Collecting VHS tapes is a passion for author Shea Serrano

Serrano owns more than 900 VHS tapes, but relishes the hunt for new titles

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Shea Serrano discovered VHS collecting when he was decorating his small home office in 2016. (Credit: Shea Serrano)

Shea Serrano walked into his local thrift store in San Antonio, Texas, in 2016 in search of decorations for his first office, a 100 square-foot space with room for just a single bookshelf and a desk. After spotting a bin full of VHS tapes, he decided the tapes would make for perfect office decor.

“I said, ‘Oh, I remember those.' And I was just poking around and found some movies I remembered from being a kid,” Serrano said. “After I bought a couple, I was like, ‘You know what? I wonder if they have this other movie, or this other movie?' I started looking around slowly picking them up each time I would go to the thrift store [or] flea market.”

Serrano doesn't collect as a financial investment. He's looking to own his favorite films. (Credit: Shea Serrano)
Serrano doesn't collect as a financial investment. He's looking to own his favorite films. (Credit: Shea Serrano)

What began as a decorative mission resulted in a yearslong journey for the journalist and author, who has been an avid VHS collector ever since, amassing a trove of tapes that numbered nearly 900 when we spoke in late June.

On the spectrum from passion-driven to financially driven collectors, Serrano is as pure as it comes, firmly in the passion camp.

For anyone who has read Serrano’s work, particularly his No. 1 New York Times Best-Seller “Movies (and Other Things),” it makes perfect sense, as his love of movies is infectious.

Some collectors are after the rarest tapes around, early screener copies or scarce first productions. Not Serrano.

“It's always movies that I watched and I just had an attachment to. ... I don't ever buy a tape if it's a movie that I haven't seen,” Serrano said. “I just want to have it around me.”

That’s not to say he’s oblivious to the surging interest in VHS collecting. Sales of VHS listings increased more than 40 percent on eBay in 2023 compared to 2022, resulting in a category-wide price hike. For the most expensive tapes — often sealed, early variants — prices can reach into the six-figures. The record for any tape sold at public auction is $114,000, paid for an early production of “Star Wars: A New Hope.”

That’s not his game, but Serrano has still seen the downstream effects at many of the stores he frequents. The selection is often picked over by opportunists looking to make a buck, driving prices up for even the most inexpensive stuff.

“When I first started buying them, you could get three for $1 no problem, at any thrift store,” Serrano said. But soon it became two for $1. Then one for $1.

Serrano says he loves the bond he feels with fellow VHS collectors. (Credit: Shea Serrano)
Serrano says he loves the bond he feels with fellow VHS collectors. (Credit: Shea Serrano)

Serrano’s favorite picks from his collection are, for the most part, simply his favorite films, mostly found in the bargain bin at the thrift store.

“It’s just movies that I like a lot. 'Training Day,' for example: You can walk into any place and find a 'Training Day' VHS for $1, but I really love that I have my own.”

He prefers his tapes to have some battle scars. Proof of a past life. Knowing someone else had watched and enjoyed the movie adds to the allure.

But it’s about more than the tapes themselves. At a recent trip to a VHS swap in a mall, Serrano found himself surrounded by his people.

“Every time you stopped at a table, you were talking to somebody who loved the thing that you also love. So, there's an instant cultural shorthand,” Serrano said.

Rather than dealing with the exposition, like having to explain to a novice why “Mission: Impossible III” is hard to find — the only options are rare screener copies as the release came at the tail-end of the VHS era — there’s already a foundation of knowledge and shared understanding.

“They know all of this stuff that you already know, and so you just get to have this really earnest, sincere connection with a person that you just met, like, 10 seconds ago.”

Besides the tapes themselves, it might be the community that has been the biggest addition to Serrano’s collection.

“That has definitely been my favorite part of this, of the growing popularity of VHS collecting, because now I just run into these people more and more often, and then it's really a cool thing to experience with somebody else, because collecting is largely a lonely hobby.”

A collector since childhood, starting with basketball cards before expanding to other categories such as vinyl and old books, Serrano sees the same dynamics play out across all these niches.

“I think anybody who collects anything, it doesn't matter what it is, they're doing it because they love the thing,” he said.

But unlike most collectors who enjoy their hobby from the comfort of their own homes, tapping away on eBay to fill out their want-list, Serrano adheres to a strict rule.

“I refuse to buy any of the tapes off of eBay or the internet. I want to find them in the wild,” Serrano said. “I have to find it in a store somewhere, and that makes it more fun.”

It’s all about the hunt.

One of his most thrilling pick-ups, a “Blood In, Blood Out” tape, took a six-year odyssey to track down. He eventually found it for a few bucks at a thrift store.

“I was so f---ing pumped. That's a feeling that you can't manufacture. You can't get that same feeling if I go on eBay right now and buy all of them,” Serrano said. “It’s zero fun to just sit there and wait for it to get shipped to me.”

In typical Serrano fashion, he summed it up with a line from “Jurassic Park.”

“T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed. ... He wants to hunt.”

cllct wants to hear about your collection. Tell us about your passion or your hunt for the perfect piece for your collection.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.