TLA Video: End of an Era

How much responsibility do we bear for the death of our local bricks-and-mortar businesses?

While putting on my 25 wrinkle creams this morning, I heard a report by WHYY’s arts and culture reporter Peter Crimmins about the closing of Center City’s TLA Video. Though the announcement of the legendary store’s closing was made a couple weeks ago, customers are flocking to the store this week because TLA is selling off its inventory. Crimmins talked about the hundreds of people who are crowding the store to buy movies before the sale ends, and a video on the Newsworks site shows a line of people snaking through the store. Crimmins spoke with local luminaries about what TLA meant to them.

Of former mayoral candidate Sam Katz, Crimmins said:

[Katz] admired TLA’s documentary section, but “I watched a documentary last night on my iPad that I was able to get online from PBS. It’s hard to compete with that.”

DesignPhiladelphia’s Hilary Jay talked with great affection about coming into the store with her dog and the staff’s suggestions catered to her.

She will miss having a brick-and-mortar store in the neighborhood, but will not seek out another. “Maybe there’s another shop somewhere, but we won’t be using it,” laments Jay. “We’ll be using Netflix. Which is sad, in a way.”

Jazz musician Elliot Levin also praised the store’s staff but, says Crimmins:

Like many film buffs, lately Levin has been using Netflix and the public library more than TLA.

Hearing these comments, I was annoyed. If Katz, now a documentary filmmaker, was impressed by the selection, why was he watching a movie on his iPad instead of going to the store? If Hilary Jay was so enamored of the personal attention given to her there, and distressed at the store’s closure, why does she now say she’ll use Netflix rather than go to a bricks-and-mortar location? And if Levin was so grateful for the store’s knowledgeable employees, as he told Crimmins, why has he increasingly been using Netflix and the library instead?

Ah, how easy to judge others—and excuse one’s own behavior. The truth is that like other film buffs and admirers of the store—people who are now waxing poetic about the tragedy of its closure—I haven’t patronized that location in years. Once I moved to West Philly, I stopped going, despite the fact that I was in Center City often enough to do so. There was no other store that offered TLA’s selection and depth, but for the sake of convenience, I went instead to the ridiculously limited Blockbuster Video. That location became a laundromat, so I drove to a different Blockbuster. That location closed too. Even then I didn’t return to TLA. I went with Netflix.

The reality is that people prize convenience more than ever now, having become accustomed to having to do less. I came late to Netflix but once I joined, I also marveled at how easy it was. I still feel guilty when the envelopes arrive, but not guilty enough to leave my house and patronize an actual store. Not guilty enough to realize that being part of a community means supporting local stores and sources of employment.

There are further challenges facing bricks-and-mortar stores, and I hope I don’t entirely succumb to laziness and stop going. I lament the loss of personal connection but what do I do to preserve the businesses that fostered such connection? We used to regret the closure of a mom-and-pop because of a chain’s arrival in a neighborhood. Now we’re putting even the chain stores out of business.

I often hear a turn of phrase like: “The Internet age is putting stores out of business.” That’s not true. The Internet age doesn’t have that kind of agency. Instead, it’s people—like me—who are putting stores out of business. And we’re going to keep right on doing it.