By John Campopiano and Matt Spry
Stretching over 20 acres with more than 400 vendor spaces, the Hollis Flea Market (established in 1964) in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, purports to be the largest and oldest flea market of its kind in the Granite State. The outdoor market is so busy, in fact, that according to the official website, “we need two Hollis police officers to direct street crossings.” While the market offers countless options for vintage fashion, antiques, and novelty handmade items — on a recent visit we spotted a toilet seat fashioned into what appeared to be a four-string bass — a rust-colored barn on the outskirts of the market’s main drag is of particular significance to media-heads. [Authors’ note: John scouted out the location first, nearly two years ago, and urged Matt to visit, remarking in an August 2014 text that he’d “never seen anything like it.”] More than 400 miles and a hundred purchases later, this characterization still holds up.
The “Tape Barn,” as we’ve affectionately come to call it, really consists of two distinct entities, neither of which references the VHS format at all: Murphy’s House of Books and Ruth’s Book Barn. The main proprietor of both of them, Mark Murphy, has been a vendor at the Hollis Flea Market since 1998. Just three years later, he began a business relationship with another vendor, an elderly woman named Ruth, and integrated his book inventory with her movie inventory to help her with the weekly rigors of maintaining her vendor space. By 2004, this full collection of books, DVDs, and VHS tapes was moved into the barn as it exists today. More than 15,000 VHS titles adorn its shelves — most were purchased from private collectors over the years as video stores went belly up — with an additional 25,000 titles (Mark’s estimate) residing at Ruth’s home as overstock.
On any given Sunday from May through October, Mark and one or more of the Barn’s other workers can be found moving stack after stack of crates full of tapes to more than a dozen outdoor tables for easier access. The barn itself is appropriately simple, with only daylight to brighten your view of the shelves, and more than a few cobwebs to add a uniquely woodsy touch. There are three narrow, floor-to-ceiling aisles to navigate that extend about 20 feet back from the entrance. Unlike your favorite video rental store, which likely arranged titles by genre and displayed the front box covers, the Barn’s tapes are ordered alphabetically and show the box’s spine text, the way libraries shelve books. (A stiff neck is a common symptom of scanning the shelves over extended periods of tape-digging — the bottom shelves are the absolute worst in this regard.)
And, as most repeat visitors will likely discover, it’s not just them who feel the aches and pains from tape-digging at the Barn. Occasionally, as a result of being exposed to New Hampshire’s seasonal elements (wind, rain, snow) tapes will emerge each spring a little worse for the wear. Ultimately, it comes with the territory when you’re dealing with a grassroots project such as the Barn. With such a massive inventory and the lack of a staff, it’s not surprising that addressing preservation issues and performing general upkeep of every tape is essentially an unachievable goal. For the avid tape-digger, however, the questionable condition of some of the tapes is less a deterrent as it is an added element of intrigue and perhaps even excitement. The issue of ongoing preservation of their inventory is something that may continue to plague the keepers of the Barn while simultaneously grabbing the attention of like-minded collectors and admirers of the medium.
The patrons with whom we’ve shared this unique space seem to be film fans like us — people in their late 20s through their early 40s who have defined tastes in genre films, perhaps horror or direct-to-video action — with some material nostalgia for the VHS format itself. More important, most of them probably hold the notion of serendipitous discovery in high regard; stumbling upon an obscure or even a personally sentimental title in the “wilds” of a flea market or vintage store is somehow more satisfying than getting a used copy from an Amazon seller, or winning an eBay auction. In discussing her fondness for flea markets in a prior exchange with John, makeup and special effects artist, Stacy Still, articulated this idea, saying that “as a massive tape collector, I’m always on the hunt for new tapes, ones that I remember fondly from my childhood at the video store.” There are few people for whom the act of poking around a cramped and dusty barn to simulate the past experience of video store browsing still holds appeal, but there are even fewer places that provide this opportunity in the era of media streaming.
The Barn is just one of several remaining VHS treasure troves of which we’re aware, but unlike Scarecrow in Seattle, WA, or Movie Madness in Portland, OR, it doesn’t have a well-lit brick-and-mortar location to sell its wares. Its staff isn’t comprised of film buffs with a fondness for 1980s slashers or 1970s kung fu epics. Instead of engaging customers online through a dedicated Twitter feed or even a website, Mark relies on a local Craigslist post that he periodically refreshes throughout the market’s open season. Many VHS enthusiasts will visit the Barn and see a collector’s paradise; its selection, trade-in policy, and prices ($3 a tape or four for $10) really can’t be beat. Despite the breadth and depth of his inventory, it’s not evident that Mark shares the same enthusiasm for the format or the nostalgia that his patrons often do. (He owns “a few” VCRs and acknowledges that interest in VHS persists because “not everything is on DVD,” but also says that his books might actually outsell the tapes.)
With a presence at the Hollis Flea Market spanning nearly 20 years, and more than a decade of selling VHS specifically, it’s unlikely the Barn will be going anywhere anytime soon. (Ever try to sell out an inventory of 40,000 tapes? Not an easy venture.) It’s difficult to gauge Mark’s plans for expansion or advancement — he alluded to creating a searchable image database for his titles — but the beauty of the Barn is its simplicity. There’s magic in its dusty floors, in the awkward positions in which you need to contort your body to see certain rows, and in the pockets of crisp air near the back wall on a warm July morning. For purely selfish reasons, we don’t want any changes at all, because we’ve never seen anything like it.