SIGN OF THE TIMES "The '90s are officially over."
My friend, Ralph Goudreau, shuttered his business at the end of 2013. The store, Acme Video, had been renting VHS and DVD movies out of its Brook Street location since 1993. When I texted Ralph to find out if the news was true, he wrote back, “The ’90s are officially over.”
Ralph hired me as one of Acme’s two other employees in 2009, on the advice of a mutual friend. (I don’t believe Ralph ever accepted a formal application from anyone, nor did such a document even exist.) Single night rentals were four bucks apiece (except on Mondays and Tuesdays, when they cost two) and the store was open every day from noon until 10 pm. We sold popcorn and candy at the register. Atomic Fireballs and condoms were free.
Apart from restocking the shelves and ringing up customers, the main responsibility of an Acme employee was to give people recommendations. Folks came to browse; we helped.
Once, a customer came in looking for some Keystone Cops films. I looked back at him, blank, dim. He scoffed. People expected a depth of knowledge from Acme’s employees, and Ralph not only gave that to them, he taught me how to do the same. To wit: if you’re looking for smart sci-fi, check out Brazil, and if you like that, La Jetée. (Which might lead you to Sans Soleil, and then you’re off to the races with Vertigo and Stalker.) Other requests were more specific: I once pointed a customer interested in the history of worker’s rights toward Matewan, and everything Frank Capra.
People came to Acme to get turned on. Stressed out and bitter? Watch The Long Goodbye. Uninspired? Dig Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Tati’s Playtime tended to hypnotize. A crowd formed whenever I put on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Sometimes people didn’t know what they were looking for, and they went willingly with whatever we gave them. Sometimes they came for that. Acme taught people to expect that kind of service. That sort of standard does not get set accidentally or automatically—it is willed and forged over time by men and women, not algorithms and computers.
Pardon the banality, but the job was about people, man. It was how I finally got to know the city where I’d grown up. People came by to talk movies. They came in drunk and high. They were locked out of their cars. Their dogs shat on the floor. They had papers to write. They couldn’t sleep. They showed off boyfriends, then new boyfriends — then later, the old ones again. They came with gifts of food, six-packs. Sometimes those presents came straight through the drop-slot. They tried, and often succeeded, to beg off their late fees. They came to say hi. And why not?
A bust of Elvis sat high above the register; a framed still of Ronald Reagan in The Killers hung on the wall; a clipping of a highly focused Keanu Reeves wearing that helmet in Johnny Mnemonic — someone had scrawled “Good Acting Helmet” on the visor — was taped to the desk.