March 21, 2022

Do people really buy VHS tapes from Goodwill? You might be surprised.

Do people really buy VHS tapes from Goodwill? You might be surprised.

Have you ever visited a Goodwill and wondered why we still sell VHS tapes? Sure, they’re only 39¢, but it seems like most people are getting rid of their DVD players these days, much less their VCRs. VHS tapes are practically a dead medium, with A History of Violence holding the honor of being the last major Hollywood VHS release in 2006. The tapes also tend to be a highly unstable way to preserve media: Replaying a VHS wears it down, but even sitting on a shelf, magnetic tape degrades in image quality and becomes brittle. And exposure to magnets can destroy the entire recording.

So besides the advantage of very low prices, why would someone buy a VHS? Well it might surprise you to learn that there is a growing community of VHS collectors. It is tempting to compare this niche community to the vinyl music collecting community, but there are a few key differences. First, interest in vinyl has sparked a revival in vinyl production of new music, while VHS is still firmly in the past. Second, you might expect movie collectors to be searching for prestigious films, just like music collectors might hunt for the Beatles’ white album or Pink

Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but VHS collectors are interested in something very different. Popular and award winning movies are easily accessible in superior quality in digital formats, and for VHS collectors, these kinds of movies are all too easy to find. In fact, there’s a running joke by VHS artist collective Everything is Terrible! that the academy award winning, but notably dull film Jerry Maguire can be found on VHS tape seemingly wherever used VHS tapes are sold. This inspired them to ask their fans to send in every VHS copy of the movie they can find. They have collected over 15,000, many of which undoubtedly came from Goodwill stores. Personally, I’ve spotted at least two copies at the Benson Park Plaza location in Omaha.

Rather than collect films which are well known classics, VHS collectors generally gravitate toward films which are “improved” by watching on VHS. Late night horror movies, straight to video camp, and local or low budget videos which might never exist in a digital video format. Because this type of media was produced for VHS, watching it on VHS is “the way it was meant to be seen,” even if the low quality means that the enjoyment comes with a heavy dose of irony. For a lot of people, though, the experience of watching these kinds of movies takes them back to the era of Blockbuster video, and the unique analogue distortions of the deteriorating VHS adds to the experience. Maybe it makes bad practical effects a bit more real, hiding what high resolution digital video can only reveal. Or maybe it just makes those old horror movies a bit creepier. It gives the movies mortality, an expiration date, and makes them artifacts, rusting away into dust. VHS collecting isn’t about preservation (with the exception of digitizing lost media), it’s about enjoying the entropy of a dead medium.

Perusing online VHS collector forums, some movies collectors show off as Goodwill finds include Gremlins, Teen Wolf, Purple People Eater, Double Dragon, The Legend of Zelda 2: Sing For the Unicorn, The Blob, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, C.H.U.D., Day of the Triffids, Dino Riders, Repo Man, and of course who could forget the classic film Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. Obscure straight to video oddities are popular too, like retro workout courses and training videos.

Just a portion of a local Omaha VHS collector’s collection.

You might also find VHS collectors at Goodwill Outlet stores, where items which did not sell or could not be sold at our other stores are sold by the pound. For instance, one collector said he scored a copy of 1981’s Hell Night at the Omaha Goodwill Outlet. He isn’t the only collector in Omaha, either. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, offbeat Blackstone bar Nite Owl offered a monthly VHS night curated by a VHS collector, who screened cult classics on tape but kept the exact title a surprise.

There’s another kind of tape many VHS collectors hunt for: Home recordings. These tapes, usually found in their generic cases, sometimes hand labeled, can hide all kinds of treasures. Aside from the rare home movie, most turn out to be recordings of television: Soap operas, baseball games, movies intercut with commercials. But even this type of banal media can be an interesting look into the past; a few hours of television from the 80s or 90s preserved in the amber of magnetic tape. Local television is particularly enticing for some collectors, as it may be the only way to watch that particular chunk of scrappy local ads and low budget programming, giving a peak into regional American life of another era. Artist collectives like Found Footage Festival and the aforementioned Everything is Terrible! digitize this type of media, for both preservation and comedic purposes. Especially of interest is strange religious media, corny children’s programing, music videos by local bands, and local access shows.

So if you’re looking for a hobby where you can easily add movies to your collection for less than a dollar a piece, consider VHS collecting. Goodwill is a great place to start! More valuable tapes get listed on, such as Enter the Dragon, Star Wars, Dragon Ball Z, and classic Disney clamshells. But the obscure curios that appeal only to collectors can be found in any Goodwill store. Be warned though, while collecting VHS tapes might be cost effective, it’s not space effective, as collectors find their shelves quickly filling up with those thick black (and occasionally Nickelodeon orange) plastic tapes.