Remembering Azad Video - a stylised photograph depicting an Azad video store with VHS style distortion

Remembering Helensburgh’s Azad Video

Memory lane

A quarter-century before the advent of Netflix or Amazon Prime, the only way to get movies on demand was from a local VHS rental shop. Amongst others, Helensburgh had Azad Video and it was more than just a video shop.

Azad was sited opposite the station, with red & yellow signage atop generous glass frontage so the passerby could easily gaze upon the corridors of cassette boxes that lay within.

Tempted inside, a guard of honour formed by cardboard standees met you at the entranceway. Comprising of blown-up cover art from the likes of the latest Police Academy sequel or maybe a burly looking, almost life-size Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whatever cardboard cutout met you at the door, the premise was that they might soon entertain you in your own home.

Should there be a copy of their respective movie left in the back of the shop, of course! Each big movie release was like a gold rush on a Friday night and if you weren’t prompt to the shop you’d likely be returning home with something else. But, as exciting as the blockbusters were, it was easy to let the pull of the latest release carry you past the crowded shelves of titles vying for your attention.

Video stores of the late 20th century were a veritable Aladdin’s cave of categorised alleys stacked with plastic clamshell cassette boxes. Azad was no different in that regard, with cases for child-friendly movies down low and the adult-oriented titles up high in their own section. Each box, wrapped with an eye-catching cover, teased the potential for their content to sweep the viewer away for a couple of hours.

Those shelves showcased everything from the cinema blockbusters of a few months before to all-time Hollywood classics. And then there were the straight to video B movies that were cheaper to rent but might just fill an empty evening.

Offers you couldn’t refuse

But why take just one when there were incredibly tempting offers to rent more? Three for two? Four for the weekend? Return your rentals within 24 hours and to get a second batch at half price?

If you didn’t have satellite TV back then, those deals were almost too good to turn down. I remember making return trips to Azad over the course of holiday weekends, renting an armful of action movies then racing home to binge-watch. Sometimes giving the good ones a repeat viewing the following morning before returning to exchange them for another set and repeating the process.

If you visited mid-afternoon it was always worth checking out the bin at the desk filled with cassettes that had been recently returned but hadn’t had their case put back out on display yet. That was a good way of scoring a new release that you’d been beaten to the night before.

It was during the fallow periods between the big ticket releases that the mediocrity of choice was almost overwhelming. Trying to select three or four decent movies you hadn’t watched before could keep you busy for half an hour or more. Oftentimes you’d pick one you’d seen before as a safe bet and wander on home regardless of the offers.

Cassettes for the community

Whilst browsing you’d exercise the unspoken video-store etiquette of stepping back from a section to let others by as everyone shuffled around the shelves. To the observer it would almost have looked choreographed and, thinking back, it’s a shame there wasn’t some way of harnessing all the static energy built up whilst paths were worn into the plastic carpet.

During a search for a video that suited your mood, you’d meet friends, neighbours, people you hadn’t seen in months and folk you’d rather avoid in equal measure. In many ways, Azad was a community hub on par with the local grocery store, newsagent or chip shop.

That meant that if you were in your mid-teens and trying to look at the movies in the over 18 section, good peripheral vision was essential to avoid getting caught in the act by a friend of your mum or a nosey neighbour.

Yet who could forget the adrenaline rush of attempting to rent a certificate 18 movie if you weren’t quite old enough? It was a game of patience to bide your time until the shop was the right level of not too busy, not too quiet, and, critically, absent of anyone you might know. Then you’d stroll to the counter with cases in hand sporting as casual a demeanour as you could muster, feigning interest in a benign title you’d selected alongside the risky one.

Then came the test of maintaining an air of nonchalance in the hope the server wouldn’t pay enough attention to spot the illegality as they fished the cassettes from the back. Some either didn’t notice or particularly care and you’d soon be home, fast-forwarding through the trailers as if you’d just pulled off a heist worthy of any movie.

But the servers who demanded to see some ID could have the game up right away. If you were lucky they’d merely decline the rental when you failed to provide proof of age and you’d sheepishly choose something else.

The worst-case scenario, though, was that they’d insist on calling the person whose name was against the account. A prospect filled with sheer terror if your parents had entrusted you with their membership card.

When it came to memberships, many people joined each of the shops in the area so they could cast their net further when it came to getting a new release or a wider choice. Azad wasn’t alone in supplying the Helensburgh area with video rentals, of course. Dial a Video came before it and Global Video had a shop on Princes Street until long after Azad had closed its doors.

On borrowed time

As the ’90s wore on, stores like Azad kept up with the times by expanding their offering to include video games to rent and popcorn and sweets to buy alongside your rental.

By the turn of the millennium, DVDs would gradually replace the video cassette format that had been fading, quite literally, for years. Sadly, there wasn’t much room left for the likes of Azad by that point. With online retailers offering DVDs to purchase for little more than it cost to rent them, margins were squeezed and independent shops and smaller chains began to close.

Fast forward to the late 2000s and the recession would mercilessly cull those that were left. The bigger dominoes eventually falling with a whimper, as industry giants like Global Video and Blockbuster were erased from the high street altogether.

Where Azad Video once stood in Helensburgh there’s now the surest sign that a town has been through a sharp economic downturn; a betting shop. In fact, there’s another betting shop on the site of a one-time rival on Sinclair street, too.

It’s tragic that places where families once came together to choose an evening’s entertainment are now dens where over 18s come to gamble their wages and chain smoke outside on the pavement.

Pausing to rewind

It seems quaint, in this day and age, where streaming content from the internet is the norm, to think back to a time when we had to go and pick up physical media like cassette tapes if we wanted to watch a movie “on demand.”

Yet, as convenient as things are now, I sometimes daydream of being able to rewind time back to a damp Friday night in the early ’90s. There I could wander in the door of a video shop to browse the shelves once again, bump elbows with others doing the same and enjoy some human interaction, before returning to the nest with my chosen entertainment.

Despite there being several options for hiring a video in Helensburgh in those days, when I think back to that bygone era of a family trip to the video store, for some reason it’s always Azad that springs to mind.

And even though the memories of those days are now distorted and just a little bit blurred, like a video you’ve put on pause, I cling to them like a clutch of favourite movies I’ve just hired from Azad.

Stop & eject.