The Tanker Tape Swap Transforms a Hawthorne Dive into a VHS Treasure Trove

Think VHS cassettes are novelty items? Think again.

By Ben Coleman April 11, 2020 Published in the April 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

In the shadow of Mount Tabor, among stalwart watering holes like the Space Room and Bar of the Gods, Tanker is a small, utilitarian drinking establishment with the wood-paneled walls of a Norwegian ski lodge. But a few Saturdays a year, it transforms into a bazaar of analog oddities. Vendors, collectors, and obsessives alike cram in 60 or so at a time to buy, trade, and haggle over the obsolete objects of their desire: VHS tapes.

The Tanker Tape Swap is run by Patrick Summers, a longtime VHS enthusiast originally from Florida. When he got to Portland from Chicago in 2011, he found a community of old-media junkies who’d arrange periodic swap meets, including the popular Frankenstein’s Comic Book Swap at nearby Eagles Lodge.

He started the VHS swap in 2018 after Mikey Garcia, a Tanker bar manager at the time, asked him to host it. (By then, Summers was a veteran of similar swaps at Black Water on Northeast Broadway.) Garcia had come up with the idea as a fundraising ploy to keep longtime video store Movie Madness from closing—after the Hollywood Theatre bought and saved the store, he and Summers went ahead with the idea anyway. Now, Movie Madness is a sponsor, and the store partners with tech recycling nonprofit Free Geek to sell $10 refurbished VCRs so attendees can watch what they buy.

“It’s cool to see all the other collectors, see what they’ve found recently. There are a lot of people doing little mixtapes and their own original VHS stuff,” Summers says.

Horror tapes are especially popular at the swaps, thanks to their lurid covers and a plurality of cult titles from the VCR’s two-decade heyday. “People grew up not being able to rent horror movies because they were too young,” Summers says. “So they have this picture in their head of ‘I could never rent that, I wanna see it now.’”

Shea Mossefin, a first-time vendor sporting a glossy bomber jacket emblazoned with a JVC VCR logo, explains the appeal of collecting: “I grew up in Alaska and didn’t have cable,” she says. Tapes were “a way for me to have fun with my friends and see some crazy stuff that maybe my parents wouldn’t know about.”

At a swap in January, neon-streaked stacks of ’80s ninja movies and ’90s workout tapes cover everything except the bar itself, where tequila shots sit half full next to careworn copies of Army of Darkness and The Last Unicorn.

As the night winds down, a pair of bar patrons murmur over a two-tone Japanese edition of The Empire Strikes Back while a bootleg hunter in a hand-stitched leather jacket hunches beside unsorted floor boxes, accumulating a stack of hand-labeled tapes.

“These are family movies,” the hunter explains, “and this one’s a Doug,” nodding at one simply labeled “Doug.” “I’m pretty sure it’s the [’90s Nickelodeon] cartoon,” they say, “but you never know.”

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