Memories of a Software Rental Shop

I remember the first video my family ever rented. It was a James Bond film, Never Say Never Again. We rented it (on Beta videocassette) from the video rental counter that popped up in our local five and dime, a place that was called Gibsons, in Grafton, Virginia. That was sometime in 1984. I’ve rented hundreds of videotapes and DVDs over the years from many different shops ranging from tiny mom & pops establishments to Blockbuster. But the rental store I enjoyed most was a family-run place called Family Video & Computer Center at the Hilton Shopping Center in Newport News, Virginia. What made that place special to me was that, in addition to movies, they also rented computer software.

What got me thinking about FVCC (no connection to the “Family Video” rental chain found in the Midwest and Canada today) was a recent episode of the Retronauts podcast I listened to, with video and game rental stores as the topic. The show talks about game console rentals — cartridges and CDs/DVDs. Now, while I did rent the odd PS2 title here and there in the early ’00s, I didn’t do it often. What was unique about FVCC is that they rented games and apps for computers. I’m talking about magnetic media. They had titles for the Commodore 64, Apple II, Amiga, and DOS / Windows PC.

I don’t remember just how I found out about the place but, just after it opened, I remember going in and renting the game Echelon for the Apple II. I recall that there was a “NO PIRACY” sign on the wall, but the guy working the counter let me know I could get a free rental by providing a new parameter to copy one of their games (one that wasn’t part of Copy II+ or whatever parameter copier you might have used). Good times.

The way it worked was — as I recall — you were technically buying the software, with an option to return it for retail price minus $5 within five days, or something along those lines. There were/are laws against renting computer software in the United States and things were setup in a way that got around them.

I did most of my renting while I had an Amiga 2000, and they had loads of Amiga software. I recall getting home and loading up a game (on the original disks, to be sure) and seeing a crack screen appear on on boot up. That was a happy sight. I remember being at my Amiga user group in 1990 or so (the Amigoid Life Form Association — “ALFA”), talking to a guy I knew who published one of the commercial parameter copiers for the Amiga, called NIB. I mentioned that (the heavily protected) Shadow of the Beast disks at FVCC had been overwritten with a cracked version. While I was pleased, this developer friend was upset to hear it, as he had planned to rent the game the following week in order to work out a parameter for it to ad to NIB.

I didn’t have call to visit the store after moving from Amiga to a Mac LC, but soon I got my senses back and bought an Amiga 1200HDfrom Family Video & Computer Center; with their success they moved from their tiny store to a much larger space a few shops down the strip and began selling Amiga hardware on top of the rentals.

Nine floppies in hand, MS Word 6.0The last system for which I patronized FVCC was my 486 in ’94 or so. I recall renting Fractal Design Painter, Strike Commander, and finally Microsoft Word 6.0. The last was a bit of a fumble, as Word was a set of nine floppies that would only run after being installed on a hard disk. Installing it required allowing the system to write to one of the floppies, and these were all hard-notched to be write-protected. I (stupidly) taped over the write protect hole (instead of just making a copy of that disk to use for the install), installed it on my PC, and then returned it, not really aware of the fact that I had rendered the disks useless for anyone else. That was the day I ended up buying Word from FVCC…

Preparing to write this post, I asked around my regular vintage computing IRC channels, wanting to hear if anyone had ever seen a magnetic media / computer software rental store way back when. No one had, it turns out. Family Video & Computer Center was quite a treasure to me and my friends way back when, and it might’ve been a rather rare one at that. I’d love to hear in the comments if anyone reading this has similar stories to share.

Below is an article that ran on November 10, 1988 in the Daily Press newspaper talking about the establishment.

Daily Press writeup about the opening of Family Video & Computer Center (1988 scan)

UPDATE: A reader who lived in my area during that period linked me to an article about another software rental shop opened by the same owner in a neighboring city. The article, published on July 11, 1996 in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, talks about litigation against the shop named Software Hogs. Another AP story talks about the same.

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22 Responses to Memories of a Software Rental Shop

  1. Chris Tucci says:

    I remember that store. The word got out through the user groups and BBS’s as I recall. That place was a godsend – I had decent hardware, but couldn’t afford to buy a ton of software to see if which solution was the best. I wonder if they know how many careers they launched.

  2. Jack Nutting says:

    I know I rented Jaguar cartridges from one or two places in the 90s, and I’ve seen other places that let you rent videogame consoles and cartridges (and maybe on CD), but I’ve never encountered a place that rented out computer software on magnetic media! Seems really unique.

  3. Adrian says:

    There was something like this in Montreal in the early 80s. I went with my father and when we had an Apple II+. The discs were all copies with store made labels and the games and programs were already cracked to boot. I wish I could remember the name or location, but I was just about 8 years old so don’t recall those details. Just that there were thousands of disks and it was busy with people. You’d bring the disc home, copy it and bring it back.

  4. Goz says:

    There was a rental company out in Texas, Wedgewood Rental, that would rent Atari 8-bit software. I had a friend with a Happy drive who would constantly rent software, copy it, and send it back. Some of the copied software required the Happy drive, but he would share the games that didn’t with me.

    You can see one of their ads in this issue of ANALOG:

    • Jobiwan says:

      My dad would also take me to Wedgwood Rental in Fort Worth. We did the same thing back in the day with Atari software – rent, copy, repeat. Those were the days. Although I’m still a little bitter that the copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade graphic adventure I actually purchased there had a corrupted disk and it couldn’t be fixed.

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  6. Blake Patterson says:

    Interestingly, the “Hampton Roads Academy Players” ad at the bottom left of the inset newspaper article is from the school I attended at the time, Hampton Roads Academy, and I was involved with that production, working in the tech crew. Good times. :-)

  7. Ian Farquhar says:

    Yes, renting PC software was also done here in Australia, although mostly it was CD-based stuff. I never saw anyone renting floppies, and I’d have been concerned about the malware risk. Mostly this was from the independent video stores, which disappeared in the 90s to be swallowed by the big chains.

  8. Kato says:

    Ah the good old days of software rental. When I was in high school in the early 90s there was a little rental shop in Olympia, Washington that I used to visit once or twice a month called “The Software Pipeline”. Such great memories renting games on 5 1/4″ & 3.5″ media. I used to copy them (and hand copy the manuals!) and upload them to a couple of local “warez” bbs’s. It took so long in the day of 1200 baud modems. lol So much fun.

    One day, around 1994 or so, it just disappeared.

  9. Dan says:

    I can remember renting software from local shops in the SF Bay Area with my dad back in the 80’s, both for our Apple ][+ and later on the Amiga. The shops we rented from always had the fully-protected original disks. We probably had around 15 or so different copy programs, which collectively allowed for a multitude of different parameters to try and circumvent various protection schemes, ranging from bit and nibble copy modes, boot tracers, half-tracks, quarter-tracks, extended tracks, sector reordering, parameters and “brain files”, etc. I can remember a couple of times where we ended up spending so much time trying to copy the disks there was almost no time left to actually play the game. But the delight of finally getting a copy that worked was absolutely sublime. Sometimes the thrill of “beating” the disk was more gratifying than the thrill of beating the game. Good times, good times…

    Sheesh, did software rental houses have *any* customers who didn’t at least try to copy everything they rented??

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  12. PizzaChet says:

    Just like Kato mentioned on June. 11 2019, I had a Software Pipeline store in Tualatin, Oregon that I used extensively and later one in Beaverton before they disappeared in the mid 90s. The Tualatin location displayed what looked like prototype versions of Thrustmaster(HQ in neighboring Lake Oswego) flight sticks which had 1/8″ aluminum plate bent and pop riveted around the base housing! Obviously before they could tool-up for injection molded units. I also started with my Amiga 500 with a 2400 baud serial port modem and was 486 computing by the end. Good times! Cover disks, DOS commands, BBS’s u/l to d/l exchange ratios and the earliest GIFs (pronounced “jiffs”)were the order of the day.

  13. Chowdery says:

    Hey @Kato and @PizzaChet, nice to see that I’m not the only one that remembers The Software Pipeline. I actually still have an old SP rental bag with Ultima VII that I bought when they were closing their Council Bluffs, Iowa store–where I used to work while going to university.
    Periodically I go out looking for records of it b/c all I have are that plastic rental bag and amazing memories. That’s how I found your posts just now. I had a great love for that store and the gentleman that owned it and I became great friends. I was sad to see it go even though by that time I had graduated and changed employment.
    But I used to go back some weekends and help out mostly for the camaraderie and be able to talk about games with people who loved games.

    My memory is quite foggy, but I believe the HQ was in Oregon or Utah… something like that.

    • Doug S. says:

      Just found this! I worked at the Software Pipeline in Beaverton, OR in the early 90s, and also occasionally filled in at the Tualatin location. The HQ was in Salem, OR. One of my (current) coworkers just posted an MS Excel commercial from 1992, which brought back memories of how that was one of our most “rented” titles back then. That prompted me to do a Google search for “Software Pipeline” and I landed here. Great memories!

      • Tim Larson says:

        I worked at Software Pipeline a lifetime ago towards the start of the company. I was hired as a youngster back in the day and ended up working for them for many years. I initially wrote the software that ran the rentals of the business. Helped open several franchises. The original headquarters was in Tualatin at the business park just up from Fred Meyers but, that didn’t last long. I met many great people during that time. Best thing was that I learned was that I am pretty good with computers.

    • Rob says:

      Do you have a picture of that bag by chance? I absolutely would LOVE to see that, I loved their stores too.

  14. Michael Lindsey says:

    I use to work at FVCC, and later renamed to Software Hogs. In VA Beach, on the blvd, and at the one down closer to the beach.

    LOVED that place. Especially how Paul took good care of us. And James Brumsy from Krispy Kreme doughnuts would frequent the store and bring us Doughnuts.

  15. robo says:

    Thank you so much! I grew up in Newport News, and have spent too much of my life thinking about games we rented on floppies, convinced that I was misremembering/it wasn’t real. Every time I’ve searched over the years, I’ve come up empty, but this is the first time it’s struck me in a while and like magic, here it is.

  16. El Doinko says:

    Lol, my family “rented” so many titles from this place. They knew exactly what they were doing when it came to piracy, but this isn’t me talking bad about them, piracy rules. They would sell floppy duplicators and CD burners right behind the counter.

    We rented Windows 95 from here and I have the key memorized.

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