I was a teenage VHS porn impresario

I sold VHSes for lonely old men to jerk off to. Here's what I learned.

Mar 1, 2020, 12:42 am*

IRL

This article contains sexually explicit material.

Porn has had a symbiotic relationship with the Internet since day one. It's the engine driving new technologies, the insidious demon turning the once-productive human race into insatiable smut addicts. But it's easy to forget that not long ago, when using the Internet meant paying by the hour for the privilege of watching two girls going at it, tracking down porn required human interaction. The horny and desperate were forced to buy or rent hard media—get it?—from human employees at a brick-and-mortar store. 

And for a brief time in the late 1990s, if you wanted porn in my home town, you had to go through me.

At the height of Blockbuster's dark reign, every town had two video rental stores: the Blockbuster you went to for actual movies, and the last pre-Blockbuster shop still standing, which survived by offering the one thing Blockbuster didn't: a back room full of videos that were less than family-friendly. (Blockbuster had a hard-and-fast policy not to offer smutty movies.)  

I hadn't realized this when, at the age of 18, I walked into my local small video store and asked if they were hiring. I had assumed this small, crappy store with the worst selection you could imagine—no Star Wars, no Godfather, but Slumber Party Massacre III and a complete set of Red Shoe Diaries—attracted customers only because it was closer to some people’s houses than Blockbuster was. 

I realized that completely by accident, I had become a teenage porn merchant.

But my youthful naivete was crushed when I got the job and visited the back room, where I discovered, with no warning, that it was nearly twice the size of the front room and accounted for most of the store's business. Standing in front of a shelf stocked ceiling-to-floor with dozens of entries in the Dirty Debutantes series, I realized that completely by accident, I had become a teenage porn merchant.

When I was 18, I wasn’t very into porn. I'd barely even SEEN porn, just the occasional video a friend stole from his dad. I may have had a magazine or two, but all of a sudden, I was the gatekeeper, facilitating passage from the real world to a far-off dimension made of sadness and cum. 

Adding to the discomfort, I've always looked young for my age. Imagine if every time you wanted porn, you had to run it by what looked like a high school kid, who would take your money and hand you that day’s masturbation material. Nobody wants that. But everybody did it, because they had no choice. You got your porn from me or you didn't get it at all. Or I guess you stole it from your dad.

Unlike the categorized and searchable websites of today, most of our selection was in no particular order. The discerning fetishist had to spend time scanning the shelves, tracking down just the right video and hoping to avoid eye contact with his fellow patrons. (Or her fellow patrons, but only on rare occasions; our clientele skewed male and old.) 

We had all the new releases in one place, as well as a small room-within-a-room of European videos, which I guess were deemed extreme enough that even porn customers were too squeamish to glance at them by accident. Also kept out of view were our gay videos, which were only on the bottom row, preventing the fragile straight majority from having their sexual orientation called into question. After a few months, we also had a small “classics” section: Debbie Does DallasBehind The Green DoorDeep Throat, even Caligula. I think the owner thought this made us classy.

We also had a small “classics” section: Debbie Does Dallas, Behind The Green Door, Deep Throat, even Caligula. I think the owner thought this made us classy.

The store had a lot of regulars, many of them sad-looking old men. I always got the impression that their porn rentals were the only things in their lives they looked forward to; they all had the same defeated expression, as if porn was the only friend they had left. My favorite was Mr. Drake (name changed to protect the theoretically still living), who never gave his first name and came in every single day, returning yesterday's video and getting a new one. 

One day, Mr. Drake angrily complained that the video he'd rented was the wrong one: "It's something called Suppertime." Apparently, some industrious porn enthusiast had stolen one of our videos by taking the label off, putting it on an old video he didn't want, and returning that one to us. As Mr. Drake complained to the manager, I noticed that he kept mentioning Suppertime, but never said what it was supposed to be—so I took a look, and discovered that Mr. Drake had transitioned into German "she-male" porn. From that day on, I couldn't help noticing that Mr. Drake's selections were getting weirder and weirder.

But the one-timers were often more interesting than the regulars. One day, when I was alone in the store, a nervous-looking man came in, cased the joint with shifty eyes, and quietly, suspiciously asked me: "Is the boss in"?" I was 100 percent convinced he was about to rob the store. I lied and said the boss was in the back and had asked not to be disturbed. 

The man glanced furtively to his left, then to his right, then behind him, as my mind raced through strategies and doomsday scenarios. Finally, the man spoke, as quietly and nervously as before: "Do you have any gay porn?" I had never in my life been so relieved to find out someone was in the closet. "Right this way!", I said, pointing him toward the bottom rows, thrilled that I'd be helping a man jerk off to other men instead of having a gun pulled on me.  

I was thrilled to be helping a man jerk off to other men, instead of having a gun pulled on me.

I also met that man’s polar opposite one time. We had a small display case of sex toys between the main section and the porn room, as if to signal that if you were looking for porn, you were headed in the right direction. My one big sale was to the loudest, proudest customer I could possibly imagine. 

“Yeah, let me get that butt plug over there, that one there, and hey, could I check out that dildo?," he asked, with all the volume and self-assurance of a guy who’s always too loud and never knows it, holding his newly-rented porn out for all the world to see. He seemed like the classic macho suburban lunkhead, the kind of guy who starts fights in bars but gets away with it because he’s friends with all the cops. But his casual refusal to care who knew how many butt plugs he was buying made his loud-mouthed ignorance seem admirable. Here was a man who knew who he was and had nothing to hide. I didn’t just sell him dildos that day; I sold him continued self-actualization.

I was always surprised I didn't have more run-ins with people I knew. My high school guitar teacher came in once, but to my relief—disappointment? bewilderment?— he wasn't there for porn. He showed up carrying a gumball machine, because installing gumball machines at stores was apparently his side gig. I watched in confused horror as the guy installed his machine, thus bridging the gap between the porn and gumball communities.

My town was not big, so I saw our regulars whenever I walked down the street. From lawyers to cable repair guys, they'd make nervous eye contact with me, greeting me with the awkward, nervous pleasantries of someone in the witness protection program who'd just seen an old crime associate. 

I'd always think: "I know what that guy jerks off to. And he knows I know. And we're both thinking about it, and we both desperately want this moment to end." Any outside glimpse of their baby-faced porn kingpin sent visible shockwaves of barely-contained anxiety through them, as if violating our unspoken agreement that what happened in the store stayed in the store.

I'd always think: "I know what that guy jerks off to. And he knows I know. And we're both thinking about it, and we both desperately want this moment to end." 

I was allowed free rentals while I worked there, but seldom if ever did I take out any porn. I think I did once or twice, almost out of a sense of obligation. But thanks to that job, porn became synonymous for me with sad, lonely, elderly men yelling about Suppertime


I lasted about seven months at the video store, although my greatest legacy—the word "CLASSIC" in my handwriting, written in Sharpie on small white labels—survived for years. I left in mid-1998, as the store was beginning its slow and belated transition to DVD. Napster was a year away, and media had yet to break free from its bulky physical containers.

I still find it strange that porn was able to thrive in an environment devoid of search fields and "Asian" or "blowjob" categories. What did people do, just rent whatever had the most enticing cover and hope for the best? 

We now live in the future, a 21st-century world where Blockbuster has gone the way of the dinosaur. Digital porn is more plentiful than water, and you can watch it from the privacy of your own room. The next generation of Mr. Drakes can venture into kinkier and kinkier porn without having to badly hide their predilections from teenagers who literally hold the keys to the kingdom. (Our system involved each video having a corresponding key. We did not have computers.)

All in all, I think everyone is happier this way. I don’t think anyone liked running their porn by me any more than I liked having it run by me. My interactions with our regulars felt like a necessary evil, like I was in on a secret they would’ve rather not had to tell me about. Sometimes it was literally a secret, like in the case of the nervous gay guy. He had to come out to at least one person to get access to his fap material, while his modern-day counterparts are free to question and explore their sexualities in private. 

The Internet has certainly eroded a lot of the little connections we used to have to make in everyday life. But buying porn from a baby-faced stranger is one connection nobody ever wanted or enjoyed. 

If you're young enough to have missed the boat on porn video rentals, take a moment to think about how good you have it. You don't have to drive to a store when you want porn, you don't have to share your kinks with strangers, and best of all, you don't have to run anything by me. Unless you want to. But you probably don't.

Photo via Gerry Dincher/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 25, 2015, 10:00 am