I’m walking through Bondi Junction, out of the miserable bus interchange, past the entrances to the gleaming mall and into the disorder of the street on a Saturday morning. Two security guards, wearing the pained expressions of the heavily hungover, sit on a bench passing a giant bottle of orange juice between them. Couples wearing compression tights have the wholesome look of credit card ad models. A backpacker holding a budget packet of supermarket apples pauses at the corner, deciding which way to turn as people move in all directions around him.
Bondi Junction is a place I visit rarely: every area of Sydney has its own centre, and I’ve never lived in the east. But there is one place in Bondi that has been spoken about often enough to become a mythical presence in my imagination. Bondi has an extraordinary video store. People would talk about it, in those days before films went online. It was the video store that had everything, every obscure film you might ever want to see. Its name was Doctor What.
The store is crowded with shelves, the first room full of DVDs, the back room with VHS tapes. The worn blue carpet, scuffed away in places, marks the path through the genres: Action Comedy, True Story Drama, Cult. The space that’s not taken up by movies has a sign or a list attached to it, lists of films by director, films new to weekly rental, and explanatory signs about the Doctor What system of classification.
The store is busy with people browsing the shelves intently. Doctor What is closing at the end of the month and their long term customers and the city’s film buffs have come to see what treasures they can find. Unlike most other video stores Doctor What never jettisoned their VHS collection, and the back room is full of the kinds of films that have been lost to cultural memory. They are the kind of straight to video films that populated the shelves of 80s video stores, arrangements of familiar genres with a particular twist: a horror film about killer photographer called Darkroom (subtitle: “where passions develop”); a comedy about gorillagrams Send a Gorilla packaged in a heart shaped case, a horror comedy about an vampire grandfather called, naturally, Grampire.
It’s an adventure to look through Doctor What, even as the collection dwindles in the store’s final days. The video store experience is one of browsing and awaiting the unexpected, hovering around the shelves, eyes skimming over the cases. It’s also one of being inside a collection, an accumulation of countless stories. As I break the rules by stepping into the Kids Corner – there’s a sign: “No Adults unless accompanied by a child under 18 years” – I can hear the conversation from the counter as another long term customer says how it’s the end of an era.
Doctor What was one of the first video rental stores in Sydney when it opened in 1981. It’s a family run business with many loyal customers, many of whom have been coming in to say goodbye over the past few weeks and wish the owners luck as they take their business online. These conversations arise at the counter at the front of the store where the staff are stationed among computer monitors and containers of DVDs. Around them the walls are covered in movie posters and bear the marks of decades of staples and tape and pins.
Video stores are places of the recent past, a risky territory to mythologise. Such places have a value that has yet to be determined and to dwell upon their disappearance can be seen as nostalgic or conservative, especially when digital technology is involved. But no matter what, for a few decades video stores were an important part of people’s everyday lives. Every suburb had one. Generations of teenagers had their first jobs behind their counters. They were places where hours could be spent browsing, considering story after story.
Today people are browsing the shelves of Doctor What for the last time. The collection is being dispersed among the city’s movie lovers. A man goes through the VHS tapes methodically, amassing his choices in a corner. He has a hundred of them or more in an ever growing pile. Other people content themselves with a few favourite films or irresistable oddities. A David Bowie VHS tape, its plastic cover disintegrating from years of sunlight in the back room. Godzilla vs. Sea Monster. Brother from Space, a UFO encounter film “based on actual events”
Doctor What is not Sydney’s last video store and others such as Network Video in Stanmore have attained a similar reputation for their comprehensiveness. Doctor What is, however, Sydney’s most legendary video store, idiosyncratic in the way of all iconic shops with its huge collection of VHS tapes with faded covers, its cluttered atmosphere, and its own alphabet.
Blu-tacked to the internal door at the entrance to the store is a picture of Dr What himself, an Albert Einstein like cartoon man in a white coat. He appears on signs throughout the store, in different guises depending on what genre he’s representing: riding a surfboard, in the hairy hand of King Kong or with the cape and fangs of a vampire. The Doctor What on the door has been specially chosen, perhaps, for the shop’s final days. He wears a bow tie and has a flower on his lapel. In his hands are a hat and a walking stick. A tear runs down his cheek.