Back in the mid-1980s heyday of video cassettes, the tri-village area had more than a dozen video stores. To cash in on the sizzling market, business owners were renting tapes out of basements and second floors.

But 25 years later, the bricks-and-mortar video store is quickly becoming a relic. The last Blockbuster video store in Oak Park will be gone by the end of the month; a branch in Forest Park remains open. River Forest doesn’t have any.

Blockbuster is looking to close as many as 960 stores in the U.S. by the end of next year, as it faces competition from Netflix, an online rental service, and Redbox, a chain that puts movie rental kiosks at neighborhood spots near supermarkets and convenience stores. Dallas-based Blockbuster lost $116.8 million in the third quarter of 2009 and saw same-store sales drop by 18.3 percent. It shut 216 stores during that three-month span.

Khaliah Ferguson, 30, frequents Blockbuster in Forest Park and was happy to hear it was spared from the company’s recent round of closures. She grew up going to the chain and her family often makes a night of traveling to the store and picking out a video. She’s saddened by the notion of movie night devolving into just going and standing in front of a box.

“When I go to Blockbuster, I’ll ask one of the clerks if they saw a movie, and they’ll give me recommendations,” Ferguson says. “I can’t do that with Redbox; it’s like, with that itty-bitty paragraph that pops up, I need to make a choice.”

When VHS ruled

Video Home System tapes came available in the late 1970s. From a perusal of old telephone books at the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society, it appears that the first video stores popped up in our villages around 1981. By 1985, there were about a dozen video stores in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, according to a March 20, 1985, Oak Leaves article.

Today, there are only four in the three villages: a Blockbuster on Harlem in Forest Park, two independents on Madison in Oak Park, and another on Roosevelt Road.

In the VCR craze in the ’80s, gas stations and grocers alike were renting tapes. By the end of 1984, about 17 million VCRs were being used, according to the Oak Leaves article.

Circle Video in Forest Park was popular since it opened in 1981. It started with just 80 movies and one paid employee. It bloomed to a collection approaching 50,000 titles by the time it closed in March 2006.

Owner Patrick Cerceo considered starting an online version of the store, but canned the idea because of the mushrooming kiosks.

“The advent of these Redboxes really was a death knell,” Cerceo says, referring to the $1 fee. “They took away what little market the video stores had.”

David Zverow, 63, was a regular at Circle Video. He loved the old-fashioned store for its staff, selection and rates.

“It was very nice to go to a store where people had some sense of your taste and sometimes they shared our taste,” says Zverow, who’s into independent and foreign films. After Circle closed, he turned to Netflix and to Oak Park Public Library.

He’s not the only one to tap the library’s video collection. Connie Strait, circulation services manager at Oak Park Public Library, says they’ve seen a 34 percent increase in circulation of videos over the past year. Back in 1985, the library had a collection of about 100 VHS tapes. Today, the library has about 18,000 titles on DVD and 3,000 on VHS.

The human factor

Krissy Peterson, 25, of Oak Park used to work at a mom-and-pop video store in Lemont when she was in high school. She liked hearing discussions about movies and seeing how certain people would respond to different recommendations. Today, she goes to the Oak Park library to get her movies. The library has a vast selection, but not the personable touch of the small video stores, she says.

Cerceo, the 66-year-old Elmwood Park resident who used to own Circle Video, occasionally gets his movie fix from Redbox. It’s ironic, Cerceo says, that Blockbuster, which helped put small stores out of business, now is being pushed out by other big operations. In losing indie stores, people also are losing, according to Cerceo, the coffeehouse vibe.

“There was a lot of repartee that took place between customers and my employees,” he says. “What you’ve got now is a computer screen, and if you don’t understand it, that’s your problem.”