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by Joanne McNeil

Mutual Assists: Joanne McNeil on How a Massachusetts Video Store is Aiding Local Journalism

A white man with a large beard and long hair sits in a video store.Bill Shaner at Rewind Videos and More (photo by Christine Peterson)

Imagine you are in the basement of a home somewhere in the suburbs amid towers of cardboard boxes and items bought in bulk. There are bikes with training wheels and cobwebs between the spokes. Behind a broken recliner is a fake Christmas tree with garland and fairy lights still on it. On wire shelving racks are boxes filled with VHS tapes and DVDs. You see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Meet the Fockers, Waiting to Exhale, The Godfather trilogy box set and the 25-disc edition of Six Feet Under. A few of the videos are still wrapped in cellophane, and some have clearance stickers on them from Lechmere or Circuit City or other defunct electronics chains.

There are a lot of houses with basements like this in Worcester, Mass., as the team behind Rewind Videos and More discovered. After putting out a call for donations on social media last summer, the store, currently staffed by volunteers, opened in October. Most of its stock comes from those community donations. Someone even dropped off a popcorn maker.

“Everyone is sitting on a huge pile of physical media that they’re not really using any more,” co-founder Bill Shaner told me when I visited Rewind in March. Rewind received thousands of donations, so many that staffers had to cull titles, prioritizing movies that aren’t on streaming services. (With so many Harry Potter DVDs and tapes, at one point Rewind put boxes full of excess media out front and begged visitors to take them away.) 

The retro vibe extends to the store’s management. When customers check out a video, the clerk—Shaner or a volunteer—will scan the bar code and register the exchange in an inventory management program from the ’90s called VideoMate that runs on an ancient laptop.

But Rewind isn’t just a video store—it is also a newsroom and a community media center. As its Patreon page, where anyone can sign up for a $10/month membership, explains, Rewind is “supporting real local journalism one movie at a time.” When Shaner, who runs the local newsletter “Worcester Sucks and I Love It,” began the project with Cara Berg Powers, a lecturer at Clark University in the education department, the two also founded the nonprofit Worcester Community Media Foundation to help fund local news in the city.

A video store might seem like an unlikely vehicle to support journalism; then again, the video stores that are thriving around the country right now serve as much as community hubs and event spaces as places to rent movies. There’s Videodrome in Atlanta, where members can meet up at the repertory screenings it hosts at a local cinema. We Luv Video in Austin, Texas, and Vidiots in Los Angeles are also nonprofits. While nostalgia might first lead people to these places, they offer shared experiences in-person at a time when many of us tend to choose and consume films siloed on streaming sites. 

This element of scavenging the past and importing it to the reality of the present could also describe the kind of journalism that the Worcester Community Media Foundation seeks to expand. In addition to youth journalism programming and community initiatives, the foundation supports Shaner’s “Worcester Sucks,” which is an alt-weekly in every sense of the tradition except the traditional format. It’s on Substack, not a broadsheet, but Shaner writes like he files these missives for David Carr at Washington, D.C.’s City Paper in its prime: muckraking, thorough, sarcastic and smart. I came across the newsletter randomly on the internet a couple years ago, and despite living elsewhere, I got hooked on its Substack emails. Reading it reminds me of a time, many years ago, when I could arrive in a new city, pick up an alt-weekly from one of the bins on countless street corners and flip through the pages, feeling oriented and dialed-in to the local culture. 

Shaner, 32, began his writing career in the “last gasp” of alt-weeklies. The Boston Phoenix closed when he was in college at Northeastern. He wrote for the school newspaper and interned at Boston’s other alt-weekly, The Weekly Dig, when it still had a print edition. There, he versed himself in the tradition of alt-weekly commentary and reporting, reading archival stories from publications like The Stranger and The Village Voice. In 2017, he started writing for the alt-weekly Worcester Magazine and left in 2020 as the publication was being dismantled by new management. Two days after he resigned, he launched “Worcester Sucks,” carrying his audience with him to Substack with a blistering opening note. “Local journalism institutions across the country are being systematically destroyed by hedge funds, which see a profit to be made in managing and accelerating decline,” he wrote in the first newsletter. “Every year, there are fewer and fewer reporters covering Worcester. The people left are scrambling to fill pages or meet social media quotas. They’re doing the work of two or three people, at least, and they have no time to substantively dig into issues. What we’re left with is, at best, middling surface coverage of issues that deserve serious interrogation.” 

“Worcester Sucks” has since grown to include freelance contributors, who Shaner pays out of pocket while he draws a modest salary from Substack subscriptions. His goal now is to grow its coverage within the nonprofit structure. At Rewind, he hosts open newsroom meetings. He also plans to hold government committee watch parties at the space. This will be a continuation—in person—of his series on Twitch called “Worcestery Council Theatre 3000,” where Shaner and “Worcester Sucks” contributors stream themselves talking over a live feed of city council meetings. There’s also a book club that meets at Rewind. One of the upcoming titles the community will read is Roy Rosenzweig’s 1985 book, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920. A history, it details the saloons, state fairs and other gatherings popular among working-class Worcester communities in the 19th century.

These events will be held in an adjoining coffee shop that was still scheduled to open when I visited this spring. The cafe is also kitted out with donations. Shaner’s parents used to run a coffee shop, and his father dropped off old machines that had been in storage in their garage. On the other side of the place is an arcade called Materia with archival consoles. Andy Jimison, the owner of Materia, who helped Powers and Shaner secure the space, joined the Worcester Community Media Foundation as a board member. This block of storefronts, in an otherwise quiet neighborhood down the street from Worcester State University, reminds me a lot of what it felt like to explore Cambridge or Allston or Jamaica Plain before the housing crisis in Greater Boston.

It’s different now. Rent, even in Worcester, isn’t cheap, and much of the local culture happening today unfolds in the face of deleterious economic forces. Still, I was somewhat surprised when Shaner told me that a print edition of “Worcester Sucks” isn’t necessarily one of his eventual goals. The elements that make alt-weeklies great, he told me, are related to the style of writing, the “sense of belonging and city pride” and “more aggressive reporting” than you would see in a mainstream publication. “I don’t think any of that is tethered to a weekly print product,” he said, although he is considering creating zines for event listings.

When the old ways of doing things stop working, you have the choice to stop or try new things. Sometimes, it’s creating journalism on Substack and Twitch streams; sometimes, it’s a video store, where a copy of The Silence of the Lambs sits on the front rack, waiting to be rented.

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