Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
Be kind, rewind
My father was not what you would call a captain of industry, but he had an entrepreneurial spirit that not only made him a true American but a good father as well. His various ventures into industry may not have resulted in fortune, fame, or thousands of jobs for the citizens of our town, but they did manage to keep me and my younger sister employed in those fumbling years between the ages of 18 and 23.
Some people develop the blueprint of their future seamlessly while others blow it to kingdom come, dropping out of college and moving into shabby apartments with faulty furnaces, leaky faucets, broken windows, and roaches the size of Norwich Terriers. It is in these dubious circumstances that one figures out his life—or not—patching together whatever rickety contraption gets him from one week to the next, from one hangover to the next.
“Is there enough change in the ashtray and floorboard of the car to fund a six-pack of the package store’s cheapest beer?”
That’s a question more focused, more urgent, and yet more manageable than, “What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?”
This way of life can go on for a while. It is not ideal, but it must be subsidized somehow, someway. Thus, a little nation of lost souls turns its lonely eyes to industry to get by. Some work at Hardees. Some mow lawns. Some clean houses. Some sell drugs.
I didn’t want to do any of that, which is why I remain grateful to this day that my father had taken a fancy to industry, even though his “real job” was as a long haul truck driver. When I was in high school, he opened a six-lane bowling alley where I worked on the weekends and in the summers. I whiled away the idle hours of late morning and early afternoon learning how to pick up a spare on the 6-7-10 split and playing endless games of Space Invaders and Pac Man in the game room.
Just as I was graduating from high school, Dad had decided to turn the bowling alley into a honkytonk that he enigmatically called “Charades,” an ambitious but short-lived enterprise.
During my freshman year of college, he bought a pizza restaurant, which stayed in the family for more than a decade, overlapping with several other business interests. While the restaurant was a source of income—and food—for various family members in the years we owned it, I was able to avoid working in it because, by the time I dropped out of college, the home video craze was just about to begin and my dad had hatched another idea—a video rental business.
In the beginning, the only people who could afford to indulge in home video were the affluent. The typical VCR sold for five hundred bucks or so, and new releases usually sold for about eighty or ninety dollars apiece. My father saw right away that there was money to be made by making home video accessible to the middle class. He thought that if we could get a deal buying both movies and machines in bulk, we could turn around and rent machines and movies to people for ten bucks per night and twenty-five per weekend for a machine and four or five movies. He also found places in Greensboro and Elkin where we could buy used VCRs and used movies, which eased the burden of the initial investment and increased our profit margin. And he made friends with a guy who had trained to fix VCRs.
Best of all, his new video store provided excellent jobs for me and my sister at a time when we could have easily been working in jobs that required us to wear paper hats or scrub toilets.
As the oldest, I quickly appointed myself as the manager. That was fine with my sister, as long as she made the same amount of money and did not have to wear a paper hat or scrub a toilet. It was a pretty great gig, especially for me, since I loved movies and got first dibs on all the new releases. Plus, I got to play the role of Roger Ebert, giving thumbs up or thumbs down along with my reliably stimulating reviews on any movie in the store, whether our customers asked for it or not.
“I see that you’re looking at ‘Stripes,’” I might observe to someone reading the back of the movie box. “I think you’ll find that Bill Murray gives the performance of a lifetime, a comic tour de force. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this movie will change your life. It’ll do your laundry and walk your dog.”
In our downtime, I was able to watch movies in the store or read paperbacks. Eventually, I read enough of them to realize that I wanted to go back to college and major in English. My dad thought I should be an orthodontist or an air traffic controller, or maybe go into business for myself, but he also understood that I was not cut out to be a captain of industry.
He may not have been either, but I will always be inspired by his sense of adventure, his willingness to try anything to make things a little better for his family and the people in our town. After all, he gave them bowling, dancing, pizza, and movies. What else does one need?