Farewell video stores, your strange era is over

A view of the old Forbes school, which still stands along Highway 7 in St. Louis County, Minnesota. (Google Streetview)

Forbes, Minnesota, lies on the four corners of Highways 7 and 16 just off the central line for the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railroad. The railroad was there before the roads, one of the early routes hauling iron ore from the Mesabi Range to the docks in West Duluth. Those tracks were the reason for the road and the reason for the Forbes School where where I attended first and second grade before it closed in 1988.

But it was the Forbes Store across the road where my family rented a VCR and tapes for the first time. And these tapes became a new sort of railroad, a manner of conveying ideas, culture and art quickly across the land.

Like any new technology, video cassette recorders were expensive and highly coveted when they came out. You could tape shows, see. You could watch movies any time you wanted, right in your own living room.

I remember the excitement the first time we were able to rent a VCR from the Forbes Store. I think it was $10 to rent the machine, plus a couple bucks for the videos. Dad read the manual, attaching coaxial cables to our color television with surgical care, the way a nurse might attach grandma to a heart monitor.

They had a similar rental arrangement down at the Zim Store, but the videos there were terrible. “Mr. Magoo” if you were lucky; mostly B-westerns and strange old films that had fallen into the public domain. Looking back, the amazing thing wasn’t that we paid to rent a VCR, but that I was alive when both Zim and Forbes had stores. They were sad, dusty and dying, but these stores took a chance on VCRs near the end.

One time, later on, my dad’s tech school buddy came by for a visit. He and his family were going on a vacation and passing through. Both he and my dad started out as diesel mechanics, but their lives diverged after that. Dad was laid off during the Iron Range economic collapse of the early 1980s while his friend found some prosperity in the suburbs of Milwaukee. So this guy had a VCR back when that really meant something.

Unbeknown to my sisters and I, he and my dad had arranged for us to borrow the VCR and an encyclopedic collection of videos for a whole weekend. I remember this was how I saw “The Never Ending Story,” the movie where a horse dies of sadness.

Dad would watch action movies at night and tell us to stay out of the room. I can still feel the grooves of the wood grain paneling on my thumbs from when I peeked around the corner to watch. I don’t recall the movie. There was a helicopter and nonstop gunshots. It was cool.

The next Christmas Eve we were opening presents at my grandma and grandpa’s house. I opened mine and got a VHS tape, some kind of old cartoon collection. I ran over to my mom and yelled, “MOM! IT’S A TAPE! NOW WHEN WE RENT THE VCR FROM THE STORE I CAN WATCH THIS.”

It was then that my parents opened their present and we all realized that grandma got us a VCR.

Life never was the same after this day, though there were many reasons for that.

Earlier this month, Video Vision announced it would close its video rental store in West Duluth, representing the last year-round dedicated video store to close in the Zenith City. Video stores across the Iron Range are nearly gone, leaving behind only Red Box kiosks and a handful of gas stations still renting DVDs. VHS tapes, of course, had already vanished from the shelves years ago.

We lament changing technology sometimes, but it’s not the old technology we miss. It’s the stories and the language of our time.

“Be kind. Rewind.” “I’ll tape it.” Or, for the truly brave, “the back room.”

All gone now.

Just like the Forbes store. The Forbes School. Or the DM&IR letters on the sides of the trains that still track south through Forbes and Zim, whistling past the place I used to live and the people I used to know.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 4, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune and was partially based on a 2014 post at MinnesotaBrown.com.


  1. Gary Thaden says

    You can still “rent” DVDs from you local library.

  2. DVDs can be taken out with a library card in Grand Rapids…no fee. I assume that is true of the other libraries, also.

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