not, phrasing the question so it didn't seem like a judgment. He gave me kind of a pained look of hopelessness but asked for the title anyway. I gave it. Same look. "Even if I knew, you'd still have to go digging for it."

As it turned out, in the end, it was less a case of digging and more a case of ascending. I finally found Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian at the very top of a stack that was above my head but still within my reach.

It had a BluRay logo on it, but it was not in a BluRay-sized package. It also had Chinese writing all over the front. But it did not look patently fake. I did ask the guy if it was definitely in English, and he nodded in a kind of resigned but definitive fashion. (It ended up being almost certainly pirated, but decent enough quality that only adults would have known the difference.)

The kids were overjoyed, and I must admit I felt pretty satisfied to have gone into a haystack and actually found the needle. As we were checking out, I was still feeling the rush of victory and was in a generous frame of mind. So I said to them in a voice that was obviously intended for the owner to hear that it was wonderful to be able to still find a place like this at all in this day and age.

"And this one's only just hanging on," the man said. Now his previous hopeless misery was a bit more clear. "We just don't have the customers anymore."

I commiserated with him for a moment and felt the urge to extend the search and pick out maybe three more titles that I had seen in passing and would have been glad to own. I knew neither the $5 Battle of the Smithsonian cost me nor the $20 I might have given him for three more was going to save his business, but at least it'd make his day a little better.

But we were on something of a schedule, as we had a few more errands to run and still needed to get home in time to watch the movie during "quiet time," the hour-plus that precedes dinner on a weekend night. So we left with only the one purchase.

To give some indication of how much the man has already given up, he inexplicably charged me less than the price on the sticker. Knowing it was $5.50, I'd gotten out a $20 to pay with. But when he charged me only $5, I exchanged bills and gave him exact change.

I've purchased from this place before on a handful of occasions, and really don't want it to go by the wayside. But like all others of its ilk, its days are numbered. It's kind of a miracle it's still open at all, though maybe the used books help prop the business up. I doubt the CDs are doing much in that regard.

And even though you have to dive in without any idea if you'll find what you're looking for, it's amazing to have this many movies available in one location these days. It makes for a great last resort if you're having trouble sourcing something you need to see. You don't know if you'll find the movie, but you know that you can go for a long, long swim in those titles, holding out hope the whole time that maybe it'll be in the next stack behind the one you're looking at.

I couldn't help but wonder whether some quick and dirty alphabetization might -- well, not save his business, but at least extend it a bit longer. And I'm not talking about making sure that About a Boy and About Time appear next to each other and go on from there. All you really need is a shelf of A, a shelf of B, and so on. I even had a wild thought about going in there and volunteering to take 12 hours and do it for him.

But if that had been the kind of business this guy wanted to run, he would have done that a long time ago. No, he wanted to be surrounded by stacks and stacks of DVDs, CDs and books, like some hoarder trying to live among the detritus of a well-spent life.

And God bless him for being one of the last stubborn holdouts in an era that has moved on. Here's hoping he holds out a lot longer -- or at least, until the next time I want to take a deep, desperate dive for some title I can't otherwise source.

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