The Summer I Worked at a Video Rental Store and People Asked Me About Porn

I worked at a dreary video store chain in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, smack in the middle of the aughts. A unique cultural moment to be sure: Netflix was humming right along, but hadn’t achieved the market supremacy that would one day force all video store chains out of business or into automated kiosks. Enter 19-year-old me, willing to work for minimum wage and be the only staff member in the store during my shift. I was hired straight away.

My manager was a delicate man who had the unique talent of seeming to treat his employees with kid gloves while still getting them to do whatever he said. He was ultimately probably a bastard, but seemed so fragile emotionally that it was hard to say no to him. It was a healthy employee-supervisor relationship.

This man soon quit, a move that ushered in an anarchic period during which the store had no general manager. The only answerable authority was the corporate office, a disinterested body that seemed to forget for long periods of time that our branch even existed. This was an opinion they shared with the general public: There would often be hours-long stretches during which not a single person would come in the store.

There were ways to pass the time. I surreptitiously read magazines, played movies on the eight screens that were supposed to be showing trailer reels, and cultivated a horrifically bad diet (macaroni and cheese washed down with a movie-sized bag of M&Ms was a staple). Occasionally, a friend would drop in and regale me with stories of a regular, drunken customer who would frequent his summer job at a grocery store, but these visits were few and far between. 

It’s no surprise, then, that what I remember most when I think about my time at the video store are the porn movies. Tucked away in a little-traveled section of the store, not far from barely-touched VHS copies of classics like Dodsworth and The Killing, sat a choice selection of about twenty or thirty adult films. The movies were displayed pretty blatantly, covers facing out to the world, unashamed and ready to be pawed at by lonely and desperate souls who were apparently without Internet access.

At first I didn’t think too much of our adult film library beyond the fact that it was hilarious (sample title: The Butt Detective). Every so often a customer would want to check one of them out, and I would do my level best to discreetly ring up his rentals and send him on his way. This was the only relationship I had, or really wanted to have, with our smut collection. Sadly, it didn’t last.

One of our regular customers was a spry older gentleman who would pedal his bike up to the store every Friday. He was the kind of retiree I often encounter around my hometown: a charming, well-read egghead who had probably worked at the EPA or NRDC for thirty years before decamping to a life of nature walks and PBS pledge drive donations. He always showed up to take advantage of a five-movies-for-five-bucks deal, and I had begun to grow fond of his endearing, jocular presence. One day he brought his movies up to the register and said:

“Say, I notice you’ve got pornos back there!”

“Uh…yes!” I replied, already deeply afraid of where this was headed.

He eagerly went on: “Now, do you have hardcore and softcore?”

“Um, I’m not really sure, I’ve never watched-”

“Now, you do know the difference, right?”

“Uh…”

“In the hardcore films, they show the genitalia!”

My golden-aged friend was just one of many, many people who couldn’t resist bringing up the fact that we were carrying deplorable filth in our store. Most often this manifested itself in a disbelieving shake of the head or admonishing hoist of the eyebrows. Privately, I judged these people. Who were they to say what was or wasn’t “appropriate” to display in a for-profit video store? Sure, children often came in and looked around, but the films were high up on the shelf where their little eyes couldn’t possibly see them. And after all, it wasn’t like we were doing anything illegal.

This brings me to my last day working at the store. I had already put in two weeks’ notice, and all that was really left for me to do was train the woman who would become the new store manager. I was about halfway through my last-ever shift when a police officer walked in and started strolling around. I took no notice of him at first, but it wasn’t long before he was at the register, fixing me with the indiscriminately suspicious glare they teach you at cop school.

“So,” he said, “what’s the deal with the porn movies?”

I was fearless: “Well, we’ve, uh, got a bunch of them for rental, and, uh…”

“Yeah, I can see that. So, are you aware that the fact that by displaying those films, you’re in violation of a state obscenity law?”

“Oh…”

“So you’re going to have to move all of those movies to where people can’t see them.”

I was certainly willing to do so, and to admit to myself that the tut-tutters had been right all along, and then some: Displaying our porn was not just morally dubious, but, in fact, against the law. Still, since it was no small matter that an officer of the law had become involved with the business of the store, I felt as though a call to our corporate office was in order.

“Hello?”

“Hi, yes, I work at the Tall Oaks branch, and there’s a police officer here who’s just informed me that our adult films are in violation of an obscenity law, and that we need to pull them from the shelves.”

“…”

“So, I think I’m going to start doing that now…”

“No! Don’t take them down!”

“What?”

“Just leave them there! We’ll deal with it ourselves!”

“No you don’t get it, the police are here, and…”

“Look, I understand that, just leave them!”

It was a novel variation on a common experience in the lives of many young working men. Events outside of my control had conspired to place the well-fluffed ball squarely in my court, and I had an important choice to make. I could follow the instruction of the disembodied figurehead from whom I would very shortly cease to be receiving paychecks, or obey the orders of the very present police officer who was clearly getting pretty impatient.

So it was that I spent a good portion of my last day at work moving our porno supply to a back room with the supervision of law enforcement. I went back to school at the end of the month, and the store went out of business later that year. The storefront remains vacant, and it’s a safe bet that for connoisseurs of a specific type of film, nothing will ever replace it.

 

Robert Hershorn lives in Queens. He sometimes works in radio, sometimes writes here, and sometimes tweets here. Photo: theogeo

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5 Comments / Post A Comment

maebyfunke (#292)

I wonder why they were so emphatic about you not taking them down? That seems so weird.

Two words: Cash flow.

“But, Detective…”

Marissa (#467)

I worked at a little video store in high school and all the memories are flooding back now. The porn section creeped me out, mostly because I was an awkward 16 year old girl who didn’t know how to act when ringing up one of those tapes.

We did have a fun game with the porn titles: taking the dirty ones, making them sound clean, and having a co-worker guess what the actual dirty title was.

I remember a good one: Large Mammary Tennis-playing Instrument. Go!

nogreeneggs (#154)

I worked at a video store in high school too! Our store was in a former bank, so obviously the porn was in the vault.

Since I was also an awkward 16 year old girl, the other employees liked to make me put the porn away in the vault until one day one of them thought it would be HILARIOUS to shut the vault door while I was in there. Oh high school.

That’s not even my worst porn-related memory from there. The worst was when my friends’ dads would rent porn from me but try and pretend they weren’t by getting 1 normal movie . *sigh* small towns :(

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